The many masks of modern art
Satire in painting seldom works, although it thrives in drawings and prints. I suspect that is so because the graphic arts are the traditional means through which social, moral, and political ideas have been given their most direct and immediate pictorial form. And because the artist who uses the etching needle or the lithographic crayon to express himself does so for different reasons than the one who uses paint.
Even so, satire in any medium is a tricky business for it is usually based on anger or frustration, on the need to score points against a person, an institution, or an event. But anger and frustration in themselves are not art; these emotions must be fully assimilated and translanted into appropriate images and forms before they can even begin to resemble art.
If, while painting or drawing such an image, we let our emotions get the better of us, we will very likely produce a shrill and hysterical work without universal significance. On the other hand, if the target of our satire is too immediate or topical, our painting or print may lose relevancy once the source of our frustration is resolved or removed. For instance, satire directed against a particular political figure may be highly effective and interesting while that person is in power, but will usually lose its impact once he or she is out of office. . . . Unless, that is, it was more than just a political or social cartoon, and was a genuine work of art.
Such indeed was the case with George Grosz's bitterly impassioned drawings and prints aimed at the corruption and political insanity in Germany before and during Hitler's rise to power.
It was also true of Otto Dix's acidic swipes at the mindlessness of war, and of Max Beckmann's allegorical revelations of man's inhumanity to man.
These, and other German Expressionists, took the moral, political, and social excesses of their time to heart. But their anger against these abuses generally found suitable pictorial form, and was never permitted to spew forth as pure hate.
This respect for art is also evident in Picasso's prints and drawings condemning Fascism in Spain, and, later on, satirizing the relationship between men and women.
But satire has also taken much gentler forms, and has also dealt with less deadly human foibles and idiosyncracies.
The 20th century has been particularly rich in this gentler kind of satire. From Klee's 1903 etching "Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to be of Higher Rank," through Pascin's witty comments on leisure-time activities, Calder's delightful wire sculpture satires (such as "The Hostess"), Dubuffet's marvelous jibes at human snobbery and the macho male ("The Inflated Snob," and "Will to Power"), to Steinberg's delightfully inventive take-offs on almost every aspect of contemporary life, we have been treated to one sly dig after another directed at the vagaries and pufferies of human existence.
In some way, even Miro and Cornell get into the act. Many of Miro's apparently abstract paintings are actually subtle jibes at human self-importance , and Cornell was obviously indulging in satire in some of his boxes and collages -- although in his case, the enigmatic nature of his art makes it a little difficult to tell exactly against whom or what his satire was directed.
And yet, while satire -- bitter, sardonic, or gentle -- runs like a thread throughout 20- century art, it has been most successful in the graphic arts.
This becomes particularly clear if we examine the thousands of prints produced in this country between the two world wars, and compare them to the paintings done at the same time. In many ways the period 1920-1940 was the Golden Age of American printmaking. This is true even if we take into account the years immediately preceding it, when etching reigned supreme, and the present day when original prints (as well as pencil-signed mechanical reproductions masquerading as prints) are to be found in almost every home, public building, or corporate office.
The big difference between printmaking now and then is that prints today are generally designed to serve as colorful, dramatic, even highly decorative objects hung and enjoyed on walls, while the prints of that earlier period were often as not intended to be studied in one's hands, and then tucked safely away in a portfolio or box.
Collectors loved to hold and savor such satiric prints of the 1930's as Peggy Bacon's "The Social Graces" or Martin Lewis" "Strength and Beauty" because they were so full of charming, loving detail. And because each of these details resulted from years of shrewd observation.
High on the list of artists of that period who used satire to good effect was Grant Wood. Although most famous for such paintings as "American Gothic" and "Daughters of the Revolution," he also produced a few lithographs which rank among the best American prints of the 20th century.
"Honorary Degree" is a particularly welcome piece of satire because its barbs are directed as much against the artist as against the age-old practice of awarding honorary degrees. In this print, it is short, chubby, moon-faced Wood himself who is rather apprehensively accepting the (to his mind) possibly undeserved degree, and who is overwhelmed by the austere dignity of the two gaunt representatives of the academic world. Even the Gothic window behind him adds to his apprehension, and we can't help but feel that he is asking himself, "Who, me?"
This is a most gentle poke at a system which has been known to confer honorary degrees for services rendered -- or promised. But Wood wasn't interested in indictments so much as he was in human nature and in art.And so he made his point all the more effectively by underplaying it, and by handling it with dignity, compassion, and subtle good humor.
In this respect he was typical of many of the printmakers of his time whose satire remains alive for us today. By trying their best to see human problems and actions in the light of human nature, and to forgive even while they were accusing, these artists kept their sense of proportion while many of the more hysterical political satirists around them were losing theirs.