Portrait as Propaganda - Steve Smith

Augustus of Prima Porta
If all the extant statues of Roman rulers teem with adulation, does that mean that there were no negative portrayals? If there were, why do none of them survive? To answer these questions, one has only to remember just what kind of state the Roman state was. The emperors especially, but even the consuls had the extensive ability to stamp out any resistance to their rule. Would-be political satirists would not dare risk their lives to take ideological shots at rulers. Also, as there was no organized publishing in Rome, art negatively depicting a ruler would have to circulate in its original form. Not only would it be drastically less effective than modern mass media, but the very personal nature of having a single extant copy left little room for anonymity. The much safer and more lucrative approach for the ancient artist was to seek governmental patronage.
The modern political artist lives in a much safer time. American political cartoons have lampooned American leaders since before the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was a prime example of a target for cartoonists:
Jefferson attempting to destroy the constitution:

Artist Unknown

by Rudolph Evans
This statue, the centerpiece of the Jefferson memorial, has quite the opposite effect of the above cartoon. Jefferson is standing up here, looking up as would any political idealist. In his left hand he is holding the Constitution, with no apparent intention of burning it. This statue is only about sixty years old; clearly it was not commissioned by Jefferson or someone working to further the interests of Jefferson. Even though Jefferson is still a controversial figure in American history, the complimentary statue reinforces our tendency to revere the founding fathers. Perhaps the answer lies in the form; making an insulting monument defeats the purpose of making any monument at all. Nonetheless, it is interesting that Jefferson would not have approved the use of state funds for any self-glorifying art, as opposed to Augustus et al. who certainly would and did.


by Theodor Seuss Geisel

by Jonathan Shapiro



Hess, Stephen and Kaplan, Milton. The Ungentlemanly Art: WWII Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel. New York: MacMillan, 1999.
Thomas C. Blaisdell, Jr., Peter Selz, and seminar. The American Presidency in political cartoons, 1776-1976 . Berkeley: University Art Museum, 1976.

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