Satire is alive and kicking

Cutting them off at the waist is one way to ensure you do not appeal to a politician's sense of vanity
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The Independent Culture
"YOU CAN, of course, use jokes and satire against hostile and reactionary views, but we will not tolerate jokes against socialism..."

It does sound a bit like Alastair Campbell, doesn't it? In fact this unintentionally brilliant satirical remark was uttered many years ago behind the Iron Curtain, by a man called Gyorgi Marosan. Comrade Marosan was a Hungarian government minister without portfolio (but with absolute power) at the nadir of Communist oppression in 1957. His candid expression of the socialist approach to gags (gagging) provoked the late Joseph Josten, a news editor of a London agency specialising in Eastern Europe countries, together with his friend and colleague, Ion Ratiu, a founder member of Amnesty International, to organise a protest show. The "First International Exhibition of Political Cartoons; The Great Challenge" opened in 1958. This showed that socialism, at least in its most nasty confection, could indeed be funny or at least made to look absurd.

Now, 40 years on, the Iron Curtain has gone but there are many heirs to Gyorgi Marosan, and a second great exhibition is to be held in London. It will be opened by no less a dignitary than the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, whose devotion to human rights, as we all know, apparently outstrips even his vulnerability to ridicule.

Of course, it's easy to see how brutal tyrannical regimes attract the polemical instincts of the cartoonist. The series of illustrations by Ralph Steadman running in this newspaper to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights demonstrates how the abstractions of freedom of expression and thought can be made vital by graphic representation, even if the work is only likely to be seen by emigres.

But can satire thrive in our own contemporary age of tepid feel-good party consensus? What is there to rail at when the cartoon-Blair response can be imagined as a warm welcome to sit round and talk and try to be convinced?

Much has been written about the dearth of good satirists and the death of satire. Some of this is fair. Of course, we still have Private Eye, a refugee from the last great satire boom in the early Sixties, and there is still an establishment for Ian Hislop and his chums to make a living out of lampooning. There are still public schools that resemble St Cakes, and still the odd Spart about. Viz is the biggest-selling satirical "product" and is, of course, brilliantly observed. But political - Sir Baxter Basics MP aside - it is not. But the greatest weakness lies in television. Innovative and sometimes inspired, Spitting Image came and went with the Tories. The new wave of Blair-inspired satires, like Harry Enfield's televised version of Private Eye's strip, The Vicar of St Albion, being the latest to miss the target.

Rory Bremner may have a bigger budget, better make-up and more special effects than Mike Yarwood could ever have dreamed about but his technique is essentially the same - pick on some physical characteristics of your subjects and then take the mickey out of them. Bremner's sketches about Blair are about as politically biting as Yarwood's famous impressions of Harold Wilson's pipe habit. The satire is, literally, cosmetic. The Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton play Ugly Rumours, suffers from the same flaws.

These failures are not down to some mysterious aspect of inclusive New Labourism that makes it impossible to attack. The success of the original Private Eye St Albion's Newsletters, compared to Enfield's failure to exploit the idea, gives the lie to this. It's just that some of the recent jabs at satire aren't funny and they don't make you think. What, then, does?

The answer is nearer than you realise. If there is a quiet satirical renaissance going on now, then you will find it every day in the columns of your newspaper, in the shape of a cartoon. There they are, every morning, fully worked out alternative editorials, a direct communication from the cartoonist to the reader. You can comprehend the message in seconds. Think how long it would take a columnist to explore the complexities of the different political messages that Gordon Brown seeks to push out simultaneously - prudence to the City, compassion to the workers. Think of what over- heavy make-up and pointless contrivances the television impressionist would require to work through the same aspects. Then examine Martin Rowson's capture of the quintessence of Brown, talking through his mouth and his arse at the same time. Beautiful.

Every age has its "best"cartoonist, someone who becomes part of the history of the times, and whose work eventually features in GCSE exam papers - Gilray, Tenniel, Beerbohm, Low, Vicky. But to try and identify the one outstanding cartoonist of the last decade or two would be impossible. One of the remarkable things today is how many different styles and traditions combine to create a very rich cartooning environment. Like popular music and fashion there is now no orthodoxy of style. Instead there are many influences and traditions which have melded into a sort of satirical pluralism. Steve Bell, The Guardian's cartoonist, owes much to the "underground" artists of the 1960s and 1970s, the likes of Robert Crumb. Garland's work in The Daily Telegraph and The Independent's Dave Brown owes something to David Low. And Rowson's grotesques, especially those that adorn the covers of Tribune, obviously have something of Gilray about them.

Anything wrong with the Honourable Cartoonists' Company? Well, yes. They are sometimes prey to fall back on a range of standard devices, even when they are past their sell-by date. The "dropping the pilot" cartoon invented by John Tenniel (about the sacking of Chancellor Bismarck by the Kaiser), is still being borrowed a century later, for example by Peter Brookes in The Times to illustrate the failure of Helmut Kohl to get his way on some Euro-wrangle. But, there again, another standard image, the trade union carthorse, solid, reliable and dull, invented by David Low when the unions mattered in the 1940s , was re-invented with spin for the 1990s by Steve Bell as a pantomime horse, outwitted successively by John Smith and Tony Blair.

For more serious criticism, you have to talk to some of the dissidents in this relatively small world. They are not all impressed by the current state of the craft. Michael Heath, the cartoon editor of The Spectator and "Great Bores of Today" illustrator, thinks that all the best satirical jokes have "gone to the artists" like Damien Hirst. The trouble with cartooning for the dailies, he says, is simply that "you don't have time to think". Ralph Steadman, in the business since 1959, simply believes that the majority of his colleagues "can't draw". And, he says, they lack the sort of visceral resentments which spill out into his work. Mr Steadman himself "only does legs" now; he thinks that it flatters politicians to draw their faces. Indeed it is true that some politicians do have a habit of collecting cartoons which feature their likenesses (Kenneth Baker and Paddy Ashdown being two examples). Cutting them off at the waist is one way to ensure that you do not appeal to a politician's sense of vanity.

But Steadman's and Heath's strictures seem unduly harsh. Every day the cartoonist has to produce a fresh and imaginative critique. Of course, they don't always succeed. But where they do, they do so in that most important enterprise of all, to level those who rule us. They remain the nearest thing we have to satire, and our best defence against the latter day Gyorgi Marosans.

The Second International Exhibition of Cartoons is at the Oxo Tower on London's South Bank from tomorrow until 23 December. `Political Cartoons of 1998' is published by Politicos (pounds 9.99)