Monday, October 20, 2008

Political Cartoons in the Classroom: Addressing Social Concerns Through Visual Means

A Webquest for 9 - 12 graders by Cydnee Perman, University of the Arts

"Gross National Problems", Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune, 11/21/2008

Through this Webquest you will....
  • Learn the characteristics of political cartoons, thereby understanding such technical terms as "caricature" and "visual metaphors".
  • Evaluate the significance of political cartoons in our society, both as an art form and as a mode of communication.
  • Investigate and decode political cartoons, thereby employing critical thinking skills.
  • Discuss whether artists should maintain a moral responsibility
    to not offend with their art.
  • Research artists from other countries who utilize political cartoons to make statements about their societies.
  • Create political cartoons that express ideas relevant to their own communities.
  • Evaluate the necessity of propriety of free speech when creating art.
Note to Webquest adventurers: Wherever you see a highlighted phrase, click on it to connect to more information that will help you to understand the term a little more thoroughly. Also, click on any image on the Webquest for a closer look!


"A cartoonist is a writer and artist, philosopher, and punster, cynic and community conscience. He seldom tells a joke, and often tells the truth, which is funnier. In addition, the cartoonist is more than a social critic who tries to amuse, infuriate, or educate. He is also, unconsciously, a reporter and
historian. Cartoons of the past leave records of their times that reveal how people lived, what they thought, how they dressed and acted, what their amusements and prejudices were, and what the issues of the day were." (Ruff and Nelson, 1999, p. 75).

Congratulations! You have just been hired as the newest social commentator for the UArts Daily Tribune. Your job will be to address the issues that face our society today in a way that will maintain a mass appeal and communicate powerful messages to the most diverse audience possible, but also use the fewest words you can. Sound tricky? Why not try incorporating your social commentary with simple and artful illustrations, thereby creating a political cartoon?

Because of the visual nature of political or editorial cartoons, there is an immediate emotional impact on the reader that is established, which can be far more effective in making an impression than a written article. Through the use of visual metaphors the artist allows a reader to, in a glance, sum up a controversial po
litical topic (Melnik, 2007). Political cartoons can often be dangerously subversive with the presentation of their content, pushing the limits of the kind of expression that is generally deemed socially acceptable. But it is this brash and deliberate exaggeration that allows a wide audience to
immediately understand the message presented.
Through this web adventure, you will prepare yourself for your job as a political cartoonist by learning about the history of political cartoons, as well as the visual and verbal tools utilized in their production.


So where do we begin? I'm sure by now you're eager to start creating your own visual metaphors, but before you begin to even review the cartoons of other artists, you must spend some time
understanding the techniques that are employed in political cartoons to create powerful and poignant statements.

Political cartoons are composed primarily of two parts: a distortion or parody of an individual or group in the form of a caricature, and allusion, which provides the c
ontext and situation into which the individual is positioned. (A Brief History of Political Cartoons). But political cartoons also use symbolism, exaggeration, labeling, analogy, and irony to get their points across. Spend a few minutes reviewing the Cartoon Analysis Guide so that you can familiarize yourself with these techniques.

Once you feel that you have an understanding of these tactics, participate in the learning activity, making sure to read the full instructions before you begin.

Also pay attention to the questions that you should ask yourself once you identify which persuasive techniques the cartoonist has used. (These are outlined at the bottom of the Cartoon Analysis Guide page).
The questions to keep in mind include:
  • What issue is the political cartoon about?
  • What is the cartoonist's opinion on this issue?
  • What other opinion can you imagine another person having on this issue?
  • Did you find this cartoon persuasive? Why or why not?
  • What other techniques could the cartoonist have used to make this cartoon more persuasive?
To garner a little more practice, select 3 cartoons from the popular site Slate and answer all of the questions for each image. Print out your images so that you can share your findings with the class. Take note that along the left side of the page is a list of many categories to explore, so you're sure to find a topic that you're interested in!


So now you understand how to decipher a political cartoon, but like anything else you will learn in your life and career, before you begin creating your own editorial cartoons you must study a bit about the history of some of America's most reknown political cartoonists.

Early Political Cartoons

*One of the first political cartoonists to gain recognition in
our country was Benjamin Franklin. In an attempt to gather support for the Albany “Plan of Union” for the colonies, Franklin created the image of a serpent divided into eight parts, above the phrase “Join or Die.”
Ben Franklin's original illustration, 1754

*While Benjamin Franklin created a singular image to express ideas about the politics of his developing nation during the eighteenth century, it is Thomas Nast who is considered the pioneer of political cartooning in the United States. Nast’s first series of cartoons that gained notoriety featured a man called William Marcy Tweed. In response to Nast’s cartoons that were
being published, Tweed is quoted as saying “’Stop them damn pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures.’” (Hess & Kaplan, 1968, p. 13).
Thomas Nast’s infamous cartoon, August 19, 1871

Questions for Discussion:

1. “Basically cartooning is a symbolic art. The symbols are a short-hand, a convenience, not only for the artist but for the viewer as well” (Hess & Kaplan, 1968, p. 33). Discuss the significance of the symbolically powerful political cartoons during Franklin and Nast’s era, at a time when literacy was not yet widespread.

2. Study Ben Franklin’s Serpent illustration. Decode and discuss the meaning behind the symbolism in the image.

3. Thomas Nast’s cartoon was responsible for the capture of William Tweed, who, after apprehension by the authorities, was sent to jail where he remained until his death, shortly after his sentence began. (Hess & Kaplan, 1968). Was it fair that Tweed was imprisoned based on an illustration? Should the Spanish guard have utilized a cartoon to make such a serious accusation?

Political Cartoons in the 20th Century

*Theodor Geisel, The Political Activist

Long after the 18th and 19th centuries, beyond the time of Benjamin Franklin and of Thomas Nast, political cartoons have continued to be utilized to express opinions and make dramatic statements regarding social concerns in the U.S. One artist who is not generally acknowledged for creating parody out of current events is Theodor Seuss Geisel, or “Dr. Seuss.”

Dr.Seuss Cartoon from June, 1941

Read about Dr.Seuss's political cartoons. You will find listed at the top of the page several categories of these political cartoons to investigate.

*Matt Davies, Making Light of American Controversy

Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Matt Davies immigrated from London in 1983, and has since found himself immersed in the politics of our society. Since art school Davies has drawn 1000s of cartoons, and is currently a staff cartoonist for The Journal News. (Matt Davies). With his illustrations for News, “Davies cuts to the chase on every major issue, deftly penetra ting the spin and obfuscation to show readers what’s really at the heart. His caustic wit combines with a strong moral sensibility to render the complex comprehensible” (Go Comics).

Though Matt Davies creates cartoons that are undeniably humorous, his intentions run deeper than just making people laugh. As his primary focus in creating his visual commentary, Davies hopes to guide his readers in taking a closer and more conscientious look at the politics of our society. (McClure).

Explore Matt Davies' political cartoons on his blog. Also note that while his political cartoons are self-explanatory in their images and captions, he explicates many of them through additional commentary.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Discuss possible reasons why Dr. Seuss went on hiatus from writing and illustrating children’s
books to create his political cartoons.

2. Why do you think that Dr. Seuss is less known for his 40+ children’s books than for his over 400 political cartoons? Do you think that the political cartoons of Seuss are more or less meaningful than his book? Discuss in what ways you feel that they are more or less consequential.

3. Find a photograph, either in a history book or on the Internet, of Hideki Tojo. Compare it to the caricature of the Japanese Prime Minister in the “Awkward Predicament” cartoon. Do you
feel that Dr. Seuss has endorsed any ethnic stereotypes when creating the image? Consider the following caricature of two Jewish men created by a Nazi party member in November of 1939. (From Der Stumer, November 1939). Do you feel that this artist was more or less justified than was Dr. Seuss in portraying his subject the way he did? Why or why not?

4. A website called “Poynter Online” asks editorial cartoonists, including Matt Davies, to analyze their own cartoons in terms of three questions: “what sparked the idea for this cartoon, how the concept evolved, and why it worked” (Poynter Online). Refer back to Davies’ cartoon of the man and the pit bull (posted on March 7, 2008), and attempt to analyze it in terms of what Davies’ responses might be to these three questions.

5. Refer back to the cartoons of the four artists to whom you have been introduced. Compare and contrast the visual styles in terms of line, shading, and texture. Whose style do you feel is most appropriate as a commentary expressing social concerns? Discuss what makes you think so. As a reader, whose style did you find the most visually appealing? Why? Whose did you find the most socially relevant? Why?


1. Choose a socially relevant topic that is significant to you. Consider how this issue could be expressed through one central thought. Create a cartoon that incorporates such characteristics as visual metaphor, caricature, and humor, which express your opinions on the situation. Keep in mind that political cartoons are most effective when they are factually accurate, so outside research on the topic may be necessary.

2. Political cartoons are utilized as a form of expression of social concerns, not only in the U.S., but also around the globe. John Curtis, for example, is an artist from South Africa, who uses humor in his cartoons to communicate opinions about his society. The pictured cartoon, penned in 2006, cleverly articulates the South African people’s long-standing struggle to escape poverty. Do you think that Americans have the right to commentate on social situations of another culture, even if they are intended to support the causes of said nation? Do you feel that doing so widens or bridges the cultural gap between the nations?

As a multicultural extension, in an attempt to bridge rather than widen the cultural gap, research a political or social issue existing in another country that you feel is unjust. Develop a political cartoon expressing how you feel about the situation. Explain why you have visually expressed yourself in the manner you have, and why you feel that your cartoon is sympathetic to those who are being unjustly treated.


As a part of the Uarts Daily Tribune, your work will be under the scrutiny of your whole team. After each activity, staff meetings should be held in which you discuss the cartoons that you create, analyzing and critiquing them in regards to their content as well as their aesthetic attributes, such as visual organization of space and forms, and relevance of the images to the statement you are trying to make. Doing this thoroughly and thoughtfully will be a benefit to the whole team!

Teacher's Page

The utilization of political cartoons in art classrooms has wide appeal because of “its flexibility in meeting a wide range of instructional goals and objectives” (Heitzmann, 1998, p. 3). Decoding political cartoons can not only help students to develop their critical thinking skills, but also provides an avenue for the interdisciplinary investigation into current events of the past and present. Although this Webquest concentrates primarily on political cartoons within the United States, cartoons that express social values are regularly produced in countries around the globe. By incorporating these images into the dialogue of an art classroom, art educators can help their students make valuable multicultural associations.


A Brief History of Political Cartoons.
Calvin: Minds in the Making.
Cartoonist in South Africa.
Heitzmann, W. R. (1998). The Power of Political Cartoons in Teaching History. Occasional Paper. National Council for History Education, Inc.
Hess, S., & Kaplan, M. (1968). The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
Melnik, R. (2007, January 23). Cartoons Catalyze Social Justice.
Nel, P. (2004). Dr. Seuss: American Icon. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.
Poynter Online. (2003, July/August 27).
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cool webquest. I used this with my journalism class while student teaching. For the fourth part, when students created a cartoon of their own, we used Students enjoyed this, and since we weren't an art class the resulting product was probably better than it would have been otherwise.