In Defense of Elgin Bolling
Reading the open letter from Representative Meeks in last week’s issue of The Wave, held – for the most part – no surprises. A congressional representative caught in a litany of serious ethics violations defends himself in the face of editorial criticism. What more could or should we expect? In his lengthy defense, Meeks singled out the caricature of Elgin Bolling, one of the triumvirate of cartoonists whose editorial images grace these pages. I, along with Robert Sarnoff, happen to be the other two. It is to this portion of the letter I’m responding.
In the last third of his open letter, Meeks goes on to charge that Elgin’s caricature was “explicitly racist,” violates “necessary sensitively” and inaccurately compares it to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” a century-old film about the Civil War and Reconstruction. The idea of this comparison being, I suppose, to show how far back, in terms of racial equality/sensitivity, The Wave happens to be. Pure hyperbole.
Meeks is off the mark on a number of counts. First, it should be made clear that Elgin is an African American artist. A quick survey of Elgin’s work, easily seen at his subway surfer web blog, immediately confirms that he has done far more offensive caricatures of his own face than anything ever leveled at Meeks. Further, The Wave, in my experience, has always given a free hand to its contributing artists, but never, to their credit, asking them to either reign in or take vitriolic aim at any specific subject or public figure. In fact, as the news cycle goes, there is a one in three chance that any one of The Wave’s contributing artists could have leveled a graphic broadside at Rep. Meeks. It just happened to be Elgin’s turn.
Elgin Bolling is, first and foremost, a caricaturist; drawing from a rich tradition of “portrait-charge” or the loaded portrait, as it came to be known when first popularized in French magazines, around the time of that country’s revolution. Like Meeks, officials there were also offended by those drawings, more than once throwing the cartoonists into the clink for their efforts. Later, in the hands of Americans and the freedoms found here, the graphic vitriol became even more pointed with artists like Thomas Nast, whose graphic excoriations helped take down Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. Boss Platt, who was to follow, attempted to pass legislation at the turn of the 19th century that would have blocked such political commentary.
In fact, it was Tweed who said, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.” So, it would seem that Gregory Meeks is in good company when expressing dislike for caricature. Almost confirming that history is – in fact – cyclical.
As it turns out, my likeness, too, has been inked by Elgin and I’d like to state — for the record — that it was a caricature and unflattering. I didn’t think to fire off a note to Elgin for singling out my Irish features, but why should I, this is what caricature’s function is. To exaggerate, distort and make fun of, otherwise it would have no teeth, becoming unremarkable, milquetoast and impotent. Elgin has nothing to apologize for; he was doing his job as an editorial artist. On the other hand, time will tell if Meeks, in sharing the opinion of Boss Tweed about caricature, will, one day, share his fate.