On my birthday this year our daughter, who’s a graduate from the Slade
School of Fine Art in London, took me as a treat to an event taking place in
the Serpentine Gallery’s café and performed by her friend and collaborator
Matt. And very good it was too: clever, thoughtful, provocative, strangely
beautiful, disturbing and, in places, very very funny. Though oddly - and here
we get to the point - during the funny bits so far as I could tell I was the only
person in the place laughing out loud.
There could be all sorts of reasons for this. Maybe everyone else had no sense
of humour. Maybe, more likely, I’d laughed in all the wrong places, both
gauchely and hideously inappropriately, like the audiences I always seem to
sit amidst every time I see a play in the West End, who seem to think the very
act of engaging expensively with the dramatic arts empowers and entitles
them to laugh at bloody everything. Either way, when I congratulated Matt
afterwards, we both commented on my lonely, isolated laughter, me with
puzzlement and Matt with a certain amount of resentful resignation, because
he’d wanted everyone to laugh. But, as we both reflected, Art is a Serious
What I do, as a political cartoonist, obviously isn’t. That’s why I call myself,
rather pretentiously unpretentiously, a visual journalist rather than being any
kind of "artist". I first started doing this about twenty years ago, deliberately to
demarcate myself and my craft from the smart boys and girls kicking up a
storm on Charles Saatchi’s tab, with the money he earned deep in the heart of
the Industry of Lies. I both draw and paint on an almost daily basis, and the
kind of visual satire I create is in practice as rigidly codified in form and
content as Japanese No Theatre: although I exaggerate the features of real
people and place them in ridiculous narratives of pure fantasy, the kind of
allegorical painting contained in a political (or editorial) cartoon is the last
bastion of Artistic Realism. For instance, there are no truly great Abstract
Expressionist political cartoonists because the victims - the politicians - could
say with unquestionable truth "That looks nothing like me." Likewise the
satirical intentions of, say, the Chapman Brothers, are different in both form
and purpose to that of newspaper cartoonists.
And, of course, my standoffishness is reciprocated in spades. A few years ago
Tate Britain held a Francis Bacon retrospective, and for reasons I still don’t
quite understand, BBC Radio 4's flagship Arts programme "Front Row"
thought it would be a good idea for me and the artist Maggie Hambling to
walk together round the show saying what we thought of it. Hambling wasn’t
in a good mood to begin with (she’s recently quit smoking), but our
broadcasting chemistry became positively toxic as we looked at an early
Bacon painting of a baboon I’d never previously seen. It’s an extraordinary
piece, created with a dazzling sparsity of paint, which wholly captured the
baboonness of a baboon in ways which I said, into the microphone, were
"caricaturally great". Hambling narrowed her eyes and hissed "How dare you!
How dare you call Francis Bacon a caricaturist! Take it back at once!"
From one angle her attitude is incomprehensible: looked at from far enough
away what Hambling, Bacon and I all do is identical. "Art", in essence, is the
human capacity for artifice, for filtering our surrounding reality through a
human consciousness to recreate it through reproduction - however mutated
by human imagination it ends up during the filtration process - in what we’d
now term "safe mode". In short, "Art" is about control; it’s shamanism,
voodoo, more to do with sympathetic magic than the Muses.
So "Art" is instantly far, far more complex than simply "making marks" (as
the media studies mob choose to mystify it) even though that’s what me,
Maggie Hambling and Francis Bacon do.
One obvious difference between us is that what I do I also sell on a regular
basis, to be reproduced both in print and digitally, so it’s then seen potentially
by millions and millions of people. If I’m lucky I’ll then also sell the original
drawing, for even more money. What Hambling and Bacon do, contrariwise,
is sold (to their own financial advantage) just the once, though for much
higher prices, possibly to someone who will be the only person who thereafter
will ever see what they’ve produced. Even if photographically reproduced, the
intention in their work - its soul, if you feel like dragging things like that into
the argument - lies in its marketable uniqueness. Instantly, ownership plus
rarity enhances status, and the status of the owner rubs off on the artist.
Even the (caricatural, thank you very much) starving artist has inbuilt status higher
than someone like me, because of the uniqueness of both their work and their
plight. I, on the other hand, have committed the unforgivable sins, for an
"artist", of being commercial and being reproduced commercially, and
therefore making a steady, regular living from my "Art". So it’s obvious that
any artist, starving in a garret or high on the hog in a loft in Greenwich
Village, will obviously be compelled to think that they’re better than me
because to consider any alternative would drive them mad with avaricious
But I do something worse, which is to make "Art" specifically to make people
laugh. Again, this is very complex, and woven deep into being human. Suffice
it to say, clever geneticists have traced the laughter gene in primates back six
million years, and while all other apes and monkeys laugh as a signal to other
apes and monkeys that they’re only playing (useful if you’re a chimp and you
jump on another chimp’s back, because it tells the other chimp not to kill you),
only humans use laughter, through mockery, as a tool of social control. In
short, I enable my readers (viewers? lookers?) to laugh at our leaders to keep
those bastards in their place. That’s why cartoonists tend to get locked up and
murdered by tyrants, in government or aspiring to it, far more frequently than
more Serious Artists. And when they come for the Serious Artists (long after
the cartoonists’ corpses are cold) it’s invariably because the Serious Artists
have stolen our shtik and are taking the piss out of the Power.
Which includes, of course, the people who buy Serious Art. Interestingly the
very first cartoon - that is, the first humorous or satirical illustration thus
called, and which then lent the name to all such images thereafter - was John
Leech’s "Cartoon No 1: Shadow and Substance", published in "Punch"
magazine in 1843, and which mocked the lavish murals for the new Palace of
Westminster, comparing them to the condition of London’s poor. Cartoonists
also constantly parasitise Serious Art through pastiche, and always have done.
Gillray and Rowlandson both repeatedly parodied Fuseli, and in the 1990s
British cartoonists joyously plundered work by the Young British Artists
being grandstanded by Charles Saatchi. After a while this turned into a real
money spinner, as we knew that Saatchi would buy the original of every single
cartoon about him and his collection of Serious Art (cartoons for which,
remember, we’d already been paid).
As a point of principle one cartoonist used to charge Saatchi the price of a quarter page ad on the leader page of the Evening Standard, and after a while it became more fun to refuse to sell the
stuff to him. Though sadly his agents never even asked for the cartoon I drew
for "Time Out" at the time of the Royal Academy "Sensations" Exhibition,
which depicted a slowly, translucently melting lifesize statue of Saatchi
himself in a case, labelled "Frozen Wank Charles Saatchi".
It’s part of our gig - and an aspect of the deeper, darker nature of the whole
business - that our victims often buy the artifact that defames them, partly to
show how big they are in being able to take the joke, partly through barely
disguised vanity, but mostly to defuse the bad magic. That’s why cartoons are
almost always hung in the victims’ toilets, and you don’t need a Freudian to
tell you why. However, even Charles Saatchi probably doesn’t have a shitter
big enough to accommodate all the cartoons he’d bought, so instead they were
hung, unframed, in one inchoate, unreadable clump on the walls of his gallery.
When I first saw the contemptuous way he was treating our contempt, I felt a
warm glow of satisfaction that we’d done our job successfully: his attempt to
punish us (and along the way paying us all a second time) for our lese majeste
was feeble yet telling. And that was because he considered it important
enough even to try.
Laughter, through mockery, has always been central to the ways we mediate
reality through artifice, but is clearly fatal to Serious Art, by definition. This
has nothing to do with the art itself, but is imbued into it in that terrible
transformation that happens between Conception and the Conclusion of the
Sale, when whatever joyous motivation initially inspired the artist becomes
wholly secondary to the new status of the Serious Art as Grave Goods for the
Living. Maybe that’s all Serious Art has ever been or ever could be: its cost
and the lavishness of its adornments make it impossible without the support of
state or private wealth and patronage, and therefore as a lackey of the Power it
will inevitably be the target for just as much mockery as its patrons. But if you
think about it, the Power - both religious and political - is so absurd, risible,
preposterously unjust, ridiculously pompous, it defies our every natural
instinct not to burst out laughing at these clowns, their crowns, their gods and
their extravagant tastes in interior decor. Which is precisely why the penalties
for blasphemy and treason have always been so savage: to terrorise us into not
True, Serious Art has yet to start killing people in order to cow them into not
laughing, though it’s probably only a matter of time before the Death Squads
set out across Shoreditch. In the meantime, they seem to think money can buy
off any sniggering that might be heard from the back, abetted by ambition,
fear and the peer group pressure that permeate the world of Serious Art.
Which gets us back to Matt’s performance in the Serpentine Gallery café. It
was introduced, as these things are, by a senior Serious Art apparatchik who’d
been sprinkled with so much glamourdust by the stinking rich sponsors that
she imagined it didn’t matter that she read out her words of welcome in a dull,
dead monotone so badly you began to have serious doubts about her literacy.
The stinking rich sponsors then smirked a lot, and also spoke as if human was
a language wholly alien to them. This is the kind of couldn’t-give-a-fuck-
about-the-audience attitude that money can buy, but which the angriest iconoclast can
never truly emulate until they, too, are too rich ever to be angry again. And
then came the show, and it was great. And clever. And funny, very very
And yet it was greeted with hushed, earnest reverence by a roomful of
iconoclast purring politely at their masters’ collection of icons. Like I say, Art
is a Serious Business.