DeVos toon shows poor judgment

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Appropriating images is good shorthand — but requires intelligence, care

The old axiom goes, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” As an editorial cartoonist for 25 years I have borrowed — or stolen — many different images from different areas (all with due credit I hasten to add).

080720_coughlan_toonA cartoon, especially a single panel, has to find a shorthand to connect to the viewer to be able to put the point across. When I did a cartoon about a poor hiring choice by BISD superintendent Carroll Thomas, I used a current movie image, in that case Heath Ledger’s Joker from “Batman: The Dark Knight,” to easily imply an obvious lack of trustworthiness.

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During the 2016 Republican primaries I appropriated a John Tenniel illustration from Alice in Wonderland with the candidates filling the roles of the Mad Hatter, the dormouse, etc., with Alice slumped in her chair. Donald Trump, of course, was the Mad Hatter. Whether readers knew about Tenniel’s style or not, the Alice reference created the perfect setting for the satire.

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On Feb. 14, conservative Belleville News-Democrat cartoonist Glen McCoy published a cartoon that appropriated a famous Norman Rockwell image from the Civil Rights era and equated it to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos being blocked from entering a Washington D. C. public schoolboy protesters.

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The Norma Rockwell image, titled “The Problem We All Live With,” shows six-year-old Ruby Bridge being escorted by U.S. deputies to desegregate a school on Nov. 14, 1960. Rockwell is famous for illustrating American life in a loving and positive manner, which makes the image all the more powerful. It is my favorite Rockwell image, and certainly his most powerful piece.

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So what is the problem with appropriating the image? Well, for a start, the message being presented in each is a contradiction. Ruby is a young black girl who has been denied access to school for no reason but the color of her skin — for simply being herself.

The word “nigger” is scrawled on the wall behind Ruby Bridge but the word “conservative” takes its place in McCoy’s cartoon.

DeVos was blocked by protests because she was not an advocate for public education, had not attended a public school, nor were her children educated in public school. She is the epitome of white privilege and choice. One could argue, and make a strong case, that the only reason she even held her office was because of her donations to Republican candidates.

In the aforementioned Alice cartoon, regardless on political viewpoint, the concept of the zaniness of the GOP primary was not in question. However, McCoy draws a false equivalency, and in doing so, dilutes his message. The outrage and push back completely negated any attempt to push a point (which, by the way, despite being liberal myself, I completely support his right to make).

A few years ago, some Danish newspapers published cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammed, which is prohibited by Islam, to “see what would happen.” Big shock — they got death threats and were attacked. So what did they learn? The exact thing they thought would happen, actually did. They offended a group of people for no reason other than to offend.

I quoted the “Spiderman” comics in the column I wrote then and it still applies, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The freedom to draw cartoons — the freedom of the press in general — is a tremendous privilege and comes with power.

We must be responsible in how we use that privilege.

McCoy, in an interview with Talking Points Memo, Feb. 15, said “My cartoon was about how, in this day and age, decades beyond the civil rights protests, it’s sad that people are still being denied the right to speak freely or do their jobs or enter public buildings because others disagree with who they are or how they think.” He said he believed he was, “speaking out against hate.”

He offered the trite apology, “if anyone was offended.”

Maybe if he had had a little better comprehension of the power of the image, maybe had a little more understanding of what the image represents — and maybe a little more wit — he would have not have had to apologize at all.

In an age when “the media” is constantly under attack, we all need to think and be cognizant of the images — and words — we use. That is not to say that we should not offend — I savor all my hate mail. But I stand behind the validity of my viewpoint and the careful way the images I choose are used.

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‘Pinteresting’ Pair

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The set for “The Dumb Waiter,” part of a Harold Pinter doubleheader with “A Kind of  Alaska,” through Feb. 12. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Review: ‘A Kind of Alaska’ and ‘The Dumb Waiter’ at Lamar University

Harold Pinter is an acquired taste. The Nobel Prize winner draws on the the absurdist tradition of Samuel Beckett to give us plays that offer us questions but rarely any answers. For a nerd like me, that makes for a lovely evening at the theater.

For the uninitiated, Lamar University’s theater department’s doubleheader of two short plays, “A Night in Alaska” and “The Dumb Waiter,” directed by Joel Grothe, which opened Feb. 9 in the Studio Theater, is a nice introduction to Pinter’s work.

First up is “A Kind of Alaska,” written in 1982. It begins with middle-aged Deborah (Iza Scott) in bed, watched over by her doctor, Hornby (Michael Saar). After a long pause — pauses are the order of day in this play — Dorothy wakes and begins a stream of consciousness, meandering conversation with no one in particular as Hornby writes feverishly in his notebook. Dorothy has been asleep for a long time — a long time, Hornby emphasizes — and Deborah is forced to come to term with not only her surroundings, but the loss of almost 30 years.

Pinter was inspired to write “Alaska” after reading neurologist Oliver Sacks‘ “Awakenings” (made familiar through the movie with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro), about Encephalitis lethargica, or sleeping sickness which leaves its victims in a state that is, as Hornby says, “Not asleep, but not awake, either.”

17-001 Poster-PinterScott does a fine job of conveying the confusion of teenage girl waking up as a woman in her 40s. Saar is solid as the doctor who has his own secret. Rounding out the cast is Maddie Hightower as Pauline, the no-longer-13-year-old sister, who excellently conveys the double loss of her life. The sense of loss hangs over the proceedings and the pauses add to the mood. However, it is not without levity, especially when Deborah, unsure if this woman is really her little sister, asks where Pauline got her breasts, incredulously.

What will happen now Deborah knows the truth? We know where her physical body has been, but where has she been in her mind? She alludes to halls, but where or how? Why? and what’s next? are also left unanswered.

Where “Alaska” slowly moves toward discovery, 1957’s “The Dumb Waiter” crackles. Sure, the pauses are there as Ben and Gus wait for the next next job, but the tension and humor whisk the action along. The two characters are in a run-down room with a couple of rickety cots and little else. Ben (Sydney Haygood) sits reading a paper as Gus (Austin Jones) wakes from a nap. The pair are a team, but different. Ben is the older laconic veteran, while Ben is the fidgety, talkative junior partner. They are killing time before a job (one wonders if Quentin Tarantino was inspired by this play to write the characters Vincent and Jules in “Pulp Fiction“).

When the dumb waiter door creaks into life, the pair find a note for a food order, then another, then another. The mystery of who is ordering the food ramps up the tension, causing cracks in the teamwork.

Jones is well cast as the impatient Gus, constantly questioning what is happening. Who, what why and when? — the questions never stop. Haygood is, once more, a stand out. Regular LU viewers know she is consistently strong and as her Lamar career progresses, her flexibility and confidence grows. If you have yet to see this fine actress, now is the time to start.

“The Dumb Waiter” is lauded as one of Pinter’s finest early works and this production does nothing to diminish its reputation.

Theater lovers should rush — without pause — to see fine young talent interpret one of theater’s true writing giants.

There are three more chances to see the shows, Feb. 10 and 11 at 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15, $7 for LU students, and $10 for faculty and staff. The Studio Theatre is located on the MLK Parkway feeder road on the Lamar University campus. For more, visit www.lamar.edu/theatre.

Balancing Acts

The Art Museum of Southeast Texas is hosting an exhibition of sculpture by Steve Murphy and paintings by David Aylsworth through Feb. 26. Here is my review for the February 2017 ISSUE magazine.

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Sculptures by Steve Murphy and paintings by David Aylsworth are on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas through Feb. 26.Sculptures by Steve Murphy and paintings by David Aylsworth are on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas through Feb. 26.

Picasso and Calder

The exhibition, alas, is over, but this is a nice write up. Click here for the article.

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Bernard Ruiz-Picasso and Alexander S. C. Rower. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh, courtesy of Almine Rech; Alexander Calder / Constellation with Diabolo. 1943. Wood, wire, and paint. 24 1/4 x 18 1/4 x 16 in. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Pablo Picasso / Woman. June 8, 1946. Oil on plywood. 51 1/8 x 38 1/8 in. Zervos XIV-175 (Figure) © 2016 Succession Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Eisenstadt drawings

As I seem to be incapable of writing articles that are brief, I end up not posting as much as I should. This is a failing I aim to rectify. It occurs to me that I should post interesting articles here, not just stuff I write. After all, it’s not just about me. This is a fascinating piece about an exhibition  of the great Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein‘s drawings. It is exactly this type of thing that I try to teach my students when writing a feature story — find the unexpected. Eisenstein’s films are the stuff of legend, but who knew this side of him? Click here for the link.

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