Cartoons are usually read at the breakfast table or perhaps on a crowded train. Sometimes emailed to us by a friend or pinned to the workplace noticeboard these small images, often quickly forgotten and ignored, are like a series of snapshots of the nation's life. If you stop for a moment to look at them you can be rewarded with a short, sharp jolt of satire. Presented in a gallery, they demand even more attention. That which is ephemeral and disposable on newsprint becomes an object worth preserving and viewing repeatedly.
As a curator I have often mused over the transformation that cartoons undergo when being prepared for an exhibition. My first encounter with a cartoon destined for display is usually as a forgotten item stored in a cardboard box under the artist's desk. After being selected, the work is carefully receipted and placed in a portfolio in preparation for being photographed and eventually framed. By the time it arrives at the Museum it is no longer handled by ink-stained hands but rather the cotton gloves of conservators. Eventually hung on a gallery wall, its transformation into a work of art is complete.
It is important to remember, however, that cartoons are not produced as art objects. They are a by-product of a process that requires an image for reproduction in newsprint. Their production is strictly controlled by the needs of the publication. Size, colour and subject matter are determined by the journal for which the cartoonist works. The time for the work to be completed is a function of the printing deadline. Rather than being unique, the images are endlessly reproduced. As such, cartoons are in many ways the antithesis of what we traditionally think of as art. They are not the product of an unfettered artist but rather the result of a highly structured production line. The object of primary significance is not the original artwork but the reproduced image.
Why then should we collect and exhibit cartoons? Are they simply bad art, deserving little more than a cursory glance at the breakfast table? For myself I believe that the key to appreciating cartooning begins with understanding them as a form of popular culture rather than an expression of artistic talent. This is not to say that cartoons have no aesthetic merit. Rather, it recognises that the primary significance of cartoons stems from their mass-produced nature. When a topic becomes the fodder of cartoonists we know that is has achieved a certain notoriety or significance in the wider community. It is valuable evidence of what is on the public's mind. Whereas traditional western art is often interpreted as reflecting the interior world of the artist, cartooning reflects the popular imagination.
We need to proceed carefully, however, in claiming that cartoons provide evidence of the concerns of the broader audience of newspaper readers. The views expressed by cartoonists are not necessarily shared by their readers. Indeed, at times, cartoonists almost despair as to the voting intentions of the general public.
Cartoons are evidence of a conversation between cartoonists and their readers. Cartoonists are very much aware of their audience and the topics that will engage them. While the subject matter is open for interpretation, the topics themselves are generated by the news. The demands of the mass media are such that it is a brave cartoonist who attempts to set their own news agenda. Following the twists and turns of public debates through cartoons provides a powerful visual archive of how issues were understood and resolved in our political system.
Do cartoonists influence public debate or change people's voting intentions? Most probably not. They do, however, articulate a healthy scepticism of the motives of politicians that is shared throughout the broader community. Their caricatures are more than an exaggerated likeness – they are a commentary on the values and stature of the politician concerned.
If, as I have argued, cartoons are not produced as art but are a by-product work of the print media, why should we value them? For me the answer to this question lies in viewing cartoons as cameos of political and cultural life. I am fascinated by the way cartoonists sift through the news of the day to produce an image that attempts to make readers both laugh and think. The fact that cartoons are mass-produced adds to their significance as they engage a mass audience.
Each cartoon sums up the news of the day, leaving behind a small time capsule of events and personalities. These images are not the rarefied musings of an artist but the sledgehammer of political commentary. While placing cartoons in a gallery removes them from the context in which they were created it also gives cartoons another life. That which momentarily demands your attention in a newspaper stands up to much closer examination when presented within a frame. It is as if the frame provides an unconscious cue for us to take the work more seriously.