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Political humor through the eyes of renowned Greek cartoonists

The first decade of the 21st century was a transition period for the journalist profession

By: EBR - Posted: Monday, September 25, 2017

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by Eirini Sotiropoulou*

The decline of traditional news media, the emergence of new technologies and the role of cartoonists as journalists have signaled the advent of a new era for the media events that have had a decisive influence on the field of political action.

The European Business Review, attended this year's Athens Democracy Forum, which took place on 13-17 September 2017 in Zappeion, Athens. One of the main themes in the agenda was the central role of the contemporary cartoonists as an indicator of a healthy and well-functioning democratic society, while at the same time the attempt of censorship by Greek, French and Italian cartoonists for the sketches to be presented in the cartoon exhibition «EU turns 60: A Cartoon Party» for the 60 years of the Union was at the center of attention.
Members from the Greek Cartoonists Association Maria Tzaboura, Dimitris Georgopalis, Kostas Grigoriadis, Michaelis Kountouris and Antonis Nikolopoulos (Soloup) gave an interview to the journalist Irini Sotiropoulou, talking about current affairs and their contribution to political reality.

Which political leader, whether from Greece or abroad, is more involved in your sketches and why? Do you think that cartoons lead us to reassess - positively or negatively - the image that we have shaped for a specific personality in the field of politics?

MK: The cartoon helps us to reassess the image of a politician in a positive way only when the (the politician) is completely absent from it (the cartoon). Personally, I do not often use politicians in my cartoons. However, a recent exception is the President of the United States, who is already the ultimate symbol of the political decline nowadays.

KG: The people we choose to have as protagonists in our daily cartoons are always related to the issues that dominate current news. Persons of international affairs, e.g. Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, etc. The same goes for the Greek political scene. The Prime Minister or the Leader of the opposition party and the Minister of Finance are our "beloved" heroes. Sometimes, however, the cartoon can also contain a central hero that each cartoonist has created. From a personal standpoint, cartoons should not be concerned with shaping the image of each individual who satirize, but the essence of the policy that this individual expresses in society. What follows from the policy and how the cartoonist stands against every kind of power. The main element in relation to every politician and the relationship of the cartoonist with him/her, is above all the satire of the policies that he/she expresses, and not populism on a personal level.

DG: The cartoonist is a journalist who uses colors, sketches and captions instead of articles. The basic role of a journalist-cartoonist is the control of power. As a result, the persons that exercising it are our target group. Political persons who, by their actions or omissions, have influenced social, political and economic developments, play a leading role in my sketches. Tsipras and various executives of his government, Mitsotakis, Merkel, Schuble, Trump, Erdogan, Kim Yong-un and others. My criticism through the sketch concerns the way they act politically. In other words, criticism is about the institution, not the person. Political cartoons cannot make people reassess - positively or negatively - the image of a politician. They cannot elect or overthrown governments. This is not their function. The image of the politicians changes when they take political action. Only then will they prove, if they are capable or not.

Soloup: The "protagonists" of the cartoons are usually the Prime Ministers. Thus, the current protagonists of the Greek politicians is Alexis Tsipras and Angela Merkel when it comes to the international political scene. Of course, there is also a co-starring role for those who are responsible for economic affairs, namely Tsakalotos or Schuble respectively.

MT: If you see my sketches, you will find that I systematically avoid depicting politicians. This is because, in my cartoons, I draw events from the people's point of view. However, now that I think about it, I have not even avoided the "Varoufakis" phenomenon and he is probably one of the few politicians I have depicted in my sketches. I do not believe that the cartoonism leads to the reassessment of political figures. What it actually does is to point out or enlarge the existing, prevailing view that public opinion already has on them.


@Kostas Grigoriadis

Migration, economic crisis, Brexit, climate change, fake news. What is your view of current developments in the EU? Do you think that humor is absent from politics today?

DG: The various developments at the European level, unfortunately, are moving to the pace given by just one country in the Union - the strongest, Germany. Instead of a European Germany, a German Europe was created. Timidity, indecisiveness, lack of solidarity, political expediency and the German hegemony have created a "monster" that not only cannot solve key issues such as the migration/refugee or economic crisis, but also creates new, such as the rise of neo-Nazism and extreme right-wing Euro-skepticism, theimpoverishment of countries through the implementation of extreme neo-liberal economic practices, etc. In such environment, the cartoon, which highlights these problems by shouting "the king is naked," is not welcomed. The proof is the unprecedented censorship imposed by Deputy Catherine Bearder on 12 (one of which is mine) out of 28 cartoons in a cartoon exhibition in the European Parliament for the 60 years of the EU. This is a small part of the very successful exhibition that was presented last May by the Greek Cartoonists Association at Syntagma metro station, in Athens. The "withdrawal" of our sketches has caused negative comments regarding the freedom of expression within Europe. International media (British, German, French and Italian) criticized this incident.

MT: From thecurrent developments in the EU, the political characteristics and freedoms we all agreed upon, when the idea of the EU was launched, do not exist nowadays. Humor is always based on a truth. That is why it is hardly questionable. In this sense yes, the humor, the truth it contains, is missing from politics today. But this has always been the case. Politics speaks with certainty. Humor relies on constant controversy.
Soloup: Humor exists in the ordinary people. It is often absent from political and institutional factors. The proof is the censorship (or an attempt of censorship by some officials) of the European Parliament in the cartoons of the Greek cartoonists who were about to exhibit their sketches in Brussels on 26 September 2017.

MK: All these developments that you mentioned has brought to light the intolerance of the EU. Intolerance to democratic functions, intolerance to solidarity, intolerance to criticism, especially to satire. A typical example constitutes the censorship case a few days ago in a cartoon exhibition of the Greek, French and Italian cartoonists that it was about to be presented at the European Parliament as part of the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. According to the European Parliament's regulation, the content of each exhibition should be evaluated in advance in order to check that it does not contain a pro-Nazi or other offensive content towards the values of the EU. Under this regulation, Deputy Catherine Bearder rejected 12 out of the 28 sketches of the Greek cartoonists. Interestingly, the censored sketches are not only unsuspected of pro-Nazi content but, on the contrary, two of them turn against Nazism, pointing out the risk of its revival in Europe. And the issues that affect the other censored sketches are the monopoly of the German hegemony in Europe, the markets, the multi-speed Europe and even the cauterization of the outcome of the British referendum that led to Brexit. Knowing that freedom of expression is one of the core values of Europe, I wonder who finally broke the regulation. It is obvious, therefore, that humor is absent from politics, but politics is not absent from cartoons.

KG: Humor has never ceased to be absent from the Greek cartoons. How could this not be the case when Aristophanes permeates the sociopolitical evolution in Greece from its time until today? Simply, humor evolves, enriches, interacts with people's consciousness and ends up acquiring a new identity. If there is no humor, the cartoonist's basic weapon is lost. All the developments you mentioned, from the EU Brexit, etc., -I will, also, add the regional wars to various places of the planet or the rise of neo-fascism-, are the daily "food for thought" for our ideas in order to create a sketch. As political cartoonists and as journalists, -since we replace the words with an image-, we always aim to talk about the essential and not the minor issues. As far as developments in the EU are concerned, unfortunately every day the policies that stem from its integration are increasingly worrying. The stifling economic policies are not only miserable, but they allow, through populism, the emergence of far-right parties with neo-Nazi content.


@Soloup

The majority of the sketches criticizes issues from the current political developments. As a political cartoonist, how do you manage to balance your personal views with regard to the subjects or the people you are savaging? In general, is it easy to approach these issues with strict objectivity?

Soloup: The cartoon art is not objective. There is not, in any case, "objectivity" in terms of political choices. Sometimes we all stand at a certain ideological or objective point (the way we make a living, that is) thinking and reacting accordingly. The subjectivity of the cartoonist, of course, is usually on the side of people, against the power and arbitrariness of politicians and governments. The cartoonists defend the dignity of ordinary people. Whatever "subjectivity" does, however, does not mean that we are unaccountable with what we do not like. There are some limits of self-censorship that have more to do with the dignity of the "opponent". For example, we don't criticize a physical disability of a politician, a death or a disaster.

MT: The job of cartoonists is not to approach what's happening around us with strict objectivity. I think it is our job to approach reality from a perspective that the audience or even the other journalists have not yet focused on. The cartoonists are not talking about facts. We do not report. Although we are among the few journalists we crosscheck and examine the information given. As a result, we are making visible what others have not yet seen. Facts, faces and situations are all seen from another perspective, from another angle.

KG: Cartoonists are politically minded people and we always carry what determines us as citizens. So it is normal for us to carry our political opinion, as this is the filter with which we observe the facts. That's the way we analyze them and, finally, the way they end up becoming a cartoon. Neutral cartoons do not exist, simply because there are no neutral cartoonists. First and foremost, objectivity has to do with the truth in the news. So, if we are satirizing a real event, then we are nothing but objective. Being biased constitutes a risk that has occurred in recent cartoons and which I disapprove of, since it is different from my own perceptions.

MK: The cartoonist does not need to cross over news in order to present them objectively. Cartooning is a subjective commentary. What I'm trying to do is to be honest with my reader and my principles, aesthetics, politics and ethics. Here is a quote that I think Picasso said: "I don't paint what I see, but what I want others to see".


@Michael Kountouris

Political cartoons are inspired by a rhetoric, which includes symbolisms, exaggerations, ironic comments, idiomatic expressions, aimed at capturing the readers' attention and making political sketches more convincing. What techniques do you follow? Are there any limits to political humor in the framework of the ridicule of current affairs?

KG: Everything you say is often a feature that we see in cartoons. The irony and the exaggeration are the raw materials that we have in process of creating the sketch. However, what I think that should be dominated is the balance between them so that the sketch does not reflect populism. I am a lover of insinuations and plot twists in the sketch, either in words or without words. There are no limits in satire, as long as you can satirize the essence of the political event and not become abusive to whom he creates the event. I would never satirized the disability, for example, W. Schuble's disability. In this case, there is a huge limit before I even begin to think. But when it comes to his policies and in what they express, I would be more flexible.

DG: Previously, we were searching for the theme of our cartoon on the details of the political activity. Nowadays, the themes are so many and too rough, you can choose between three or four every day. The recipe for creating a cartoon is simple. You put the ''head'' of a truth into the ''body'' of a joke. The way that each creator will interpret this truth is the result of many factors, but especially of his ideological-political starting point. On the other hand, the joke is a matter of inspiration and characterizes the particular style of each cartoonist. A basic rule throughout this process is that you are against every power.

MΤ: Art is a place, a "country" in which all "certainties" are constantly collapsing. Yet, within this uncertainty, artists and audiences, we are all safe. That's what I'm trying to say with my work to the world: People should not be afraid. Do not be afraid to think. But to correct you, cartoonists do not aim to attract the readership, nor do we strive to be convincing. You're confusing us with others. We have no authority. Neither do we want it. We reject power. A good and safe guide is to always support the side of the weak.

Soloup: All these "techniques" are legitimate, as long as they do not harm the adversaries and their personal problems. Humor can be extreme and must be caustic, but always in the realm of public sphere.

MK: I agree with the features you said, symbolism, exaggeration, irony. I would also add that a cartoon must be heretic, provocative, "disrespectful" and strict against power. These features, however, are the basic structural elements of cartoonism and we don't use them to attract the audience or to make them more convincing. All cartoonism needs to function is the right environment of absolute freedom. Because there must be no boundaries in satire. Limits exist in the readership, in society, in politics. Limits exist in tolerance and the strength of power.


@Maria Tzaboura

It is widely known that ''a picture is worth a thousand words''. In your opinion, why are the political sketches widely accepted by the readership? Where do you attribute this success?

MΤ: Political sketches are widely accepted because they have no didacticism, they do not coerce situations and they have humor as a basis that, as I already said, relies on the truth. Their success is attributed to the honesty of the artists. The cartoonists are - or have to be - constantly in touch with reality, which I cannot swear that happens with the politicians.

KG: It is true that a sketch worth a thousand words. It may even go down in history and be mentioned, because it has coincided with a very serious political event. Cartoons for Trikoupis are still mentioned and cartoons that played a propaganda role in the wars. Remember what happened with Charlie Hebdo magazine and caricatures on religious issues. And so many other historical events. The reader will read the cartoon first and then the news in a newspaper. I think it expresses the need of man to laugh, to think, to express sarcasm. It's like a good quote from a good film. It always remains alive and makes us laugh. So, what else do you want from a cartoon, is not that enough?

DG: Everything in a sketch has its role and significance. Nothing comes at random. Symbols, parallelism and exaggerations contribute to the creation of the sketch. I try to show the world what is not obvious, what requires searching. Now, if there are limitations on satire or humor, my answer is very simple: the limits can only be put by one person, the reader. I disagree with self-restraint, self-censorship and censorship in general of course. If the world likes what you genuinely do, keep doing it without setting limits.

Soloup: As I said before, usually the cartoonists take the side of the oppressed citizens. They are oppressed by political arbitrariness, by economic policy, etc. They are, in a way, the advocates of the dignity of the citizens who can finally laugh with their own sufferings. At the same time, however, sarcasm is a mirror with which you understand better the reality in which you live.

MK: The answer lies in your own question. It is the ability of the political cartoon as an image to offer a message and a comment directly, without the need to read the thousand words.

What is the role of the modern cartoonists in political and social developments? Should they first awake and raise public concerns or criticize the political leadership?

Soloup: Yes, the normal role of a cartoonist -a satirical artist of all sorts I would say - even the King's madness - is to be in front of each power. Whether some of the role of the ''crazy'', picking the role of the ''butler'', is another matter.

MT:  I am the last person who is going to distribute roles or to tell what the cartoonists should or should not do. We are judged by our actions, just like everyone.For me cartoonism is a personal matter. I guess how the things are or could be. Everything concerns me, everything bothers me and I want to change it. Everything is "my own affair". I hope, somehow, that this is the way our readers live their own lives.

KG: I wish the societies changed and the cartoonists made them better. We would already be government and believe me, all of us would live better. But this is a complicated issue. Of course, the cartoonist should bear in mind that his work should contribute to the process of forming a more progressive way of thinking. In other words, cartoons are able to produce culture. Besides, laughter is good, and that's our purpose, to make people happy with our cartoons.

DG: The role of cartoonists is to tell truths that are difficult to be said publicly, to present the hidden aspirations and the goals of power, throwing aside the beautiful words, promises and wishful thinking of politicians.

MK: Here I would like to describe to you an incident that happened in May 2016, during the exhibition of the Greek Cartoonists Association at Syntagma metro station, in Athens. The main theme of the exhibition was the refugee crisis. Among the visitors there were many refugees from the hospitality infrastructures, who wrote some messages in the visitors' book at the end of the exhibition. One of these messages, which was written in Arabic, influenced all the colleagues and friends that took part in and I think it best answers your question: «Thank you for being our voice to the world».
 
*Dimitris Georgopalis works in the Greek newspapers «Eidiseis tou Savvatou» and «Realnews». He studied Business Administration and Byzantine Hagiography. His work has been published in the newspapers «Apogevmatini» and «Real News», in the magazines «Anti», «Galera», «Moto Tritι» and «Epilogi», as well as in the portal «real.gr».

Kostas Grigoriadis publishes cartoons in the Greek newspaper «Efimerida ton Syntakton » on a daily basis. He also published in the newspapers «Odigitis», «Anagnostis» and from 1990 to 2013 in the newspaper «Rizospastis» on a daily basis. He collaborated with Evgenios Trivizas on the series of four books entitled "The Adventures of the Chlapatsoulis Family".

Michalis Kountouris works at the «Efimerida ton Syntakton» newspaper and he cooperates with Courrier International and Caglecartoons. He participated in many solo or group exhibitions in Greece and abroad and has received awards in various cartoon contests in the United Nations, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Turkey, Iran and Greece. He illustrates children's books and has been awarded with the Illustration Prize of IBBY Greece (2002) and with the First Prize on Design and Illustration-EVGE (2005).

Antonis Nikolopoulos (Soloup) works in the Greek newspaper «Pontiki» and the magazine «Shedia». So far, 14 albums have been released with his cartoons, the study ''The Greek Comics'' (Topos Publications) which is based on his doctoral thesis and the graphic novel ''Ayvali'' (Kedros Publications), which was awarded the Best Comics 2015 and Best Screenplay at the Greek Comic Awards and "Coup de Cur 2016" at the 17th Rendez-vous du Carnet de Voyage in France.

Maria Tzaboura was awarded a BA (Hons) in Visual Communications Design by Middlessex University in London. She has been working as a comic strip cartoonist and illustrator in the newspaper («To Vima», «Proto Thema») and magazine market for more than twelve years. She has been awarded with the National Award of children's books Illustration for 2006.

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