Every year, there is angst-filled anticipation over the announcement of the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, and every year, the results are greeted with a collective shrug. Someday, one hopes, people will learn not to anticipate something that proves so disappointing so frequently. You know, like the State of the Union address. It's never good. Yet everybody thinks they need to pay attention. And everyone is surprised by the letdown.
This year's selection for the editorial cartooning category, Steve Sack of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, alongside his two co-finalists, Jeff Darcy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Clay Bennett of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, continue a decades-long trend. Nothing new here.
What's depressing is that, once again, the committee has decided to snub my entire genre of editorial cartooning, the so-called alternative school of political cartooning. It's not like we are new kids on the block.
Jules Feiffer started it at the Village Voice in 1955. Matt Groening and Lynda Barry really launched the modern era of alt-indie editorial cartooning in the 1980s, and things took off throughout the '90s, with half a dozen cartoonists at the center of the scene. After 9/11, it could be argued -- and I would -- that the only relevant, truly hard-hitting, challenging, vibrant editorial cartooning being done in the Western world has been this genre.
Eschewing labels, metaphors, donkeys and elephants, and Uncle Sam in favor of multi-panel, word-dependent, ironic, sarcastic takes on America and its politics, the alternative genre and its practitioners have reinvigorated and breathed life into a hoary art form that has become generic. Unlike many of the older mainstream cartoonists, our work is opinionated. (Most big-city daily cartoonists illustrate the news, showing what happened or making jokes about it, without making much of a political point.)
Yet the gatekeepers at the major daily newspapers and the prize committees that are made up of editors from those same print publications have repeatedly refused to acknowledge that we exist. In the entire history of the Pulitzer Prize, for example, there have only been three finalists from the alternative category: Jules Feiffer, who won in 1986, me, a finalist in 1996, and Matt Bors, a finalist for 2011. Many editorial cartooning prizes have never had either a winner or a finalist from the alternative category, and that makes it pretty hard to get editors to take a chance on you when you can't get validation.
Part of the problem is that many of the editors who judge these things don't know much about editorial cartooning. Some work at newspapers that don't even run them. Given the fact that the alternative field is much more popular online -- where there is a true meritocracy because people can look at anything that they want there -- it seems obvious that there is a conscious decision on the part of prize committees to exclude a lot of the best work in the field.
Why? Because it's edgy? Jurors will say that alties were seriously considered, that many of us came close but just didn't make the final cut. Sorry, but when that happens 20 years in a row across half a dozen major prizes, it's hard to believe.
The Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal award
DANIEL CHESTER FRENCH / WIKIPEDIA.ORG
Why do we even bother? That's the question that my alternative editorial cartoonist colleagues and I ask. Obviously, what keeps us going is our love of the field, and the fact that drawing cartoons that make fun of the President of the United States sure beats holding down a real job. Still, it's hard on the psyche to be repeatedly told that the kind of work that you do doesn't deserve to be seriously considered.
It isn't that I didn't win. It's that my entire art form has been shunned. Again. If one of my alternative cartooning peers wins, at least we know that the prize committee isn't against what we do on an existential level. As things stand, we have to assume that the people who decide these things think that what we do is inherently unworthy.
That's not a lot of fun.
By repeatedly overlooking new developments in the field of editorial cartooning, the prize committee is discouraging stylistic growth and stunting the development of the field. Most of all, though, it is sending the message to younger cartoonists considering the field that they had better copy the old styles rather than develop new ones of their own.
Again, this is nothing new.
These are the kinds of choices that I have seen over the last two decades as a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist. These choices were no worse or better than any other year that I can remember, and that's the problem. And that's the point.
Safe and staid = old and boring.
You could draw a comparison to the Oscars, which haven't done a great job of rewarding the most experimental and groundbreaking movies, but it would really be a false comparison since the quality of the work that wins is usually respectably solid. It's not like Battlefield Earth is going to win an Oscar. Similarly, you could make a comparison to the Grammys, which are really a joke, but those seem to be based more on sales and popularity and again, the artists who tend to win the Pulitzer Prizes and who are named as finalists often have little to no fan base in the real world other than the couple of editors who hired them.
Congratulations to all the winners. It's always nice to be appreciated.
Not that me or my friends would know.
So what to do? This may be a question of what not to do. They say that you can't win unless you enter, but it seems pretty clear that you can't win even if you do enter unless you draw in the same styles that have been around for decades. It may be that the best Pulitzer Prize that you can win is the $75 entry fee that you pocket instead of spending on a prize entry.
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