Thomas Nast : The Father of Modern Political Cartoonsby: Fiona Deans Halloran
All Thomas Nast images courtesy of the University of North Carolina Press
From Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons
San Francisco Fillmore image courtesy of New York University Press
From Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture
FOR MORE THAN A GENERATION now, public art has been quite prominently on display, sometimes warmly welcomed, while at others, gnarly controversial — explosively so at times. Starting in the 1960s, commissions from the General Services Administration of the federal government as well as the National Endowment for the Arts have provided works that are often gorgeous, occasionally grotesque, but sometimes just blah. Alexander Calder’s great city stabile in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1969), comes promptly to mind as a huge success, as does Richard Serra’s reviled Tilted Arc in New York City (1981), placed on public trial and eventually disassembled. (For particulars, see my Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture .)
Art stews are hardly new, however, and neither is public art. Graphic political cartoons in this country date from the 18th century, but they flourished in fresh ways during the later 19th. Public parks predate that era, but public gardens created as a colorful feature for world’s fairs, hosted by American cities, delighted and evolved between 1876 and 1940. As we shall see, while they too could generate controversy, what’s most notable about them may well be the ways they became increasingly commercialized even as they were institutionalized by corporate branding.
Similarly, Renaissance faires, which had their genesis in the Los Angeles area in 1963 and endure nationwide to this day, have also undergone commercialization as they too have been purchased, expanded, and sanitized. In a peculiar twist, they haven’t lost their innocence; rather, as they developed they became more regulated and lost their initial lustiness, prompting nostalgia for the unchaste early days when Eros, Bacchus, and dope reigned, especially after hours. Things just haven’t been the same since the good old knights and nights were tamed. Knights, for example, with chain mail condoms. Ouch!
“A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound.”
— Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862)
“A politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man.”
— E. E. Cummings, One Times One (1944)
Although Thomas Nast did not originate the donkey as an emblem for the Democratic Party, as some have assumed (it actually appeared in the Jacksonian era), he does deserve credit for the Republican elephant and much, much more, for many wildly popular, sentimental versions of Santa Claus and irreverent depictions of New York’s William Marcy Tweed in the early 1870s. Perhaps because Nast himself had a considerable gut, he liked to portray other figures grosser than himself, like Santa and the “Boss.” (See “Two Great Questions,” Harper’s Weekly (1871), p. 135 in Nast.) As Fiona D...