As a basic knowledge of recent Islamo-Scandinavian relations reveals, the art of cartooning is not always a laughing matter. Indeed, far from setting off to work with a beam after glancing at the morning papers, Guardian readers should take care not to choke on their pumpkin seeds and freeze-dried cranberries as they wake up to blood and gore unrelentingly depicted in front of their eyes in graphic form. If the satirist is to unnerve and perturb over and above raising a snigger, then Martin Rowson’s highly acclaimed work certainly qualifies, ensuring that the "violent, vicious and visceral" is not merely confined to articles on coups d’état in the international section; his art is grotesque first, humorous second.
In his irreverent sermon to a packed chaplaincy at the University of Warwick, Dr Rowson (he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in journalism by the University of Westminster in 2006) made the case for cherishing the tradition of political cartoons more dearly, if not necessarily taking the subject more seriously. "The constant traffic of abuse towards politicians," the professed atheist evangelised, "is, I think, immensely healthy for democratic politics." It is true that jokers are the natural enemies of tyrants, able to puncture pomposity while rousing a popular following which soon sees them lose favour with those in power. Back in the chaplaincy our preacher, clearly rousing himself as well as the audience, even goes so far as to argue that the reason fascism never took off in Britain lies in the reality that if the soldiers were seen goose-stepping through the streets of London, passers-by would simply laugh.
There is, of course, another less trivial side to the business of caricaturing politicians, satisfyingly defined by Rowson as "the bastard offspring of print journalism and illustration". On the one hand, there is a sense that you have not arrived as an aspiring politician until your face is being disfigured and mocked in the papers, a pleasure of which the Tory shadow chancellor, George Osborne, is sorely deprived, and is clearly yet to make it onto Rowson’s radar. Meanwhile, the mere mention of Lembit Opik’s name provokes the observation that "some people are beyond satire!"
I put it to Rowson that after a lifetime of emasculating and deriding others, he and his colleagues must play some considerable part in making or breaking the careers of those in the public eye. Can it ever be the case that the knife is thrust in too deeply or too frequently? Moreover, our elected officials are able to point to their source of legitimacy. How is the cartoonist held to account? This is, perhaps, an over zealous concern of a first year Politics student, yet it wouldn’t occur to me if it weren’t for the inestimable power of media and image management in modern politics. The point seems to resonate. Rowson relates an epiphany he had after drawing Alistair Campbell, Blair’s tenacious and truculent press secretary who he has been depicted by a certain doodler in the Guardian as an overflowing toilet. "I finally worked out what Iwas doing, which was actually stealing people’s souls and engaging in really basic, primitive magic." With characteristic wit and insight, and in a tone fluctuating between the frivolous and the quasi-philosophical, he continues, "it is, if you like a form of voodoo: doing damage to somebody at a distance with a sharp object, in this case a pen."
Regardless of their politics, Michael Howard and Sir Menzies Campbell stand out as two individuals who been ridiculed beyond, as it were, their fair share in recent years. It may have been fellow Conservative Ann Widdecombe who first said of her former boss that he had "something of the night" about him, but the cartoonists ran and ran and ran with the vampire connotations until the personas of Mr Howard and Count Dracula became virtually inseparable in the public imagination by the time of the 2005 general election. Today all coverage of the 66-year-old leader of Liberal Democrats centres on one factor above all else and, despite Rowson’s professed code of conduct that forbids poking fun at race, gender or sexual orientation – "not who they are, but what they are" – the factor in this case is thinly veiled ageism. Again, for fear of sounding puritanical (in terms of popularity, after all, defending politicians comes a close second to suggesting that Michael Jackson is just misunderstood), let me assure you that my sense of humour, though nothing else, was deeply aroused by the cartoon pastiche of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus starring none other than the aforementioned buxom Ms Widdecombe.
But are there no sacred cows whatsoever? Would he, for example, depict the prophet Muhammad in his work? The man with an answer for everything states, somewhat sardonically, "At the moment I wouldn’t, because it might involve me getting killed." It’s hard to keep a straight face in the company of Martin Rowson. He is a curious combination of an intense and questioning academic mind, a consummate cartoonist, juxtaposed with a schoolboy-like obsession with swearing and talking about excrement. Don’t be deceived by this flippant outlook, however; his opinion on the state of the nation is as developed as any other member of the paper.
In an age of empty rhetoric from journalists as well as politicians, gimmick-based legislation and supposedly consensual horseshoe-shaped parliamentary chambers, it is not often that "an adversarial democracy where people carry on hating each other and shouting at each other and insulting each other" is espoused as Britian’s great gift to the world. So despite Rowson’s penchant for all things gruesome and ghoulish or, rather, because of the unsettling inclusion of the death and destruction still wrought in many parts of the world, the workshop was shot through with an undeniable strain of pacifism. "The important thing is," it was made clear to the congregation, "you can paint the blood, you just can’t spill it." Here endeth the satirist’s lesson.