The average American’s blood pressure seems to rise at the very mention of the subject of politics nowadays. However, the faculty of the Communications and Political Science Departments is deciding to embrace this difficult topic instead of skirting it with the promotion of a new month-long exhibition in AU’s Jessie C. Wilson Gallery entitled “Pointed Pens: Editorial Cartoons and American Politics, featuring The Indianapolis Star’s Gary Varvel.”
The exhibition features Varvel’s political cartoons as well as pieces from other eras donated by the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in order to give visitors a view of politics now and then through editorial cartoons.
Dr. David Baird, chair of the Communications Department, who helped facilitate the formation of the exhibition, feels “those older pieces provide some historical context for what Gary has been doing with current events” and, though “Gary brings a conservative point of view to his cartoons; our intention wasn’t to provide a platform for any particular perspective. It was more about the fact that Gary is really good at what he does.” In fact, Baird remarks that “for anyone who might be keeping score, Gary has been skewering both of this campaign’s major candidates with equal enthusiasm.”
Visitors to the exhibit may be surprised at the lack of obvious humor in some of the pieces featured in “Pointed Pens,” but Varvel stresses that though humor is a tool that cartoonists use, “humor is not the goal of an editorial cartoon. The goal is to express opinions. Depending on the subject, humor may be the sugar that helps readers swallow the medicine.”
Varvel hopes his work—with the rest of “Pointed Pens”—stimulates the kind of conversations Americans need to have to work out our divisions.
“Although many Americans don’t like to talk about politics, our founding fathers gave us the responsibility to choose our leaders,” Varvel said. “By not participating, citizens are leaving this duty up to individuals who may not have the same values or ideology. Few people like confrontation. We feel more comfortable with like-minded friends. But engaging in conversations about the issues of the day just may challenge ourselves as well as others to reconsider the consequences of the actions of our political leaders.”
Tai Lipan, director of the Wilson Galleries, has been planning cooperative interdepartmental exhibitions since well before the school year started, and with the political season at its highest point, it seemed obvious to include political science. On the heels of that thought came the idea to work with the Communications Department to look at this time on our nation’s history in a different light. The combined knowledge of Baird and Dr. Michael Frank, a political science professor, along with Varvel’s relevant work and AU alumnus Julian Ridlan’s donation of the historical pieces made for an ideal combination.
“Pointed Pens” differs from the usual Wilson Gallery exhibition in that it is more of a social and historical showcase rather than a strictly artistic one. Lipan expressed that, while the average exhibition pieces in the gallery merely require a placard for a piece’s title, year of creation and author, the pieces featured in “Pointed Pens” require a little more explanation. Many of the topics discussed in the older cartoons may be completely unfamiliar to visitors, so one of the practicalities of creating the exhibition was the research into topics discussed in each cartoon.
The team hopes that examination of these cartoons will help give viewers perspective on their own political experience and have a better grasp on how politics have changed.
Varvel has been writing political cartoons for the Star since the 90s and knows not only national politics but also those of AU’s own local region, making the exhibition one that may feel a little more familiar to those who are familiar with central Indiana. Though the political climate may have changed, he feels his responsibilities haven’t:
“Cartoonists help readers visualize sometimes complicated issues through the lens of analogies, metaphors, and satire,” he said. “Jesus spoke in parables, which are word-pictures intended to enlighten people using physical images common to everyone to proclaim a spiritual truth. In a similar way, cartoons can be that tool to enlighten voters to the issues of the day.”
The exhibition opened last week, and yesterday, Frank led a Q&A with Varvel in York Performance Hall. “Pointed Pens” will continue to run through Nov. 11 before being replaced by a senior design student exhibition.