Political Illustration from The Progressive, 1981–1999
BY PATRICK JB FLYNN
IN 1978, when I went to work in the art department at The New York Times, popular culture in the United States had recently survived the political impact and radical social transformations of the 1960s. By the late 70s, America had slid well into the “me” decade, an era of disco music and government corruption. In spite of that, graphic artists such as Ronald Searle, Ralph Steadman, Brad Holland, Tomi Ungerer, Anita Siegel, Marshall Arisman and Sue Coe, just to name a few, were weighing in on the important issues of day on the Op-Ed pages of the Times and making significant contributions to the noble tradition of political art. This vanguard of political expression, fostered under the art direction of Jean-Claude Suarèz and later Steven Heller, was significant in elevating the level of political consciousness in the United States. Alas, by the time I came on the scene the editors had pretty much harnessed illustration as political statement, probably due to a tenable concern for compromising access to powerful sources in and around government.
In the few years that I worked at the Times, I came to realize a significant level of frustration among illustrators, especially in terms of making art and what was permitted by the editors. A constant complaint was that the best ideas were often “killed,” deemed as too strident, too pointed or stylistically inappropriate for publication. From my perspective, there was an awful lot of powerful art being rejected. It struck me that these artist’s and their work represented an important voice that wasn't being heard.
Frustrated by a perceived disconnect between my role as art director and my personal desire to participate in politics through art, I left the professional comforts of the Times and moved back to the Midwest where I took on the task of designing The Progressive, a political magazine that championed issues of peace and social justice. In Madison, Wisconsin, I met with then editor Erwin Knoll and publisher Ron Carbon and offered up a design concept for the magazine that embraced political illustration. I hoped to create an environment for illustrators in which they were free to produce art without editorial meddling, allowing for aesthetic experimentation and personal expression. In lieu of the fact that The Progressive was nonprofit and without sufficient resources to commission very many illustration assignments, I suggested that artists might be encouraged to work for less if they were allowed freedom to create their art without editorial meddling. Being a staunch advocate of free speech, Knoll was supportive and excited by the idea of extending the spirit of the First Amendment to the expression of art in The Progressive.
As a means to communicate, the printed page is still the preferred medium for most illustrators. Sue Coe once told me that she could paint a picture for gallery exhibition and maybe a thousand people would see it, whereas if she made an illustration for the Times she would have the immediate gratification of seeing her work published the following day and reproduced for audience of millions. Good illustration is direct and immediate, inviting the viewer, focusing attention, and informing the reader. Political art will challenge the status quo and requires the viewer to think or rethink. Illustration can instill joy or heartache. It might force laughter or elicit anger but when aligned with good writing it heightens appreciation and deepens understanding of the information being presented.
The collaboration between word and image can prove problematic, especially when the art offers an alternative interpretation of the writing. The relationship is a complex contest of conceptual forces sharing a space where the art more often than not throws the first punch. The art director’s job is to navigate the cognitive chasm between word and image, an interpretive process that requires a modicum of trust between the editor and art director and by extension the illustrator. Most editorial illustrators I’ve worked with pride themselves as independent thinkers whose expertise lies in their ability to reference and distill information in order to produce intelligent, perhaps clever and hopefully profound graphic interpretations of the written word. The most rewarding aspect of my work as an art director was facilitating that process.
Illustration, as applied through The Progressive, became an independent voice, sympathetic to the content of the article but not subservient to the text. Rather, the writing served to inform the artist in the creation of concepts responsive to a larger plurality of ideas. The interpretive power of illustration provides objective insight, alternative modes of thought and perhaps a little entertainment by way of satire or humor. Of the hundreds of artists I have worked with, my assignments were seldom refused and rarely was it due to the political content of an article. Illustrators were generally thrilled to be given assignments with meaningful content concerning issues of social importance. Although illustrators working for The Progressive were largely underpaid, their contributions were never undervalued. They were given respect and significant freedom to create their art without interference, fostering a more personal and visceral interpretation of the text.
“Another Voice” is largely made possible through the generous contributions of artists with whom I’ve had the honor and pleasure to work with throughout my career as an art director. The collection exhibits the illustrations of fifty artists spanning eighteen years of illustration assignments, 1981–1999. I am intensely proud of this work as it was created in the true spirit of political dissent in collaboration with the artists, myself and The Progressive. The viewer will find most of the art to be every bit as relevant today as it was when it was created. In fact, some of the work, although produced in response to the 1991 Gulf War, is still appropriate to today's military escapades.
David McLimans’ collage “War Economy” pretty much wraps up the reason, or lack thereof, for engaging in war. Marshall Arisman’s “Torture Hood," painted in 1994 for a cover of The Progressive, foreshadows the horrors of the Abu Ghraib Prison torture scandal. Michael Duffy's aim is true in his illustration of a gun-crazed “Militia Nation” man. Jordin Isip’s painting of a “World in the Balance” is a poignant yet sad commentary on the state of global affairs, now even more emergent given the increasing disasters connected with global warming. Sue Coe’s haunting drawing of the “The Meat Harvester,” is hardly an exaggeration for an industry gone mad. Chris Ferrantello’s “Ocean’s End,” sounds a too-late alarm for the ongoing depletion of ocean life. Henrik Drescher's “War Dog” plays on the naivete of youth marching to the jingoist beat of patriotism, an absurdity when considering the multitude of lies and deceptions that brought us into the Iraq war. Frances Jetter’s “Death” muse is conscripted to deliver the caskets for the war pofiteer's bloody business. Stephen Kroninger’s “Flag-Waving Americans” show up for every war, whether it be Vietnam, Panama or Iraq. And Brad Holland’s “Dictator,” a disturbingly saccharine illustration for a cover story on Chile’s horrific Pinochet regime. This illustration was cause for my dismissal as art director, still scratching my head over that dubious action by the editor. The art contracted through The Progressive may have proved too strong for some but given the state of today’s world, and for what lies ahead, I think not strong enough.
—Patrick JB Flynn
Curator of “Another Voice”