Satire in Art: The Cartoons of Oliver Harrington
Satire is an art form that is, by definition, socially conscious; in satire, human vices, abuses, or frailties are exposed through ridicule, derision, irony, or other methods, often with the intent of sparking change for the better. Throughout history, artists—in visual arts, literature, music, and the performing arts—have used satire to point out problems in society and stimulate change.
Among the visual artists who employ satire are cartoonists. One of the first great African American cartoonists was Oliver W. Harrington. In 1935, when he was in his mid-twenties, Harrington got a job as a cartoonist at the Amsterdam News, a New York newspaper aimed at an African American audience. His single-panel cartoons ran under the title Dark Laughter.
Study Harrington’s cartoon featured in the Special Presentation, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, (be sure to look at the entire image, not just the detail shown in the Special Presentation). Answer the following questions:
- Where does the cartoon take place? What can you infer about the location from the name of the inn?
- When is the action in the cartoon taking place? What clues do you find to the time period?
- What social issue was Harrington addressing in the cartoon? What tools of satire (e.g., ridicule, derision, irony, parody) did he use?
- Do you think this cartoon was effective in raising a social issue? Explain your answer.
- Explain the pun in the title Dark Laughter. Given what you have seen in this one cartoon, do you think this was a good title for Harrington’s cartoon strip? Why or why not?
Find examples of contemporary cartoons that use satire to comment on social issues. Use the first four questions above to analyze each cartoon. Pick one and write a brief review describing why you think the cartoon is effective and why it appeals to you.