This paper will examine journalism’s alliances with satirical artists during the French Revolution, and compare them with current day collaborations. It will reveal that it was due to unlicensed (and uncensored) newspapers and pamphlets during such social upheaval that commentary, critique, and satire of and by the government and dissenters, was made available to the public.
Additionally, the following research will respond to the question of the perceived influence the combination of art (EG: ‘high art’, caricatures or cartooning), political satire, and propaganda potentially has on the public’s grasp of the politics of the day. It will also underline the continual need for visual and written journalist practice to communicate
with the public.
This is important to my practice as an artist and arts commentator because in a closed society freedom of expression is suppressed, banned and sometimes outlawed. While in Australia,
we do not have the First Amendment rights of the United States, we do have certain liberties under the law, enabling the prerogative to create and publish critiques addressing social issues. It is because of such freedoms that I can produce illustrative and textual disapproval, objection, or satirical observation of issues I find of personal or public interest. A liberty that has been deficient historically, and currently suppressed in certain other countries.
Similar to current instances in the world such as China and Iran, Pre-revolutionary France was not built on equality, democracy, or meritocracy. The hierarchy of the three ‘Estates’
(the clergy, the nobility, the majority of the people) ensured that those in power, in the first two of these tightly controlled information in the form of propaganda, leaving the majority of the population (the third estate) virtually powerless. A situation that was debated and argued for generations, and disputed by pamphleteers who fought for the rights of the common people (Margerison, 1987, pp. 88-89). It was in this environment that the seeds of the revolution, and the role of the press to challenge and inform grew.
According to Dowd, social status in the art world was also not equal in France, as evidenced by the minority of artists who achieved status in the Salons, or as members of the Royal Academy (1959, pp. 128-129). As a result, artists in general, including those in the Academy, greeted the revolution in 1789 with enthusiasm producing visual criticisms and propaganda in paintings and illustrations for print.
Another group, restricted and censored during the Old Regime, was journalists. Chisick states that periodicals were tightly controlled by the French government with no toleration for “independent political reporting”, forcing many journalists to go underground, or publish from another country (1988, p. 626). Jean Luzac, professor and lawyer, is one example, who edited the Gazette de Leyde from 1772 until 1798 from Leiden in Holland. Luzac, who disliked violence and despots, attempted to appear impartial, but this didn’t prevent certain governments outside France from censoring articles about the French Revolution that undermined their positions (Smith, 2018, p. 2).
Those who remained in France regularly changed the names of their publications to avoid censorship, and risked their lives during the Reign of Terror ( Sept. 5, 1793 to July 27, 1794) as control by the government became worse than under the Old Regime. Camille Desmoulins, pamphleteer and political activist, for example, met his death at the guillotine
in 1794 after being charged with corruption and counter-revolutionary conspiracy (Hartcup, 1975, pp. 244-245). In 21stcentury Australia, while it is extremely doubtful that a critique would attract a violent response, it is important to remember certain legal considerations such as copyright, slander, and liable. In overseas countries, however, certain strongly-held religious and cultural beliefs, and extremism, have proven to be the sources of savage responses, like the example of Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
L’Ami du people (Friend of the people) 6th Edition
Accordingly, as historic examples indicate, despite the French revolution allowing conditions for “true political periodicals appear”, sorting news from opinion became an increasingly dangerous and difficult issue, and alliances quickly changed during a time of “unlimited freedom” tangled with extremist views (1988, p. 627). This is further underpinned by the often perilous collaborations that formed between certain artists and ‘the press’ to support
the various factions prior to Napoleon seizing power in 1899.
Le people sous l’ancien Regime, 18th C.ananymous political cartoon.
© World History Archive https://www.alamy.com
Examples from this period are artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), and journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793). Marat virtually ran the L’Ami du people until his death in 1793, and is an example of the propaganda of the time. Marat also wrote for Le Moniteur patriote the predecessor of the L’Ami du people. It was via these publications that a redefinition of the public sphere, and “new identities for workers, women and members of the middle classes” both in France and Europe was able to occur (Witsell, n.d. p. 10). His death (by the hand royalist sympathizer Charlotte Corday) is dramatically rendered, in an effort to romanticize his memory, by friend and artist Jean-Louis David (below) in an effort to raise his eminence in the revolution.
Jacques-Louis David. Detail from The Death of Marat. 1793. © phaidon.com
David, himself, was a chameleon, prospering during the Old Regime, the revolution of 1789, the reign of Napoleon, and the 1830 revolution. Few examples of his carefully targeted satire can be found, however, the one below indicates his prudent choice of topic, pointed across the channel at England.
Jacques-Louis David. The English Government. 1794.
Another is example of the power of imagery and text during the later ‘July Monarchy’ and 1830 revolution can be seen in the newspaper La Caricature.
Gargantua © Forbes, 2008. Source L’Association Mensuelle, December 1831.
As Forbes states: “Throughout the early 1830s, satire repeatedly challenged the July Monarchy’s claims to a free press and even legitimacy itself. [La] Gazette, [mouthpiece of the royalist faction, the Legitimists], publicized trials, arrests, and confiscations, and satirists learned of their colleagues’ tribulations in letters and even in shared prison quarters. Such trials made room for audiences to render verdicts on not only the individuals in question, but also the judicial system that appeared to prosecute artists merely for expressing “the truth” as they saw it, a phrase invoked by satirists and their legal representatives that simultaneously appealed to objective truth and protection of mere subjective expression” (Forbes, 2008, p. 45).
Such satire was the basis of trials debating free-speech and artistic rights in the face of perceived public ‘harm’, which in reality was more to do with who retained power to govern. (Jang, 2016, p. 253). As Jang states, this situation was not restricted to France, as the views
of Charles Pigott (unkown-1794) in The Jockey Club and A Sketch of the Manners of the Age in England indicate. Coming from a privileged background, and well-connected, Pigott has been widely overlooked by researchers because he didn’t fit within their narratives, however I would argue that he was in a particularly unique position to expose corruption in the aristocracy (Jang, 2016, p. 252; Rogers, 1993, p. 248). In addition, he was not alone in his attempts to sway public opinion. James Gillray (1756-1815), who studied at the Royal Academy in England, also published scathing illustrations reflecting his fears of the effects of the French revolution in England (Loussouarn, 2016, pp. 328, 331, 334-340). Such was the popularity of the pamphlets (and newspapers) that carried such political rhetoric, that in England alone an approximate four thousand were published from 1790 to 1802 (Goodrich, 2005. p.213).
The Zenith of French Glory – The Pinnacle of Liberty. James Gillray, 1793 © Reaktion Books 2008
Modern practice: Political journalists and cartoonists
The legacy of these activities in France and England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries can be seen in publications such as Charlie Hebdo, a weekly magazine that reflects a tradition of holding the government to account, and blunt criticism of what they see as social inequality, extremism, or injustice. Founded in 1970, it hired most of the staff from Hara-Kiri after it was banned in France for mocking the death of Charles de Gaulle. It has never shied away from controversy, and this has led to criticism from religious groups and politicians, the fire-bombing of offices in 2011, and shootings in their premises in 2015 after critiquing and satirising Islamic beliefs (Gibson, 2015, pp. 4-11).
Cover that preceded office bombing. © Charlie Hebdo 2011
Cover from 2013 © Charlie Hebdo 2013
Crude or insulting as a publication like this may seem to some, internationally a large amount of support was voiced in support of Charlie Hebdo’s right to produce it in a secular society like France despite an increase in Islamophobic incidents after the attacks (Petrikowski, 2015, p. 10). In response, Australian artist and cartoonist for The Daily Telegraph, Warren Brown drew on an 1830 French revolutionary painting by Eugene Delacroix, Liberty leading the people, to express his feelings to readers.
Despite such extreme examples like Charlie Hebdo, artists, of all genres, should to be able to practice in an environment that encourages ‘free speech’ or put another way, freedom of expression under the law (Steel, 2012, ch.2). This underpins the principles of journalism’s and contemporary cartooning’s codes of practice for social commentary in journalism and visual satire (Australian Press Council, 2011; 2016, pp. 8, 10). As an Australian artist, arts blogger, and journalist I contend that creatives and reporters must operate assuming an enlightened ‘readership’ and broad social tolerance. The examples put forward in this paper typify the importance of critiquing injustices in society, unhindered by fear or intimidation.
© Warren Brown 2015 The Daily Telegraph
In light of the example of Charlie Hebdo, the repercussions of such editorial and satirical cartooning show the power of imagery to support strong opinion and criticism, and the dangers that continue to be involved in a modern society. It isn’t only from a regional legal, academic, or social structure that criticism may arise as has been indicated. In a more ‘globalised’ and connected world, insult can be taken by any number of nations, groups, or individuals.
For example, a cartoon by Bill Leak, based on comments made by Indigenous leaders, in The Australian in 2016 was criticized by the then Indigenous Affairs Minister as racist, leading to widespread condemnation (Patel 2026). Fortunately, criticism was not followed by violence, but encouraged public discussion.
© Bill Leak 2016 The Australian
In Australia, whilst having a history of cartooning and the visual arts tackling current issues, they haven’t been as controversial or to the same level of ‘lewdness’ as Charlie Hebdo in widely distributed newspapers. For example, the current COVID-19 pandemic has been reported by journalists, and visualised by cartoonists like Michael Leunig who are able to mix political satire into current events in the news such as the Federal Government’s refusal to release COVID-19 documents to the press (Knaus, 2020).
Political Pandemic © Michael Leunig
The collaboration between cartoonist Mark David and journalist Grant Turner in Independent Australia in July 2020 is a recent example of how text, satirical illustration, and reader involvement raises the level of political discussion, and how the internet is enabling creative avenues for art and journalists to continue working together (Turner, 2020).
COVID-19 Critique © Mark David
Vashti Fox, writer for the Red Flag, a socialist independent publication, recently used photography and a cartoon from the 1930s to compare the Great Depression with the current COVID-19 crisis, pointing out the social impact of such events on low income families. The inclusion of a ‘cartoon’ by an unknown artist serves to underpin her well-researched story indicating a history of Australian journalism’s dedication to telling stories both textually and visually (Fox, 2020).
Bloody, but unbowed © Red Flag
A recent example from Melbourne is by Wesley Mountain, who holds a Master of Journalism and a BA in literature and visual arts. He also has broad experience in writing and customer service. At present he is multi-media editor for The Conversation Group which involves journalism, illustration, and cartooning. In contrast to the often controversial work by Mark Knight and Bill Leak, Mountain has been described as allowing his “humanity to shine through”. As Mountain says: “It may play against me because people aren’t necessarily looking for humanity in political cartoons, but I really care about that stuff. I think if you don’t, you risk becoming someone like Mark Knight or Bill Leak.
Knight infamously published a controversial cartoon of tennis star Serena Williams, while Leak depicted a neglectful Aboriginal father in a political cartoon for The Australian. Both cartoons were widely called out as being racist.
You see older cartoonists in particular who are there to ‘make the joke’, taking the ‘everyone should be able to be criticised’ approach. That’s totally true, but they start to see freedom of speech as the point rather than the thing that allows you to make good observations. I think about that stuff a lot” (Ogle, 2020. p. 9).
World Leaders Playing a Game of Risk © Wesley Mountain
The refreshing aspect about The Conversation web site for an artist and art journalist, is that the art and culture is not hidden beneath several layers of tabs. In contrast to most major news publishers, a variety of topics are given equal attention, which may indicate a positive direction for arts journalism into the future. In addition, the synthesis of classical philosophy, ‘high’ art, cartooning, and current events by The Conversion’s writers, like Matthew Sharpe, indicates a depth of knowledge and analysis that recalls the writing style of the early 20th century while remaining current. Evidence, I believe, that although print media is currently struggling in the face of the growth of digital media, the alliance between the arts and journalism has a positive future.
A statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome’s Piazza del Campidoglio.
© Jean-Pol Grandmont/Wikimedia Commons
The long-standing alliance between art and journalism reminds us about how together they can tell a more complete story, criticize, analyse, and sway public opinion. In an environment where literacy was poor, critical and satirical cartoons were used for propaganda and political protest. This alliance has continued into the 21st-Century, as independent thought has evolved from the printed pamphlet to independent blogs and web sites on the internet.
Whatever form these commentaries and critiques take, the case of Charlie Hebdo reminds us that even in a modern tolerant society, artists and journalists must be aware of the risks that are involved. The importance, however, is the need to ensure that freedom of speech in all its formats continues to be supported so that artists and journalists can continue to point out what they see as injustices, failures, and trends in society.
How this impacts my practice as an artist and arts commentator is because freedom of expression is still suppressed, banned, and outlawed in certain closed societies in contrast
to Australia where I have the liberty to express my views, based on valid information and research. Australian law protects individuals and groups from slander and liable, but leaves room for criticism, commentary, and pursuit of stories of public interest which is something that needs to be celebrated and protected because, as the French revolution, and years surrounding it indicate, they are liberties that can easily be lost.
Australian Press Council. (2011). Standards of practice. Retrieved from https://www.presscouncil.org.au/standards-of-practice/.
Australian Press Council. (2016). Media release 6 Sept 2016. Retrieved from https://www.presscouncil.org.au/media-release-6-sept-2016/.
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