Exhibition at Hofstra Sparks Conversation About Political Cartoons

Political Slant II attendees are encouraged to write their own captions for a blank cartoon.

By Andrew Goldstein and Raghava Lakshminarayana

Panels of political cartoons, from wood engravings to digitally animated prints, line the walls of Hofstra University’s David Filderman Gallery in an exhibition that attempts to make sense of this election season.

“They take away the heaviness of politics,” Leslie Feldman, a professor of political science at Hofstra University, said. “They always make a political point.”

The Political Slant II: Editorial Cartoons exhibition focuses on the role of political cartoons both in the present and in the past as a way to raise social concerns, criticize government actions and bring greater awareness to specific issues.

“The Print shop was the 18th century iPhone in terms of people would go and check it out and see what was happening and what the issues were just through the images of politicians,” Kathleen Wilson, a professor of 18th century British culture at Stony Brook University, said. “What I think is interesting about the new form is that it’s servicing a very old purpose, which is to make public and solicit opinion on a wide range of political issues from various points of view.”

In the age of digitization, these cartoons have evolved into tweets and Facebook posts but remain essentially the same with similar purpose as the earliest of political cartoons.

Political cartoons work by tapping into using familiar images that people immediately recognize whether consciously or unconsciously that trigger emotional responses and then they exaggerate them or they place the images in a slightly new context, Sara Lipton, author of Images of Intolerance: The Representation of Jews and Judaism in the Bible moralisée, which won the John Nicholas Brown Prize from The Medieval Academy of America, said. These cartoons also use “dog whistles” or symbols to trigger a reaction in those primed to hear it.

“Cartoons are especially popular during presidential elections,” Michael Barnhart, Professor of 20th century U.S. political History at Stony Brook University, said. “Everyone knows who the candidates are. Especially when those candidates have foibles (or worse), they are irresistible subjects, making 2016 a real banner year on all sides.”

While the cultural impact of some cartoonists can be easily identified, the impact of individual cartoons cannot be easily calculated. Thomas Nast popularized the representation of the Democratic Party as a donkey and the Republican Party as an elephant. But it’s hard to tell whether his cartoons individually had a major impact because there weren’t polls during the 1900’s, John Ryan, professor of political communication and voting behavior at Stony Brook University, said.

“In the modern world, political cartoons have no real impact on electoral politics or public opinion,” Ryan said, “Individuals can still enjoy and share a particular cartoon as summing up nicely what they were already feeling — but that doesn’t influence them since it is just reinforcing their pre-existing opinion.”

“Cartoons are less effective than in the past because there are so many sources making them,” Mike Keefe, one of the political cartoonists featured in the exhibition, said. But political cartoons have always been relevant during election years because of their visual editorial aspect, he said.

A reception will be held on Thursday, October 27 from 4 – 6 p.m. with guest host Lawrence Levy, Executive Dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. The exhibition will stay open until March 12, 2017.