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January 23, 2007

Martin Rowson

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One World Week finally threw something up other than food under curtains in the Union (joke) – thank you, thank you, thank you to whoever was responsible for booking Guardian, Independent, etc etc cartoonist Dr Martin Rowson to give a talk on political cartoons and their history. It was probably the most fascinating talk I’ve heard in my time here. Sorry lecturers, but this was brilliant.

Dr Rowson has a ridiculous number of plaudits and honours to his name. He’s London’s official cartoonist. He’s won cartoon of the year. And judging from the talk today he is well informed on the history of cartoons, from Hogarth, Gillray and Low, to his contemporaries like Steve Bell.The talk could easily have been three or four times as long and (numb bum from sitting on the floor aside) it wouldn’t have made a difference. It was one of the most informative hours of my life. He presented us with his philosophy and his methodolgy, albeit not in an in depth, “I use these pencils” kind of way (I admit, I asked him about those details afterwards).

His philosophy was one which I felt was perfectly balanced. Whilst admitting there are contradictions to beware of, he articulated an idea (I’d hesitate to say doctrine though manifesto would fit) that in politics those who you are drawing are people who have enough presumption to want to rule our lives. Thus they are themselves legitimate targets to be satirised. Dr Rowson insisted he never picks on anyone less powerful than himself. This lead him to an interesting discussion of the Danish cartoons – he feels the cartoons themselves were wrong because they picked on people weaker than the cartoonists – poor Muslim immigrants in Denmark – but the over the top reaction distracted and derailed the debate. To his mind the protests almost justified the cartoons. Almost, but not quite. It is a fascinating perspective that many people in that debate never thought of. The position of the artist overlooked. Guess it takes an insider to see such things, and yet I was completely in agreement with him.

Martin Rowson on Bush in Iraq.

He covered a lot of topics – a brief history of cartooning which could have been longer, and which I think he would have made longer of he’d had more time, and which got me really thinking about my course (this happens to us historians). He went into the rivalries amongst cartoonists (they steal from each other all the time which was funny). He dealt with 9/11 and Blair and Iraq.

Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’, one of the most important cartoons of all time.

Cartoons are seen as things which are meant to be funny, something which both frees and limits them. The Guardian should continue its podcast obsession and get Dr Rowson to give his talk (or a version of, it was rather visual with lots of his art and the art of those who inspired him) in a form which can be downloaded and heard further afield.

I have a lot to think about now, which is nice.

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