Political cartooning has become as heavy and boring as politics itself. Stuffed shirts drawing cartoons about stuffed shirts. Michael Foot opened the selling exhibition of the late Daily Express cartoonist Michael Cummings. He bought the Cummings cartoons that purported to pillory him - as have many other politicians. If they had really hurt Mr Foot, he would have run a mile. But politicians know they have arrived when a cartoonist acknowledges them.
Political cartoonists have cosied up to politicians in the same way that they have cosied up to restaurants that give them free dinners in return for depicting their shopfronts. It's a living. Question: why should collectors spend their money on cartoonists' original artwork that has submerged its ability to insult and ridicule in safe, tired images that appeal only to politicians' wallets? Answer: see whether British political cartoonists' latest attempt to absorb fresh ideas from the rest of the world comes to anything.
The attempt is called The Great Challenge. It is the second International Political Cartoon Exhibition, the first having been held way back in 1958. It opens on 20 November, at the Oxo Tower Wharf on the South Bank, London. Forty years is a long time. The first Great Challenge was organised by two Eastern European journalists, the late Josef Josten and his friend Ion Ratiu. Josten had fled from the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, in 1948, to London, where he founded a radical news agency specialising in affairs behind the Iron Curtain. Ratiu supplied it with news from Romania.
The thousands of "Great Challenge" cartoons that flooded into their offices from throughout the world were in response to an appeal of theirs prompted by a statement by the Hungarian Minister of State, Gyorgi Marosan, in 1957, after the Russians had crushed the Hungarian uprising. Marosan said: "We can, of course, use jokes and satire against hostile and reactionary views, but we will not tolerate jokes against Socialism."
It was a red rag to a cartoonists' symbolic bull. Except that cartoonists from abroad showed that they could produce captionless at-a-glance visual gags 10 times more powerful than the British cartoonists' efforts, weighed down with ponderous labels and corny symbols such as bulls and cart-horses. A Russian, Josef Partykiewicz, submitted a slick two-frame cartoon showing Liberalisation - a fat Communist party official approving decorative wrought- iron prison bars instead of plain ones.
To give him his due, Cummings - a friend of Josten and Ratiu - submitted a brilliant cartoon, totally devoid of his usual characteristic labels, entitled Arms Race. This showed a wheelchair flying the American flag racing against a missile bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle.
What did British political cartoonists learn from the Great Challenge? Not much. The exhibition could have fostered closer links with Eastern European masters of the stunning, surrealistic, captionless political drawing. British cartoonists could have liberated themselves from their cloying literary tradition and adopted a purely visual one. But they preferred instead to keep in touch with contemporary American and Canadian one-line gaggers. At least it was a move in the right direction.
What has the latest Great Challenge to offer? I have to report that the British organisers' contribution is pretty corny. The exhibition's logo is an angry-faced globe fencing with a pen. Well, Gillray did the globe thing in 1805, when he drew William Pitt and Napoleon carving it up together. Does this paucity of fresh symbols signal the inevitable decline of fine politi- cal cartooning?
Then there is the exhibition's promotional postcard with an uncredited cartoon showing a radio announcer with lips sewn up with wire from his microphone. It's those gagged lips again. Censorship is one of the themes of the Second Great Challenge. But radio announcers have never been mute, even under dictatorships. Who or what is the artist pillorying? Repressive microphones?
Chris Riddell of The Observer has drawn a fairy armed with a paintbrush circling a bull wielding a bludgeon labelled "censorship". Meticulously drawn but conceptually feeble. Sorry. At least the censorship theme has thrown up one new symbol - speech bubbles. Patrick Blower, the Evening Standard's young cartoonist - well, 39 is young in this game - has submitted a three-frame cartoon showing the spiky end of a speech bubble containing Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, being used to impale a man who uttered it. Blower decorously concedes that Miet, a cartoonist, has conveyed the same concept more concisely using a blank speech bubble and just two frames.
But the winner of the speech bubble contest must be the Italian cartoonist and sculptor, Marilena Nardi, who submitted an utterly simple cartoon of a speech bubble in the form of a hot-air balloon. There is no caption, but you just know that the man sitting in the balloon's basket must surely be a politician.
Look out for effortlessly flip, surreal, captionless cartoons that make an instant visual impact. They are the future of political cartooning.
There is growing investment confidence in cartoons at the institutional level - a pounds 5m British Cartoon Centre, close to the British Museum, will shortly be announced - but unless British political cartoonists can climb out of their mire of fatuous labels and ponderous, cliched symbols, their work will not be worth buying.
As it happens, the market has been kind to them. Prices are steadily rising. Blower's cartoons sell for pounds 300. Riddell's sell for pounds 200. The late David Low, of carthorse and Colonel Blimp fame, who consistently satirised the appeasers Baldwin and Chamberlain, and chronicled the fearful Fifties, sells for at least pounds 500 - and up to pounds 900 if his work depicts leaders such as Churchill participating in historical events. Vicky, the late Victor Weisz, is priced pounds 350-pounds 400, but his SuperMac is worth pounds 700- pounds 800.
`The Great Challenge', Ground Floor, Oxo Tower Wharf, Bargehouse Street, South Bank, London SE1, 20 November to 23 December: some cartoons are for sale (0171-401 2255).
Cartoon dealers: Rae-Smith Gallery, 8 Cecil Court, London WC2 (0171-836 7424). London Cartoon Gallery, 44 Museum Street, London WC1 (0171-242 5335). Jack Duncan (01904-641389)