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Drawing the line: political cartooning in an age of offence

Should political cartoonists pull no punches, whatever offence they cause? Does crude, physical caricaturing come with the territory when you are a public figure?

In one of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts strips, Lucy declares that she is going to be a political cartoonist ‘lashing out with my crayon’. From Gillray to Giles, Hogarth to Herblock, the most vicious political cartoons are often the most successful – capturing and caricaturing the urgency of political situations through the personal foibles of politicians. Gordon Brown in the past year has been variously depicted as a wheelchair bound incontinent and a sweating poker player betting it all on the joker (Peter Mandelson). But the best cartoonists’ work is insightful even when it’s cruel. As Theodore Dalrymple puts it ‘Gillray, like Swift before him and Dickens after him, saw everything through a lens that clarified even as it distorted’.

But we live in an era in which anything that can be seen as ‘offensive’ is met with all round disapproval. A storm erupted earlier this year after the New York Post published a cartoon showing police shooting a chimp, which was mistaken for a racist reference to President Obama. The New Yorker ‘Terrorist Fist-Jab’ cover featuring Obama and his wife Michelle had already caused a commotion, though the intention was actually to satirise fear-mongering. Any hint that a minority group is being targeted provokes calls for censorship. Martin Rowson’s depiction for the New Humanist of new atheists ‘outing’ themselves behind an effeminate Richard Dawkins brought accusations of homophobia. The cartoon series Popetown, was dropped by the BBC after protests by Roman Catholics. And we are all familiar with the controversy about cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed.

Should political cartoonists pull no punches, whatever offence they cause? Does crude, physical caricaturing come with the territory when you are a public figure? Or is it too easy to lampoon politicians rather than their politics? Do we want cartoonists who are prepared to take risks and push at the boundaries of taste in order to make clearer the world we live in? If we curtail political cartooning in any way, are we effectively censoring the press or simply ensuring good taste? Where should we draw the line with political cartoons and offence?


Sarnath Banerjee | talks
Dave Brown | talks
John Kampfner | talks
Brendan O'Neill | talks | www
Mr Martin Rowson | talks | www


Date and Time:

22 October 2009 at 7:00 pm


2 hours



Kowalsky Gallery
33 Great Sutton Street

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Organised by:

Institute of Ideas
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£7.50 (£5)

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