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Caricatures Comfort, But Cartoons Challenge

December 13th, 2013 · No Comments

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I was delighted to hear the news that the University of Oregon has secured an anonymous gift that will endow academic studies in comics. Comic News, a local free weekly that summed current events using mostly editorial cartoons, is what brought me to Eugene in 1995.

I believe cartooning is the most elegant means of communication yet devised for mass production. The combination of printed words and graphic portrayals engages both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Start any sort of “conversation” between those two hemispheres and you’ve created a visual equivalent of what pop music calls an “ear worm.” It stays with you.

Any mode of communication that gets into the brain quickly but then leaves slowly is going to have outsized influence. It’s no wonder that editorial cartoons played a prominent role in shaping public opinion about most of our nation’s controversies.

After I closed the Comic News (rebranded as WINK magazine during its final throes) in 2005, I had about 70 large boxes filled with past issues. This will sound a bit dramatic, but culling that hoard to a manageable size was one of the most painful events of my life.

I called a dear friend after what I suppose was a panic attack. We spent the rest of the day sorting and sifting the decade of my life that had been poured into those 505 issues. We all have our issues, but mine that day happened to be numbered.

I kept two sets — one for me and one for the University of Oregon’s library, which had requested a set for its Oregon collection. Then I threw a party and lined my sidewalk to the street with those boxes, offering them to anyone. Sanipac took what was left.

Last week I was visiting a friend in Washington D.C. and she had one of our April Fools Day editions in her living room.

So I’m glad that comics now have a future in Eugene, the better to match its past. Unfortunately, the buzz this week about Eugene has less to do with comics and more to do with caricatures. Let the education about comics begin here.

Comics rely on surprise — that’s where the pleasure comes from. When you laugh at Alix Stone half-heartedly vouching for her older sister in her Santa letter, you can feel Holly’s ambivalence between being a cranky tween and not wanting coal in her stocking. Stone Soup cartoonist (and Eugene resident) Jan Eliot set you up to feel that tension. You laugh.

Caricatures have a simpler formula: Take what you know and exaggerate some prominent feature. It’s funny because Obama’s ears aren’t really THAT big. The recognition is instant. Your preconceptions are confirmed. You don’t laugh; you smile. Your reaction isn’t surprise so much as comfort.

So it was with what became a viral video of University of Oregon students — some of them football players — pummeling each other and then innocent passersby with snowballs. Teenagers blowing off steam during the year’s first snowfall is expected. Football players participating in some impromptu roughhousing — nothing new there either.

And yet, 3 million hits later, it’s a youtube sensation. Why? Because it confirms the bias about student athletes lacking self-control. Caricatures provide comfort, not surprise.

Now direct your attention to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, which happens to be less than 100 yards from where that now infamous “snowbrawl” video was taken. Specifically, seek out the corridor gallery, where the second annual Art of the Athlete is hung. Read the Artist Statements.

Recognize the control necessary to replicate a logo or finish a partially completed masterpiece. “Our corridor galleries are not where we’re showing great art,” explained museum executive director Jill Hart. “It’s where we promote the role art can play as a means for exploring identity.”

Communications manager Debbie Williamson Smith took the point further. “These displays exhibit another dimension of art — the experience of creating it.”

Allow yourself to be surprised by the subtlety and self-discipline displayed by some of our student-athletes in this show. It won’t get 3 million hits. But if it hits you, that won’t matter.

Art (including comics) can challenge preconceptions. Caricatures cannot.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs. The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (www.jsma.uoregon.edu) has free family day activities tomorrow, Saturday, Dec. 14.

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