Monday, April 12, 2010

Art to Die For

"You can go to a dictator with an opposition group and he has got all the power of the state to fight against you. He will take the military against you. The police will come out to beat you up, but what can a dictator do when everybody's laughing at him?" -- Robert Russell, executive director of Cartoonists Rights Network International

In his previous career, Robert Russell traveled the globe as a U.S. State Department official. He learned that often the most effective voices speaking out against the world’s repressive regimes were political cartoonists.

From his home in Virginia, Russell now heads the Cartoonists Rights Network International. He models his organization after other more well-known groups, like Reporters without Borders or The Committee to Protect Journalists.

Russell believes that in too many cases, cartoonists don't get the respect they deserve from journalists or artistic communities. He says they need protection when their cartoons deal with politically or culturally sensitive topics and rile very misguided people.

Sadly, some of the cartoonists he tried to protect over the years were killed because of their work. Others have been arrested, imprisoned and tortured by governments unwilling to tolerate criticism or satire.

Russell hosts regular conferences about cartoons at campuses around the United States. During a recent event at American University near Washington, D.C., cartoonist Joel Pett observed that the worst that usually happens to an American cartoonist who publishes a controversial cartoon is an angry phone call. Politicians targeted by American cartoonists are more likely to ask for a copy of the original art.

A very different situation faced Iranian cartoonist Nik Kowsar, who had to flee Iran after he refused to quit cartooning. Kowsar told the American University crowd his work had previously landed him in an Iranian prison, where he says he actually had a good time losing six pounds in six days.

Whatever the odds against them, cartoonists continue to make people laugh, and with their simple but powerful drawings, continue to give millions of people a fresh perspective on the injustices, irregularities and abuses in their society.