I like satire. I really do. Last week, I wrote in defence of satirical news programmes, claiming that they form a necessary bridge between the public and the issues of the day in a format that suits the audience.
But something was wrong. Something was niggling at the corner of my memory. Shortly before Presentmas, a few days before I posted that entry, I went to the Behind the Lines: The Year’s Best Political Cartoons exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House). As very few people still read newspapers, it’s a chance for the broader public to see what the very best Australian political cartoonists produce.
As I’ve written before, Australian political cartoonists are dreadful. Since writing that, I came across Simon Doonan’s article in Slate about why the art world is so loathsome. Among other things, Doonan discusses the idea of modern society being in a ‘post-skill’ environment:
“No major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s,” writes Camille P. But what about those annoying YBAs, the young British artists, the folks that noted U.K.-based art critic Brian Sewell has wickedly and accurately dubbed “The Post-Skill Movement”? Are they profound or influential? [Source]
It’s a wonderful phrase, if used carefully. Used inexactly, it’s the vehicle for the sneering and pompous attitude of previous generations of artists towards anything done by newer generations. Used precisely and surgically, it helps to describe the ugliness that results from a rejection of tradition. Art cannot exist outside the critical response to the traditions which made it possible.
Why does Ayn Rand’s ‘Objectivism’ suck so very much? Although many people point to the conflict between Rand’s ideology and their own, the problem with Rand is significantly deeper. Her ‘philosophy’ is constructed as a rejection of traditional philosophical enterprises but never engages with them. For example, Rand and Wilfred Sellars were contemporaries. Sellars published Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind in 1956, shortly before Rand’s publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957 and several years before Rand’s publication of the barely readable Introduction to Objectivist Philosophy in 1974. In EPM, Sellars introduced ‘The Myth of the Given’ as an extension of a problem which largely originated in Kant’s philosophy. Our experiences are conceptual, constructed out of the Lego blocks of mental content, yet most people (especially empiricists) see there as being a link between the mind-independent outside world and these experiences that we have made out of mental content. Rand, who explicitly attempted to construct a metaphysical grounding for her socio-political philosophy, figured the best way to resolve these problems was to flatly ignore them.*
Why does ‘New Atheism’ suck so very much? Although many people point to what terrible people most new-atheists are, the problem with New Atheism is significantly deeper. It’s constructed as an epistemic project that is built on a metaphysical assumption that only things which are verifiable can exist, but can achieve this only by ignoring the vast amount of philosophical work which has already established that this is incoherent. Further, it undertakes a theological project — the denial of theology as a valid intellectual endeavour — without ever understanding what it is that it’s rejecting. Perhaps worst of all, it seeks to establish an atheist enterprise that has no relation to the intellectually serious atheist enterprises which proceeded it. Thus, we get waves upon waves of ignorant buffoons who dominate the atheist space and make it significantly more difficult to achieve meaningful progress (such as the long overdue analysis of what ‘secular’ means).
Both of these contemporary movements — and others like them — give me a clear picture of this ‘post-skill’ environment. It’s the divorce between the current and the past. The inability to master everything that’s occurred before and produce something of comparable skill and quality.
This isn’t just me being a grumpy conservative wishing that everything was chapel ceilings and whatnot. Nor is it me arguing that art, philosophy, or social movements need to be static and fixed in time. A good example of what I mean is the works of Picasso, where his early years were spent mastering the tradition of art to which he was going to respond before going on to develop Cubism. Another example is Dali, who also spent his formative years excelling in the traditions of art which he would spend a lifetime critiquing.
It’s into this framing of the ‘post-skill’ movement that we find Australia’s political cartoonists. Instead of mastering the art that political cartoonists had developed over generations, we have this lazy, amateurish rubbish.
What struck me is that this was more than mere ugliness — and it to call its ugliness ‘mere’ is a radical understatement. The good satire that I wanted to see was a combination of insight and skill. The skill of the satirist provided the bridge between the audience and the bigger truth behind the political events of the day.
But our current crop of political cartoon writers don’t seem to have any great insight into the political processes that they’re trying to satirise. Even the stuff that was visually impressive lacked intellectual depth.
Politicians are easy to mock. They’re the big and powerful and we tilt at them to bring them back down to size. But this ease with which we can mock political figures pushes us towards laziness.
This is the struggle that we have with satire more broadly. The pieces on display in this exhibition were designed only to make the viewer feel smart. Piece after piece dripped with the smug attitude that you didn’t need to understand the policy in order to critique it.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on political cartoonists and they are merely a product of the mediocre political environment in which we find ourselves. That might be the case, but the output of our cartoonists does make a persuasive argument against producing any more political ‘satire’.
* Objectivism is strictly distinguished from Libertarianism here, which does have a firm place in the philosophical family tree somewhere back in the 1800s. After J.S. Mill wrote On Liberty, it was pens down for the Libertarian political philosophers and they’ve been buried in questions of applied economics ever since.
- Together we suck, end in sight… In defence of satirical news programmes (onlythesangfroid.wordpress.com)
- Top political cartoons go on show in Canberra (abc.net.au)