Marc H. Miller is a curator, writer, publisher, artist and art historian, and he is the man behind an exhibition that is currently going on at the Charles P. Stevenson Library at Bard College in upstate New York, The Presidential Election of 1912 in Cartoons. Drawn from his personal collection these images provide a window into the world of US Presidential politics a hundred years ago when Theodore Roosevelt, who was a Republican and a “Progressive” ran in a hotly contested race.
As we gear up for the 2012 elections, these images are a useful reminder about the down and dirty world of politics, what we can expect in the year to come and political mudslinging is nothing new.
Miller is the founder of Ephemera Press where he has worked with cartoonists like Tony Millionaire and James Romberger on a series of pictorial maps of historic New York City neighborhoods. He also curated Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy, which traveled to the National Portrait Gallery and was circulated nationally by the Smithsonian Institution.
I contact him for a quick interview about the nature of political cartoons and their history. He also provided Hyperallergic with a number of images that show the richness of his archive and the diversity of political cartoons during the period.
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Hrag Vartanian: When was the modern election cartoon born?
Marc H. Miller: Modern political cartoons go back at least to the 1830s when Andrew Jackson was president, but they really became popular with the rise of picture magazines in the 1860s and 70s, and later with the emergence of picture newspapers in the 1890s.
Political cartoons were then a small but conspicuous part of the pictorial press, which was the first in an ongoing sequence of new mass media formats, the predecessor of television and the Internet today.
HV: What is unique — if anything — about the Roosevelt-era images?
MHM: The 1912 images are unique mostly because of the tremendous passions that the election inspired. It was an unusual three-party race with former president [Theodore] Roosevelt running as a Progressive. Cartoonists always loved portraying TR.
HV: What lessons can we learn for today from these images? Are there any common themes?
MHM: They remind us that partisan personal attacks in the media are nothing new. Just like today, the popular mass media a hundred years ago had no qualms about putting out totally distorted, crass images. Their motivation was also largely the same, in part a desire to advance a political agenda, but even more out of a need to attract attention and become commercially successful.
HV: What do you think about contemporary political cartoons? Have they gotten better or worse? And in what way?
MHM: There is a lot of great political cartooning today like Barry Blitt’s New Yorker covers, and on television there is South Park. I like drawn cartoons, although today most of the best opinionated, political satire take other forms like the Colbert Report [television show], and the montages of sound and images seen in political commercials.
The Presidential Election of 1912 in Cartoons at the Charles P. Stevenson Library at Bard College (Annandale-On-Hudson, New York) continues until October 12.
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