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The art of politics: How editorial cartoons can influence voters

Illustration by Ava Mandel

Ava Mandel also contributed to the writing of this story.

Turn to the editorial page of any publication and you’ll find artwork depicting a public figure or a current event in cartoon form. Look at street art that’s making a statement about what’s going on in the world, or sculptures that have been made of historical figures. It all has something in common, especially every four years: the theme of the art is political.

Editorial cartoons and political art doesn’t disappear when an election is over, but it becomes much more prominent during a year with a race to the White House because it’s a way for artists to make a statement and make voters think more about the issues.

“I think sometimes when someone sees a cartoon they’re going to become a little bit more aware of it and be like, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s true,’” said Los Angeles-based mixed media artist Joey Feldman. “I don’t know for a fact that you would influence a voter, but I think it would make them more curious of what the artist is trying to say.”

Often, editorial cartoonists and political artists cover all candidates who are running, regardless of their own positions. But in some cases the art has a specific purpose. For example, during this election cycle statues of a naked Donald Trump appeared in cities across the country. Behind the statues was INDECLINE, a group of artists, filmmakers and activists who use art to fight for social causes.

“For most of us, especially those unwilling to accept the choices we’re given when it comes the presidential nominees, political art is the only way to create a real change,” said a representative from the anonymous INDECLINE. “Political art is an essential way to offer effective messages from the dissenting class.”

The statues, which were placed in locations including the Castro District of San Francisco and on Capitol Hill, were placed based on anti-Trump sentiments. The project was called “The Emperor Has No B---s,” and was meant to receive a reaction. “INDECLINE strives to educate and raise awareness with all of its projects. The important thing is to create a conversation. Whether it be productive, or critical, INDECLINE always aims to engage and inspire,” the organization said.

Illustration by Ava Mandel

On the other hand, some artisans use their work for entertainment as much as they do for awareness. “I think both candidates have flaws and inconsistencies that need to be brought to the public’s attention,” said Ema Sampey, an illustrator from Savannah, Georgia.  “What better way to accomplish that than through humor and satire?” 

And for this election especially, there’s a ton of incidents to satirize. “I think with these two candidates there’s just an unbelievable amount of subjects that you can constantly come up with stuff for,” Feldman said. “There’s so much information that you can just ridicule. It makes a cartoonist’s job easier.”

Political art has even taken on new forms in the digital age – anyone can make something and share it online. “As print newspapers declined in recent decades fewer than a hundred paid political cartoonists continued to function in this country,” said journalism professor Daniel van Benthuysen. “But … with a little Photoshop and the help of Twitter and Facebook, thousands, maybe even millions of people turned into meme-makers, producing images with very few words to do the same thing cartoonists have done. The spirit of the cartoonist lives on.”

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