Political cartoonist Sean Kelly presented at the Fairfield University Art Museum on Thursday, October 12. Kelly is known for his political commentary on American politics through cartoons, illustration and journalism. His recent appearance on campus was connected to the Arthur Szyk Human Rights arts display, which is also located at the Fairfield University Art Museum in Bellarmine Hall. 

He began his talk by explaining the most important concepts utilized by those creating visual political commentary. Kelly described the art as centering around the usage of symbols, or “something that stands in for something else.” Noting how they can help simply communicate ideas and express viewpoints, Kelly warned that these visuals are everywhere in daily life and meant to be missed. Political visuals are full of subtle messages that you don’t always register witnessing in the moment, he said.

Kelly included a deep dive on the origination of many political symbols, tracing back time to when visual communication was nothing more than hieroglyphics. He then jumped ahead in history and discussed some of the first American political cartoons.

The first and most famous cartoon shown was created by Ben Franklin, a picture imitating the 13 colonies as a snake with the words join or die written below. Kelly used this cartoon to show that although older cartoons often have lasting impacts, sometimes the cartoons’ perceived meanings change over time. Similarly, he revealed how even as an object or idea becomes outdated to society, the symbol may remain relevant regardless. He explained that this is particularly  true for imagery of top hats signifying people of success, or barrels representing being “out of money.” 

While the basic concept of delivering stories from pictures remains the same, Kelly notes how the evolution of visual political commentary has transformed and continues today. He pointed out well known symbols that have become extremely interconnected with the United States. These include anything from the statue of liberty, the capitol building or the American flag. Referencing the American flag, Kelly reminds us that while it is a simple symbol, it tells a story through its intentional numbering of stripes and stars. 

To better understand symbols in daily life, Kelly points out the huge strategic and overlooked role of color. In a simplified example he pulled up pictures of the Italian, France and Irish flags. He then removed color, making each flag look virtually the same, signifying the importance of color in the interpretation and understanding of cartoons and symbols. The last element of color he called attention to was the connotation that certain colors produce and are known for. For example, Kelly noted that blue is associated with anything from the ocean, the sky, democrats, sadness, boys or the Virgin Mary. 

Lastly, Kelly described the decline in political cartoons today. He theorized that “publications are afraid to take a stance with cartoons” and political cartoonists now face dangerous backlash including online threats in an increasingly polarized political climate. 

While the inclusion of political cartoons has faded, Kelly explained that humorous political commentary remains but simply in new forms. Memes and television programs featuring figures like John Stewart or Stephen Colbert have reimagined political commentary, “critiquing politics in a funny” way for new audiences. They use both satire (directly making fun of a subject) and parody (imitating the subject you’re making fun of) to deliver their points. 

Kelly claimed that the most valuable tool for cartoonists is identifying a single defining or unique characteristic that will make them recognizable to large audiences and exaggerating it. On a light note he added that, “the best way to make fun of people is to make them look like idiots.”

He discussed Jimmy Carter’s smile as one example used by many political cartoonists. Through this talk, Sean Kelly gave Fairfield audiences a clear understanding of the thought process behind political cartoonists, the effects of their small choices and the evolution of the art medium.

The Arthur Szyk Human Rights exhibit will remain open through December 16. Make sure to check out the Fairfield University Art Museum for more community displays, presentations and events.