Monday, May 19, 2008

Mixing It Up

“The best portraits are those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature.”-Thomas B. Macaulay

We have probably all seen the cartoonists at amusement parks or on beach boardwalks. They draw ridiculous pictures of people with huge heads and tiny bodies that provide lots of laughs. Typically cartoons and caricatures are intended for simple entertainment purposes. However, the message of a cartoon can sometimes be much more serious than its amusing appearance suggests. The latest exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, which intersects caricatures and politics, is an example. Although the portraits in Herblock’s Presidents: “Puncturing Pomposity” are very humorous and make light of important issues, they can also serve as a historical account of some of the major controversies and concerns of every presidential term from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

Herbert Block was a cartoonist and a major supporter of the so called “underdog.” He adamantly supported policies aimed at assisting the underprivileged, such as the New Deal. He also advocated for United States intervention in World War II. Therefore, all of his caricatures are negative portrayals of presidents who enacted policies which hurt, or merely failed to help, the “underdog.” For example, he makes fun of Eisenhower’s “Administration Program”, Johnson’s “Great Society,” Ford’s economic policies, Reagan’s policy freezes, and Bush’s “no new taxes” promise. According to Block, “in some cases, a forceful, negative reaction can do the most good.” Although some of these caricatures may seem harsh, they are presented in a way that can amuse almost anybody, no matter their political position.

At present it is of the utmost importance for people to understand current political issues, as we are in the midst of a monumental election. As a history major, I must say that one of the best ways to understand the present is to understand the past, even if the past is presented in a humorous way. Therefore, the current National Portrait Gallery exhibit succeeds in multiple purposes by both informing and entertaining.

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