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Sketchy politics

The Museum Broken Arrow exhibits the power of editorial cartoons

Army, “Organized Crime—Oklahoma City,” 1940

University of Central Oklahoma Galleries and Collections

A giant, ink-black octopus monster seizes downtown Oklahoma City. It drapes its tentacles over the skyscrapers. “ORGANIZED CRIME” is written in white letters on the sea creature’s head, just above its wide, gleaming eyes and fearsome scowl. The cityscape is a busy patch of geometrical forms. Tall buildings jut out of a thicket of vertical lines. Numerous white tufts of smoke hover just above the buildings.

The caption reads, “Well! What Are You Going To Do About It?”

A cartoonist known simply as “Army” drew this piece in 1940. In the white space of the upper-right corner, hand-written in non-repro blue pencil, are editor’s notes. The notes tell Army that the smoke above the buildings is confusing to the viewer. They also advise: “Be careful with detail—Allow more highlights on the octopus.”

The cartoon casts the problem of organized crime as a slippery, multi-limbed menace that has woven its sinister reach into the arterial network of Oklahoma City. In one still image the work conveys a complex message with a sense of drama, using the recognizable visual language of the editorial cartoon.

This piece is on display at The Museum Broken Arrow as part of the special exhibition “Lines with Power and Purpose: Editorial Cartoons,” along with 50 other original editorial cartoons from around the country, primarily from the ‘20s–‘40s. The Museum is the first to showcase this traveling exhibition, which is curated by the Melton Gallery at the University of Central Oklahoma and organized by ExhibitsUSA, a program within Mid-America Arts Alliance. The pieces have been housed at the Melton Gallery for over three decades.

Former Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett also loaned several pieces from his personal collection of over 300 political cartoons. These pieces, unique to The Museum Broken Arrow showcase, take on Oklahoma politicians and social and political issues.

In “An Embarrassing Position For a Jockey” by Cyrus “Cy” Cotton Hungerford, a stars-and-stripes-clad racing jockey struggles to lift the rear end of a seated horse from the ground. The horse’s hind thighs are labeled “Labor.” The horse’s neck is labeled “Capital.” The horse is not budging, but the thought bubble above the jockey’s head reads “Business is picking up!” The caption below: “PROSPERITY’S HOME STRETCH.”

The cartoonist illustrates the relationships between labor and capital as the engine and steering wheel, respectively, of a prosperous economy. He represents the American government’s efforts to stimulate the economy as both optimistic and naive.

The cartoon—undated but presumably drawn during FDR’s presidency—expresses a statement about FDR’s response to the Great Depression and addresses a cynicism common to American citizens at the time. The caricatured faces of the jockey and the horse, along with their exaggerated expressions, serve to lampoon the situation, allowing for a light-hearted but compelling reading of a relatively dry subject.

Symbols, object labeling, and humor are exploited in both “An Embarrassing Position For a Jockey” as well as 2017’s viral “Distracted Boyfriend” internet memes. Both use similar techniques to describe current events and topics and to comment on the relationships between different points of view. They spoof humorous absurdities in daily life but can also call attention to acts of social injustice. Memes, which in many cases function as homemade editorial cartoons employing found images instead of original artwork, borrow tropes from the editorial cartoon form. “Lines with Power and Purpose” offers a valuable historical perspective on the role of the cartoonist, especially given the rise of internet memes as a force in current political battles and in shaping public opinion.

“It’s interesting—some of these issues we’ve been struggling with throughout our entire history,” said Lori Lewis, executive director of The Museum Broken Arrow.

The pieces in the exhibition, on display through April 28, showcase a range of topics—from political battles to daily life in America—and they hit on weighty social issues like race relations, distrust of government, and xenophobia. Perspectives from all over the political spectrum are shown.

Luther Daniels Bradley’s use of the donkey symbol in “The Noble Animal” (1903) represents the Democratic Party’s dubious role in Chicago politics, while the elephant figure in Charles Werner’s “Hope At Last” (c. 1935-1941) represents the desperation felt by the Republican Party during FDR’s presidency.

“No matter what side of the political divide you’re on or what issues are important to you … there is a piece in this exhibit that almost anybody can relate to,” Lewis said.

“Lines with Power and Purpose: Editorial Cartoons”
Through Saturday, April 28
The Museum Broken Arrow
400 S. Main St., Broken Arrow
Tues.–Fri., 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; Sat.10 a.m.–2 p.m.
$5 adults, 18 and under free

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