The Aesthetics of Ugliness

In 1831, Honoré Daumier depicted the French monarch Louis-Philippe in a newspaper as a pear, a fathead in French slang.

When the government complained, he published a diabolically clever four-stage image narrative demonstrating the slippery slope that transformed the depiction of the king into the representation of a pear — a process that seemed to ask: At what point does my image become objectionable?

In the new book Enemy of the People (IDW Limited, 2019) depicting his travails since he was fired in 2018 from Pittsburgh’s daily newspaper, the Post-Gazette, cartoonist Rob Rogers alludes to that story with an image showing his current best subject, Trump, as a turnip, a pear-like shape.

Moralizing about the content of Rogers’s images would be preaching to the choir. But what deserves attention, I think, is how his caricatures work. Interpretation of Nicolas Poussin’s paintings is complex and frequently controversial. Sometimes just identifying his esoteric subjects takes scholarship. Newspaper caricatures, by contrast, need to be immediately accessible, though of course some of Rogers’s contemporary references and allusions to life in Pittsburgh can be obscure. But because caricatures are simple-seeming contemporary popular artworks, widely read but with little prestige in the art world, they don’t regularly get the respectful analysis that they deserve.

Rob Rogers, “I, Donald” (January 25, 2018); (all images via robrogers.com)

Rogers’s new book includes a generous sampling of his recent work. Usually he employs a single image. On August 12, 2017, he showed Trump together with Nazis and KKK members singing, “We Shall Overcome.” So far as I know, Trump doesn’t sing, and certainly has not sung publicly with Nazis and the KKK. But since he has implicitly supported their white nationalist sympathies, here we have truthful exaggeration.

Likewise, on January 25, 2018, In a cartoon labeled “I, Donald,” Rogers depicted Trump in a tutu and brandishing a length of pipe as he ice-skates around a fallen female rival bearing the initials “FBI” — an allusion to I, Tonya (2017), the film about the controversial figure skater Tonya Harding — to illustrate Trump’s thuggish lawlessness. And when on November 15, 2016, a week after the election, he portrayed Steve Bannon turning into a werewolf as he howls at the sight of an ascendent Trump-in-the moon, he perceptively plumbed the fear and loathing that gripped the majority of Americans who had voted against the president-elect.

Rob Rogers, “New Moon” (November 15, 2016)

When the topic calls for it, Rogers would use a narrative sequence. On September 26, 2017, a three-panel strip showed an aged white veteran complaining in what appears to be , in the first two panels at least, a Trumpist diatribe about “some spoiled millionaire” disrespecting the flag. Then the third panel reveals the surprise punch line: he is in fact complaining about the president’s vicious attacks on “the free speech of athletes,” alluding to Trump’s vilification of football players who kneel during the National Anthem.

In another narrative, this one from 2016, Rogers describes his creative process. After finding “a topic that begs for satire,” he chooses a “perfect metaphor,” draws the cartoon, and then stands back, or so he says, to “watch as readers react to your brilliance.” (A joke!) But of course it isn’t that simple. A news reporter might use up to 2000 words to write a story , while a caricaturist needs to condense that story into a single image or a brief sequence of images. Thus on January 13, 2015, Rogers showed Muhammad, Buddha, and Jesus sitting in a bar, the three religious figures lamenting the terror practiced in their names.

Rob Rogers, “NFL Protest” (September 26, 2017)

The image isn’t blasphemous, for only Jesus is depicted with an alcoholic drink, but with a single stroke it thrashes the self-righteousness of religious extremists. And on August 30, 2016, he presented seaside scene with a Muslim woman in a burkini alongside an obese Trump wearing an obscenely skimpy bathing suit with the words “Muslim Ban” emblazoned on its rear end. The caption reads, “Which outfit is more disturbing?”

E. H. Gombrich and Ernst Kris argued in “The Principles of Caricature,” published in Kris’s Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (1952), that caricature arises relatively late in the history of art because it requires prior mastery of the techniques of representation. Drawing an analogy from Freud’s account of jokes, they write that, in caricature, distortions are aggressively hostile. When, for example, on July 7, 2017, Rogers shows Putin and Trump naked in bed together, he creates a plausible if outrageous visual metaphor that strikes at the heart of the president’s mystifying loyalties.

Rob Rogers, “Face To Face” (July 7, 2017)

Like successful verbal jokes, caricatures are one-liners. They are politically potent when they change how you see the world. Daumier’s caricature mattered because Louis-Philippe really was a fathead; and Rogers’s Trump, who on May 6, 2016, is running a butcher shop butchering his opponents, now has, at least for me, permanently taken on that identity.

Aestheticians, who often discuss beauty, would do well also to consider the representations of ugliness. In his acknowledgements, Rogers includes a caricatured self-portrait as well as a recent photograph of himself. In the photograph he is a handsome, balding man, but in the caricature he appears as a bewildered wiseguy. Just as Poussin’s visual style hardly allows for depictions of ugliness, so Rogers’s does not really encourage depicting beauty or even conventional good looks.

Rob Rogers, “Burkini” (August 30, 2016)

Insofar as Rogers uses exaggeration to communicate hostility, how can he show admiration, affection, or respect? The line between an affectionate joke and one that’s hostile can be hard to define. When on May 24, 1994, he portrayed a very fat Bill Clinton clad only in his underwear, one senses a certain respect, which Rogers never gives to Trump. Logically speaking, there’s nothing wicked about being fat, but in Rogers’s world fatness is equated with malfeasance and corruption, or at least with foolishness. In his self-portrait, he’s skinny.

The essential power as well as, perhaps, the ultimate limitation of caricature lies in the way that it shows stories that the news tells. You may readily shrug off a statement you disagree with, but seeing the world depicted in a certain way can be harder to dismiss. Gombrich devised an ingenious experiment: ask someone to destroy a picture of a loved one. Try it yourself! Rationally you know that the picture is a mere representation, but burning it or tearing it up feels aggressive, even hateful. No wonder that iconoclasts fear images. Louis-Philippe had reason to be peeved at Daumier, and Rogers’s unrelenting attacks against Trump gave the conservative ownership of the newspaper reason to fire him.

“The cartoonist can mythologize the world or try to dispel illusions. He can inflate the thoughtless phrase and give it a specious life of its own, or deflate it by contrasting rhetoric with the realities it describes,” Gombrich writes in the chapter, “The Cartoonist’s Armoury,” from his Meditations on a Hobby Horse (1971). This is exactly what Rogers does, often (not always!) with striking success. (The funniest part of his book is the presentation of some of his failures.)

Soon Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette, Rogers’s former employer, will publish only online, making Pittsburgh the largest American city without a printed daily newspaper — a dubious distinction in my judgment. The ways that the news is delivered have changed, but caricature remains fascinating. How will such recent dramatic changes, now of course found everywhere, affect the role of visual artists like Rogers?

Enemy of the People (2019) by Rob Rogers is published by IDW Limited.

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