Before I wrote my post on satire a few weeks ago, I went back to my art history texts to see if I could find its roots in the past. First of all, satire is a largely modern construct; it requires that an individual be important enough to be made fun of, an idea that didn’t exist until Greco-Roman times and then disappeared for the next thousand years
Satirist seem to fall into two categories: the ones who are fond of their subjects – they’re more in the “Genre” tradition - and those who hate their fellow beings. The “people lovers:” Daumier, maybe some of the American “Ashcan School” artists” (like Sloan and Marsh,) are few and far between. Most satirists are venomous critics of society – usually with good reason. Grosz had no milk of human kindness in him, neither did Goya or Bosch (you can tell they wanted their subjects to burn in hell!) But then, the times they lived in were pretty grim and a satirist is able to tell the truth in the guise of laughter, The greatest satirists of all times, Pieter Brueghel, had a love-hate relationship with his subjects. Paintings like the “Wedding Dance” and “Hunters in the Snow” are expressions of his feelings for humankind and nature - while others, his “Blind Leading the Blind,” for example, are hidden critiques of his times.
My favorite “mean” satirist is George Grosz. He manages to take on all of Weimar Germany: the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, the military, the priesthood; whores and housewives; they all fall under his brilliant brush. The irony is that when he came to the United States in the 1930s to escape the Nazi’s, he lost his capacity for satire. America was too comfortable; he was a celebrity – everyone loved him; he loved them. In the end he went back to Germany, probably to recover his “edge,” but it was too late.
I’m in the “humanist” satirical tradition. I like my people: the denizens of Curley’s Diner, the women checking their rumps in a department store mirror, oversized mamas in bikinis at the beach. I may poke fun at them, but it’s fond, not vicious fun. I like to sketch when I’m in public, especially if no one notices me with my pad.
About twenty years ago, I started to draw dancing couples at “gala” events like weddings. My subjects were real in the sense that they were not the glamorous Ken and Barbie dolls you see at ballroom competitions on TV; they were mostly incongruously matched, inappropriately dressed klutzes, but still, having the time of their lives. I even liked the way they counted to the music (must have taken lessons.) I turned my sketches into a performance piece for the overhead projector, replete with tasteless music. If you like, someday, I’ll perform it for you.