Opinion

A Brief History of Popular Satire

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commedia_dell'arte
Karel Dujardin, “Commedia dell’Arte show” (1657) (image via Wikimedia)

In the most recent edition of the The Economist, an article makes the claim that satire has, in recent decades, seen an unprecedented popularization. No longer the domain of haughty artists and writers, satire is now an everyman’s gig, they say. But like most claims that rely on sweeping generalizations involving “the internet,” this is unfortunately not quite true. The piece, titled “The satirical verses,” makes the error of taking scale for effect — sure, the web has allowed many Amazon commenters to write humorous reviews of Texas congresswoman Wendy Davis’ shoes, but this doesn’t exactly signal that the structures of satire have been upended.

As a form of expression which uses humor to call into question dominant paradigms in society, the idea of satire is indelibly linked to a wide-ranging social consciousness, a marginal stance that appeals widely for its incisive humor, its ability to speak truth to power. This is the product of the gimlet-eyed satirist, whether that person be an outwardly vulgar 16th century performer of the Commedia dell’arte or a mercurial editor of Punch magazine in its heyday in the early 20th century, when its circulation over 100,000 rivaled, as a percentage of the overall UK population, the current circulation of many prominent American newspapers, including the New York Times. Some of the oldest texts in world literature are satires, from Aesop’s Fables to The Thousand and One Nights — the latter a patchwork of folkloric tales of no determinate authorship.

Honoré Daumier, "Nadar elevates (1853) (image via Wikimedia)
Honoré Daumier, “Nadar elevating photography to the height of Art” (1853) (image via Wikimedia)

Though The Economist cues up many of the usual suspects in the history of satire, like the caricaturist Honoré Daumier and George Orwell, (drawing, in fact, a clean Occidental line all the way back to Aristophanes), they fail to recognize that the propagation of the form neither suggests that satire is somehow more potent today or that its calculus is any different. “The internet has made it easier for the masses to join in the fun,” our nameless Economist scribe writes, as if participating in or reblogging or tweeting humor that is vaguely critical of some state entity is in and of itself satirical, or any more potent than any of the myriad masked practitioners of the commedia that were fixtures of urban life in Italy nearly half a millenium ago.

What the article does get right is the shifting economic foundation of such practices, correctly noting that although there are more cartoonists working today than ever before, there are ever-dwindling numbers of such artists drawing a full-time salary from their work. But refusing to further comment on this scenario seems a rare departure from The Economist‘s brand of classical liberalism — would this not seem to suggest that satire, though allegedly more widespread and potent than ever, has literally been devalued as a popular art form? The influence of someone like Jon Stewart or his Egyptian copycat Bassem Youssef can be neatly noted without much fuss in a think piece such as this one, it might be interesting to further consider that although Stewart himself is a household name, very few of his individual episodes or projects have come within the orbit of something like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

Punch Magazine, 1937 (image via photoshelter)
Punch Magazine, 1937 (image via photoshelter)

Just as it’s impossible to blithely allude to “memes,” “remix culture,” and the internet and advance in a brief essay a coherent theory about the evolution of a time-honored countercultural practice, it’s difficult to say whether or not satire’s “newfound” omnipresence has also been dilutive of its practitioners’ efficacy. My guess is that just like any other great art, the number of satire’s virtuosic practitioners has remained more or less stable over time, with the internet contributing mostly to the back end of that ratio of cultural broadcasting: signal to noise.

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