Friday, October 21, 2011

IN DEFENSE OF ELGIN BOLLING by Thomas Kerr

The following letter is taken from this weeks lettes to the Editor, section of THE WAVE by my collegue, fellow editorial artist, Tom Kerr. I'm no slouch with words, but Tom here makes me sound like I'm stuttering and stammering by comparison. All I've got to say to Tom is, "Thnk you, I couldn't have said it better"

THE LETTER

Reading the open letter from Representative Meeks in last week’s issue of The Wave, held – for the most part – no surprises. A congressional representative caught in a litany of serious ethics violations defends himself in the face of editorial criticism. What more could or should we expect? In his lengthy defense, Meeks singled out the caricature of Elgin Bolling, one of the triumvirate of cartoonists whose editorial images grace these pages. I, along with Robert Sarnoff, happen to be the other two. It is to this portion of the letter I’m responding.

In the last third of his open letter, Meeks goes on to charge that Elgin’s caricature was “explicitly racist,” violates “necessary sensitively” and inaccurately compares it to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” a century-old film about the Civil War and Reconstruction. The idea of this comparison being, I suppose, to show how far back, in terms of racial equality/sensitivity, The Wave happens to be. Pure hyperbole.

Meeks is off the mark on a number of counts. First, it should be made clear that Elgin is an African American artist. A quick survey of Elgin’s work, easily seen at his subway surfer web blog, immediately confirms that he has done far more offensive caricatures of his own face than anything ever leveled at Meeks. Further, The Wave, in my experience, has always given a free hand to its contributing artists, but never, to their credit, asking them to either reign in or take vitriolic aim at any specific subject or public figure. In fact, as the news cycle goes, there is a one in three chance that any one of The Wave’s contributing artists could have leveled a graphic broadside at Rep. Meeks. It just happened to be Elgin’s turn.

Elgin Bolling is, first and foremost, a caricaturist; drawing from a rich tradition of “portrait-charge” or the loaded portrait, as it came to be known when first popularized in French magazines, around the time of that country’s revolution. Like Meeks, officials there were also offended by those drawings, more than once throwing the cartoonists into the clink for their efforts. Later, in the hands of Americans and the freedoms found here, the graphic vitriol became even more pointed with artists like Thomas Nast, whose graphic excoriations helped take down Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. Boss Platt, who was to follow, attempted to pass legislation at the turn of the 19th century that would have blocked such political commentary.

In fact, it was Tweed who said, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.” So, it would seem that Gregory Meeks is in good company when expressing dislike for caricature. Almost confirming that history is – in fact – cyclical.

As it turns out, my likeness, too, has been inked by Elgin and I’d like to state — for the record — that it was a caricature and unflattering. I didn’t think to fire off a note to Elgin for singling out my Irish features, but why should I, this is what caricature’s function is. To exaggerate, distort and make fun of, otherwise it would have no teeth, becoming unremarkable, milquetoast and impotent. Elgin has nothing to apologize for; he was doing his job as an editorial artist. On the other hand, time will tell if Meeks, in sharing the opinion of Boss Tweed about caricature, will, one day, share his fate.

7 comments:

RAA: Writers Group said...

I felt duty-bound to respond to Meeks's open letter. In fact, I wish I had spent a titch more time crafting the letter to more effectively communicate my thoughts. Summed up though; you did your job and this was simply an attempt at deflection by Meeks. A case of "don't look at me, look at them!" under the odious shadow of the race card. So it looks as if he's segued from a cash cow, to a dog that don't hunt.

Keep it up with the caricature. For as every cartoonist knows...a drop of ink, can make a million think.

Elgin Subwaysurfer Bolling said...

I applaud you coming forward and having the courage to respond. I don't "hold it against" our other arrtists mate fir not responding, I'm sure he has his reasons, but it would ave been a nice gesture. I would ave liked to see mre editorial artists weigh in on this, and who knows? Maybe they will, in time.
This IS an issue that effects editorial caricature in general. In researching similar stories, I uncovered an article where an artist was accused of racism for drawing a picture of Condy Rice because he drew her with big lips. Niw this s an African American woman who not only, objectively has "big lips" but calks attention to them by wearing the darkest lipstick possible!
I was told by a friend of mine that a drowning an will grasp at even a paper cup as it ges floating by! Apparently. "I'm a paper cu" in this analogy!

RAA: Writers Group said...

I know of many other incidents you wouldn't be privy to that run along these lines. One involved a caricature of Winnie Mandela portraying her as Medusa. It was a natural artistic stretch to see her braids in that mode, in relation to her malfeasance. That particular incident cooled one particular artists career for nearly a year! There was no venue to reply in that case, to counter the wrong headed attack on that particular artist. Fortunately, "The Wave" stood beside you. To Howie's credit I must say as he too joined in your defense.

The caricature world you move within is a bit different than mine. You may be the first street/party/editorial caricaturist I've met.


Almost every other I know are editorial artists, exclusively. Perhaps many of the artists who've seen this don't glean the portent of Meeks's attack. Even if they were editorial, maybe they didn't want to stick their neck's out. I--for one--think editorial art has been pushed around enough. American editorial graphics have gone from leading the world to becoming so much graphic pablum. One any given day, only a few short decades ago, you could--in the NY Times--see a Steadman, a Levine, Sorell, or similar. Now they've got no bite and we're all the worse for it. Not just the artists, the readers too.


I've had attacks leveled at my work too, but--typically--it was a personal affront my sketch aggravated, nothing like the Meeks thing. More often than naught, the communications I get are positive as they feel I encapsulated the thesis of the story I accompanied in a clever way. Nice to get and a far cry from the whiny complaints of Meeks.

Elgin Subwaysurfer Bolling said...

I agree with your assessment of editorial art. I sometimes wonder if artists are truly connected to an issue they're reporting on, or trying to make a nice picture to scotch tape on their 'Nannas" refrigerator! Editorial artists do get pushed around a lot. I believe it's part of the climate of political correctness that' hangs like a cloud over most of the country. There's this obsessive need not to hurt Antibes feelings that literally stifle honest debate and intelligent conversation. We've gotten to the point where you can't objectively report on someone who's doing wrong if they're a member of a so called, "minority"race, smile at a child because they're cute, or flirt with a beautiful woman we'd like to meet! It's a wear your heart on your sleeve and bleed all over everyone type of society now.

Elgin Subwaysurfer Bolling said...

YOU WROTE
The caricature world you move within is a bit different than mine. You may be the first street/party/editorial caricaturist I've met

Let me tell ya....if you go to the ISCA website, or type in ISCA on YouTube, you will be treated to caricature art so incredibly intense that I look like I'm drawing cave painting with a sharpened stick using my toes! With this in mind, I must, at least on some level admit, that MY idea of EXAGGERATED is based on a caricature artists standard. And comparatively speaking, what I draw seems tame, given my perspective.(compared to people who REALLLLY go all out)

It could be argued, and I agree..to a point....that the average viewer doesn't HAVE my unique perspective, or points of comparison, but darn it! HOW MUCH MUST YOU DUMB THINGS DOWN FOR PEOPLE???? There comes a point when you lose yourself as an artist after TOO much compromise, and also you EXPECT, as I do, people to at LEAST understand your point if view, especially if you've laid it out there, as I have, for all the world to see. 

Thomas said...

Yes, I'm familiar with ISCA. As you know, caricature isn't really my thing--artistically--but I can, if my arm is twisted, produce a caricature. I'm good friends with a few editorial caricaturists. Randy Jones is one, but I don't think he is a member of ISCA and certainly never works outside of the editorial world except by special request. I do like that type of work though, even if I don't make it myself.

Part of that knowing one's self, creatively, thing. In a way it is very freeing as it allows me to indulge my interests as they manifest. Putting as much time in as schedule allows. My touchstone is drawing, everything else flows out from there. Who knows, at some point maybe I'll try on the caricaturists mantle. Maybe as a switch-up for the Wave.

Elgin Subwaysurfer Bolling said...

For sure, you're an illustrator, no doubt. I've always noted the meticulous attention to detail you have on the background, as well as the main characters. While I can myself, "do backgrounds" my funny bone has always bent in the direction of cartooning, and portraiture. Caricature, provided the best of both worlds, and, in my case, was the most lucrative, financially so I stuck with it.
I ay be hard to believe, but I was really terrible at it, at first! LOL! For the first coup,e of years while doing gigs I felt like iwas robbing people!(the work was so bad!) then one day, I turned out, miraculously, a good sketch! It was well drawn, looked like te person, and done fast!

I thought it was a fluke! Until I did it again, and again... Niw I can pretty much,on average, draw a person in three minutes,