There are three kinds of humorous art. Parody, where you make fun of people who are smarter than you are. Satire, where you make fun of people who are richer than you are. And burlesque, where you do both while taking your clothes off. Patrick Oliphant doesn’t do any of these. Especially, I’m glad to say, the last.
What Pat draws (and paints and sculpts) is Aristotelian Comedy. Although I’m not sure the old beard-o would have agreed or—philosophers not being famous for their sense of humor—laughed.
Aristotle said Tragedy involved heroes who have tragic flaws that cause catastrophic events resulting in catharsis, which cleanses our souls of fear and pity. Comedy, Aristotle said, involves ordinary people whose situation goes from worse to better resulting in a happy ending.
On the face of it, Aristotelian Tragedy would seem to better describe Pat’s work as an editorial cartoonist. Gosh, do our heroes have tragic flaws, and, boy, do these flaws cause catastrophic events. But, wait a minute, what’s “catharsis”? The first definition in Webster’s is “purgation.” Well, I suppose it depends on where you read your morning newspaper. And, wait another minute, since when did any of the high plenipotentiaries who Pat draws become heroes? Plus, why would any decent, intelligent person want to cleanse his or her soul of fear and pity? These days, if you aren’t feeling pity you don’t have a soul. And if you aren’t feeling fear you don’t have a brain.
The reason that Pat creates Aristotelian Comedy is that we are ordinary people whose situation goes from worse to better, with Pat’s help, when we laugh at supposed “heroes” and their “tragic”—greedy, mendacious, corrupt, power-mad, vile, contemptible—flaws.
This is a happy ending.
Pat does not “speak truth to power.” Any jerk can speak truth to power, if power is far enough away. Try it yourself at home. Stand on the sofa, cup your hands around your mouth, and shout, “Putin Stinks!” (Do not try this at home if your home is in Russia or nearby.) What Pat does is make fun of power. It works. Even though the pen is not, in fact, mightier than the sword. You know this if you have ever been in a sword fight armed only with a Bic.
But when the people who are wielding the swords can be made to look ridiculous—asleep like Leonid Brezhnev, a Wall Street plutocrat so fat he can’t reach across his belly to unsheathe his sword, Jimmy Carter attacked by a bunny, Bill Clinton dueling with his pants down, or the sword is only a movie prop as per Ronald Reagan—then the battle may be, might be, can be won. “Look, Goliath, your sandal is untied!”
Nixon resigned not because he was hated, even less because he was feared. He resigned because he was a joke—one of Pat’s best. The Berlin Wall fell after Pat drew an August, 1989, cartoon showing the footprints of 300 East Germans who’d escaped through the busted barbed wire of the Hungarian border, with a Communist border guard dropping his rifle and running after them saying, “Hold it . . . Wait for me!” The Catholic Church did not address its holy smoke child abuse scandal until publication of Pat’s 2002 carton captioned, “Celebration of Spring at St. Paedophilia’s—The Annual Running of the Altar Boys.” (“I’ll call the Bishop,” says Pat’s alter-ego little penguin, Punk. An equally small bystander says, “The Bishop has first dibs.”)
I won’t give Pat all the credit for ousting Nixon, felling the Berlin Wall, and shaming the Catholic Church into some reform. Oh, what the hell, I will.
And at the moment few of us are seeing anything ridiculously pathetic and laughable about ISIS. But Pat will find a way.
It’s his job. Indeed, it is everyone’s job in a free and democratic society to laugh at the powerful. It cuts them down to size. They aren’t all bad people. But they are all crazy. Consult the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Look at the “Diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” Five or more of the following are required to make the diagnosis: has a grandiose sense of self-importance; is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success; believes he or she is “special”; requires excessive admiration; has a sense of entitlement; is interpersonally exploitative; is unwilling to identify with the feelings and needs of others; is often envious; shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Note that each of the powerful meets all of the criteria.
How does Pat make such horrors as Nixon, Communism, and those who sanctify the protection of sex criminals funny? I won’t tell. To analyze humor is to give an old-fashioned wind-up alarm clock and a screwdriver and a hammer to an over-active six-year-old boy. It will never be worth a tick again. And to analyze humor is also to run the risk of revealing that the secret of humor lies not in mirth but fury.
Medieval physiologists held that a person’s character and abilities were determined by four “Cardinal Humors”: Phlegm, Blood, Yellow Bile and Black Bile. Pat has at least nine Cardinal Humors—Phlegm, to be sure, to spit upon the wicked, but also White Bile, Tan Bile, Bile of Various Global Complexions, Business Bile, Labor Bile, Conservative Bile, Liberal Bile and, most bilious of all, Political Bile. Bile makes the gallstones, the “stones out of the brook,” that we little Davids get to put into our slings. And no one does it better than Pat.
Pat’s technique, unlike his humor, can be analyzed. This is because Pat is a diligent student of technique. He owes careful draftsmanship to David Low, the between-the-wars genius of depicting the fatuity and fat behinds of dictatorship. Low, like Pat, sharpened his pencils in Australia. But Pat adds to Low’s precision the light and whimsical modern lines with which English cartoonist Ronald Searle emerged after three years in, of all places, Japanese prisoner of war camps. Then, to this exacting capriciousness, Pat marries (Platonically, to drag in another ancient Greek) the homey details and stout shadings of Carl Giles whose “Giles Family” cartoons appeared in the Daily Express from the 1940s to the 1980s and won him (Giles, not Pat, but Pat wouldn’t want one) an OBE. Nor have Pat’s studies been limited to the British Empire of his youth. He has a command of the strong compositions and the strong expressions of opinion that mark American cartoonists Bill Mauldin, Paul Conrad and Herblock.
Pat has learned from every century of art so that lurking behind Pat’s humor we see Goya’s The Disasters of War, Caprichos and Black Paintings. Pat controls the minutiae, the labeling, and the cross-hatching that get out of hand in Hogarth. Pat tames the crowd scenes that go wild on Isaac Cruikshank. Pat’s talent as a writer gets the speech balloon to work the way George Cruikshank can’t. Pat brings the grotesques of James Gillray to heel. And Pat packs more recognizable figures into a frame than Thomas Rowlandson. Pat even excels Pat’s own favorite, Daumier, at caricature. There is always something a little grey about a Daumier. Pat is the master of black and white. These are, after all, the fit pigments for a moral artist. Pat’s blacks are deep, roiling, pitchblende—evil. Pat’s whites shine forth—good. Since ink is black and paper is white you’d think someone before Pat would have figured this out. But no one did the way Pat has.
Whoever said ars gratia artis was an ars. When you look upon the work of Pat Oliphant, you know what art is for.
P. J. O’Rourke