MU exhibit showcases how political cartoons have changed over the years

Wednesday, October 3, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:47 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 3, 2012
An exhibit at the State Historical Society of Missouri displays political cartoons from the past 100 years.

COLUMBIA — Whether it's Republican or Democrat, elephant or donkey, no side is safe from the political cartoon, as visitors will see at the State Historical Society of Missouri's political cartoon exhibit.

The historical society is hosting the exhibit, which showcases political cartoons from the past 100 years, through Nov. 30. The exhibit walks visitors through the evolution of the cartoons, such as how the donkey and elephant came to represent the Democratic and Republican political parties; how the cartoons became more of what we know today, with their cartoonish figures and their exaggerated physical proportions of politicians; and all types of political subject matter. 

If you go

WHAT: The State Historical Society of Missouri is hosting an exhibit of political cartoons featuring the work of Silvey Jackson Ray, formerly of the Kansas City Star; Tom Engelhardt, formerly of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Roy Justus, formerly of the Minnesota Star-Tribune; and others.

WHERE: The historical society museum is in MU's Ellis Library. Its entrance is on the east side of the building.

WHEN: The exhibit continues through Nov. 30. Museum hours are 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

OTHER: The exhibit is free. For more information, contact the society at (573) 882-1187.

Bill Horner, professor of political science at MU, recently visited the exhibit. He said that even though cartoons have consistently poked fun at both Republicans and Democrats, they don't really lean toward either side. Horner described them as being more anti-authoritarian than anything else.

The exhibit includes a 1956 Silvey Jackson Ray cartoon called "Every Four Years We Launch a Satellite," in which Ray, formerly of the Kansas City Star, used the international space race as an analogy for the presidential elections and the attack-style of politics exhibited by both parties.

Visitors, who continue down the exhibit's hallway, will see another Ray cartoon from 1947. It depicts two identical cars labeled "Gov't Responsibility." Each is packed with elephants and donkeys who can't determine where to steer the car. These two cartoons show how Ray tended to poke fun at the political landscape in general. 

Greig Thompson, who had a leading role in preparing the exhibit for the society, said one reason political cartoons are so popular is because of their simplicity. 

"They don't require you to draw your own conclusions," Thompson said. "The complexity is missing, but that's part of the attraction."

Thompson, who is a former art teacher, said one of the things he enjoys most about the cartoons is that he doesn't have to agree with their assertions to enjoy their artistic value.

Horner said one of the strengths about political cartoons is their use of visuals.

"The thing about satire is that in a lot of ways, it is easier to consume than a dry story about policy," Horner said. "Most people pay attention and remember this kind of stuff. Even though it's not reality, it's what people remember about the politicians."

Lee Judge, a political cartoonist at the Kansas City Star whose work is also featured at the exhibit, said one of the hardest things to do when creating a cartoon is to simplify the topic. 

"It's a case of subtraction, not addition," Judge said. "The ability to boil down what you want to say in a visual is very difficult."

Judge said that when he started creating political cartoons he tried to emulate other cartoonists such as the late Jeff MacNelly, who worked at the Chicago Tribune from 1982 to 2000, and Pat Oliphant, a cartoonist for the Universal Press Syndicate whose career has spanned more than 50 years, before he developed his own style. 

"You learn a lot about each person and their techniques that way, but it's not your own," Judge said. "Then you try and define your own style. You have an idea, and you need to figure out how to communicate that to people."

Horner said cartoons' portrayals of the political parties and their policies is more of a "chicken-and-egg type of question."

Political cartoons help reinforce commonly held beliefs about the characteristics of both parties, Horner said. 

"You can see how Republicans are the party of business, finance and more recently conservative social values, while the Democrats are the tax party or big government party," he said. "You see those things reinforced in the political cartoons, and everything reinforces itself."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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