Infinite jest

Witness the comedy of man, ruled by his inborn passions
October 19, 2011
Enrique Chagoya's The Head Ache (2010), on Obama's struggle over health reform

Take it from one who attempts to amuse for a living: deep thinking and being funny are antithetical activities. Laughing at something is a sloppy reflex, while understanding something is such a disciplined task that—as you’ll note if you’ve been following politics, finance or the climate change debate—nobody does it. Therefore it was a surprise to find profundity in an exhibit of ridiculous drawings and prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“Infinite Jest—Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine” is on display until 4th March 2012, with 163 examples of humanity exaggerated. The accompanying 224-page book of the same name by Met curators Constance McPhee and Nadine Orenstein, published by Yale, is virtuously researched, gracefully written and beautifully printed, although—as usual with virtue, grace and beauty—it’s not hilarious.

Caricature is ancient. It occurs, say McPhee and Orenstein, “on Egyptian papyri, on Greek and Roman vases, and in Gothic manuscripts.” (It would have been good to see some of these. The exhibit’s signal flaw is that there should be more of it.) And the techniques of caricature have never changed—distortion of faces, bodies, postures and attire and transmogrification of people into animals and objects. But caricature, as we’ve known it since the Renaissance, didn’t begin by being jocose.

Leonardo da Vinci, the first modern master of the form—and not much of a cut-up—seems to have limned the grotesque for depressing reasons. His drawings of monstrous old people are meditations on the burdens of the flesh. (The Italian root of caricature, caricare, means to load or weigh down, as well as to exaggerate.) Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in his allegorical scenes, wasn’t kidding either.

Caricature can try to be in deadly earnest. But with little success, as Hogarth, Gillray [opposite page], Rowlandson, Cruikshank, Daumier, and Delacroix are here to show. What causes one person to stare in fascination and prompts a second person to recoil in disgust usually makes yet another person—me, I’m afraid—start giggling. By the 18th century, caricature was conforming to my tastes.

For those who like a joke, and suspect that life is one big one, being in the presence of so much comic talent is a sort of absolution. I’ve always had a guilty feeling that the source of mirth is wrath. The buffoon with the slapstick has a heart as black as the cutthroat with the sword. And, indeed, James Gillray’s treatment of the fat slob Prince Regent is more vicious than anything his wife Princess Caroline could have dreamed up. But Infinite Jest demonstrates that the true root of the risible is, in fact, hyperbole. Fibbing about the extent to which people are naughty, silly, ugly and foolish is only a venial sin.

The exhibition also proves that making mock of others is philosophically significant. Caricatures are of two types, the joking and the scolding. Some, like Thomas Rowlandson’s social burlesques [see bottom right], are “humorous” in the original sense of the word. That is, they emphasise, by exaggeration, the comedy of man ruled by his inborn passions. Others, like Thomas Nast’s political cartoons, are satires. They emphasise, by exaggeration, the tragedy of man ruled by his wilful sins. It’s the whole predestination/free will, nature/nurture debate conducted by drawing enormous noses.

The gentlest caricatures have moral gravitas—even Al Hirschfeld’s star-struck scribbles. After an hour of seeing how, with a few pen strokes, anyone can be made to look absurd, one starts thinking “all is vanity” and resolves to lead a more wholesome life.

Then one looks down at one’s waistline and realises that one has led a more wholesome life—comparatively speaking. What a relief to discover that we Americans are not the first or the foremost among obese pigs. Infinite Jest has wall upon wall of porkers going back to 15th-century German Morris dancers who should switch to Jazzercise and culminating in Honoré Daumier’s The Legislative Belly, a chamber of deputies who make the crowd at WalMart look like David Bowie and Iman.

Perhaps caricature is the key to existence itself. This came to me while I was looking at Nicolò Boldrini’s 1540 Parody of Laocoön. Instead of the Trojan priest and his two sons being strangled by serpents, the three men are depicted as apes. We don’t know why Boldrini drew this. It may have been a visual play on the Renaissance conceit ars simia naturae (“art the ape of nature”). It may have been a goof on a famous artwork. Or it may have been that Boldrini was taking tactful refuge in pagan mythology while thinking the same thing I was thinking: even deity can’t resist the charms of caricature. Picture God waggling His fingers, putting the divine air quotes into Genesis 1:26, and proclaiming: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”