My large format portrait exhibit, WE ARE NOT ALONE, is up at the University of Pennsylvania in the forum at the Annenberg School for Communication building at 3620 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Here’s the announcement in the Penn Current. And here’s the full exchange I had with the reporter explaining just who in the hell I thought I was:
- Describe the show. Does it reflect who you are as an cartoonist/commentator?
The show, which is called We Are Not Alone, was created to question/criticize how common citizens, who are the overwhelming majority of us, relate to political, cultural and religious truths. The basic idea, which I explain in the Artist’s Statement that accompanies the exhibit, is that most of our knowledge comes from hearsay, rumor and a collective blind trust in so-called expert opinion, which begs a very interesting question: By attaching so much significance to the prominence of the people from which we draw our most celebrated quotes and whom we often revere as our most precious stewards of wisdom and leadership, are we not in danger of dismissing the opinions produced by the overwhelming majority of us and minimizing our contribution to common knowledge? And when we do that are we not relinquishing our responsibility to engage directly with our own unique lives and the unique lives of others, assuming them to be, like ours, somehow less significant? How might this cripple the stock exchange of ideas in a democracy?
- How did you get your start? How long have you been at it?
I dropped out of college to pursue a career as an anarchistic playwright/contrarian poet/gag-writing cultural critic/musician/standup comedian/political activist, but found it was easier to sell political cartoons and satirical illustrations – visual artist, of course, already being an income-producing profession, insufferable know-it-all being an annoying and uncommodified avocation. I’ve always been a painter and draftsman and published my first cartoon in a magazine called Anarchy in 1990. I’ve been in print ever since.
- I’ve poked around the net to try to find out how you came up with your pen name and drew a blank. What’s the deal with “Mr Fish”?
When I first decided to try and publish cartoons, which was in the late 1980s, I found myself unable to use my last name because there was a famous cartoonist named George Booth who worked for The New Yorker. He still does, in fact. I thought of using my first name, Dwayne, all by itself, but decided that it was way too egocentric, like Cher or Madonna or Prince. While all this was going on, I was living in the back of my parents’ house in South Jersey, freshly dropped out of Mason Gross, the fine arts school at Rutgers, and my mother had just purchased a bird for my stepfather to give to him on Father’s Day. She had spent the better part of a week asking family members for possible names to give to the bird when I stepped forward with what I thought to be the perfect name: Mr. Fish. She rejected the name, so I took it, never expecting to be published under it and might’ve stopped using it had my first publisher not claimed to be a huge fan of my work, saying that he’d been following my work for decades. I was 19.
- What conversations do you want to start with your cartoons and commentary and what public comments ultimately spring forth?
It isn’t that I want to start conversations as much as I want to pull private conversations into public debate. Much of what I address in my work pre-exists as ideas and unfiltered commentary that people typically engage in with one another in private spaces when they’re being totally honest and unapologetically clear about how they truly feel about inflammatory issues; issues that are too often dulled by either polite conversation or a fear of reprisal by a dominant culture overtly contemptuous of dissent and controversy. That said, a measurable portion of the public response to what I do is derisive, while the private responses, if not death threats, are laudatory. (I regularly receive gifts from my readers, ranging from t-shirts and mugs made from my artwork to, once, a 3-pound block of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano and a $200 coffee card.)
- You’ve penned more than 1200 cartoons for TruthDig? That’s a huge body of work. And they’re not just line drawings, they’re so elaborate and thought provoking and seem to come on the heels of breaking news. How do you do it?
Indeed, my archive of cartoons currently stands near 6,000, which encompasses Truthdig, Harper’s Magazine, the LA Times, the Village Voice Media Company and others. It’s so large because it represents a never-ending dialogue I have with the mainstream press about where the truth of a story lies. Much of what corporate journalism reports on as fact is skewed in deference to pro-authoritarian establishment values and it’s my job to argue in contempt of such a hierarchy.
- Is anything off limits? Taboo topics?
Absolutely not. I believe my work merely reflects images and concepts that already exist in the culture and the idea that a subject is taboo simply means, to me, that the conventional interpretation of it is substandard somehow and that the language with which to comprehend it has not been developed yet. Equal rights for women and black people were taboo subjects at one time. So was gay marriage. I abhor the concept of censorship for one very simple reason, and we have Lenny Bruce, who is featured in the exhibit, to thank for the following quote: Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’”
- There aren’t as many political cartoons being done today as years ago. At least wide circulation ones. Is it a dying art?
It is a dying profession, not a dying art. There will always be artists who use imagery to express an opinion about what’s right and wrong with society and who is good and bad for our cultural longevity. In fact, such artists predate both magazines and newspapers – some would even argue, in consideration of 40,000-year-old cave paintings, that they predate the invention of the written word. As a profession, however, yes, being systematically murdered by multi-trillion dollar media conglomerates everyday. (At the beginning of the 20th Century, according to a study conducted by the Herb Block Foundation in 2012, there were approximately 2,000 staff cartoonists working in the United States. Today, in 2017, there are fewer than 20. Some estimates place the number even fewer than 10.)
- You teach two undergraduate courses“ WARNING! Graphic Content – Political Cartoons, Comix and the Uncensored Artistic Mind ?” and “Sick and Satired: The Insanity of Humor and How it Keeps Us Sane.” What do you aim for students to take away from your teaching and scholarship.
Nothing more than topnotch critical thinking skills, the intellectual integrity to recognize how and when to bravely dissent against injustice and institutionalized apathy and to always keep a white-knuckled grip on the humanitarianism of their own souls. Oh, and how desperately important it is to laugh their asses off as often as is humanly possible.