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The Art Of The Political Jab

Hofstra exhibit focuses on the history of political cartoons

Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau once said that while the first responsibility to his readers was to entertain them, if he could move them to thought and judgment about issues that concern him, all the better. And that in a nutshell is the purview of the political cartoonist, as is evidenced in “Political Slant: Editorial Cartoons,” an exhibit on this satirical brand of creative commentary that is running at Hofstra University’s David Filderman Gallery through December 21.

Most of the featured cartoonists are Trudeau contemporaries: Newsday’s Walt Handelsman, the Denver Post’s Mike Keefe, Jimmy Margulies of New Jersey’s The Record, Steve Kelley of New Orleans’ Times-Picayune and the Philadelphia Daily News’ Signe Wilkinson. The work that represents them covers the usual array of contemporary topics—unemployment, the economy and education. In keeping with this tradition of casting a cynical and critical eye at current events, this quintet is following in the footsteps of the final person that rounds out this exhibit—Thomas Nast.

This art form dates back to the Middle Ages and was a means of educating an illiterate populace. And while Benjamin Franklin is credited with creating the first political cartoon— “Join or Die,” a picture of a snake whose severed sections represented the colonies—it was Nast who defined the political cartoon as we know it today. His focus on making caricatures of dirty politicians and profligate government were what Nast was best known for, particularly the doings of the rampantly corrupt administration affiliated with William “Boss” Tweed’s 19th -century Democratic machine. In doing so, Nast cast the die for political cartoonists who would follow in his wake as well as either creating or popularizing images that continue to be ubiquitous today. Among them are the use of the elephant and the donkey as stand-ins for the GOP and Democratic parties respectively, along with using Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty to represent the United States.  

In this collection of original drawings and final production digital prints of work by Handelsman, Margulies, Keefe, Kelley and Wilkinson in “Political Slant: Editorial Cartoons,” it’s clear that Nast’s quest to use his art to highlight social and political issues as well as getting readers to think continues to reverberate in the 21st century.