Clay Bennett interviewed by Business Tennessee magazine

Clay Bennett recently moved to Tennessee to replace Bruce Plante as the Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial cartoonist. A local business magazine conducted an interview with Clay on his motivations changing jobs and the editorial cartooning profession.

BTN:What is the value of editorial cartoonists to our media, or better yet, our First Amendment rights in a democracy? Is there a larger implication for our country when the number of cartooning jobs is on the decline?

Bennett: Editorial cartoonists are a value to democracy because democracy needs hecklers.

Let’s face it, most people are just plain nice. Most are reluctant to impose their comments or observations on others when those views are either unkind or unsolicited. Most folks will sit quietly in a theater (no matter how bad the performance) and clap politely when the production ends. Which is fine. They’re simply behaving in a civil and considerate fashion.

But in every audience there’s a hecklerâ??someone who’s either fearless or foolhardy enough to publicly ridicule the flaws in a performance. Some might consider him obnoxious, others might think him crass, and they might be right. At times though, the role of a heckler is defined by daring, candor, and more than a fair share of confidence.

Columnists and editorial writers are more like theater criticsâ??studiously observing, then methodically reviewing the show with deserving praise or criticism. Editorial cartoonists, however, would be the hecklersâ??blurting out their complaints for all to hear, receiving scorn from some and approving nods from others in the audience. Although the critic and heckler basically serve the same purpose, the latter is much less concerned with the prospect of embarrassing others… or himself.

These days, we have too few hecklers. Over the past three decades, the number of editorial cartoonists working in America’s newsrooms has been cut in half. It’s simple math: fewer newspapers, fewer cartoonists. That decline, along with the more recent loss of jobs in newsroom staff cutbacks, has decimated the number of full-time cartooning positions.

43 thoughts on “Clay Bennett interviewed by Business Tennessee magazine

  1. Maybe editorial cartoonists, and the artform itself, would be taken more seriously if we didn’t think of ourselves merely as hecklers. If we have such low aspirations for ourselves, how can we possibly expect anyone else, especially editors and publishers, to have any respect for us and cartooning in general?

  2. I think you’re taking the term too seriously, Wiley. To me, “heckler” just means giving people “on stage” (like politicians) true and honest feedback instead of treating them like hands-off royality (as Hillary Clinton expects).

    I can see why you are a bit snarling at the word, though. I’m sure a standup comedian wouldn’t appreciate being called a court jester, either, because the negative overtones.

    But then again, given the nature of the artform (it is CARTOONING), I don’t know that we fall into taking ourselves too seriously. That could just invite hecklers. 😉

  3. The point is, Dawn, who takes a heckler seriously? I just wish Clay had found a better metaphor. Unfortunately, it is all too representative of the immature manner we take our own profession. Then we get all upset when we’re not taken more seriously.

  4. I completely agree that cartoonists shouldn’t degrade their profession lest the general public think them worth little, but I also think that there’s value in self-depreciation. When Bob Dylan called himself a song & dance man, he was actually showing how far he was from vapid pop musicians without anything meaningful to say.

    People with brains will realize the difference between a drunken heckler and a disciplined editorial cartoonist. Those without brains probably won’t get the joke anyway.

  5. I took the term heckler in its context as just to mean an irreverent person not an ill informed idiot. I think there are both kinds and I felt the intent of the use of this term implied the first one.

  6. I agree, Anne. Well said.

    And, Wiley, seems to me that much of the fall of editorial cartooning is exactly because people do take them seriously. Instead of illuminating jokes, pokes and jabs, they are taken as serious attacks against this group or that group.

    The result is that cartoonists have been muzzled, because publishers, editors, even artists themselves dare not offend.

    If anything, I don’t think we need more “seriousness” when it comes to editorial cartoons. I think people should do the exact opposite and lighten up.

  7. “If anything, I donâ??t think we need more â??seriousnessâ? when it comes to editorial cartoons. I think people should do the exact opposite and lighten up.”

    Agreed. And this is exactly what editorial cartoonists have been complaining about for over 20 years now. But editors and publishers don’t want serious cartoons. They want gags. And cartoonists discovered that the lighter material has a much greater chance of being reprinted than cartoons that actually editorialize. The demise has been gradually and picking up speed as it continues downhill, and it’s very much self-inflicted. Now the advent of animating “editorial” cartoons (editorial in name only), only serves to make matters worse, as animation is geared toward entertainment, not enlightenment. Sure, you’ll be able to find one or two exceptions, but that doesn’t disprove the rule.

    I just wish Clay had used a better metaphor than “heckler”, that’s all.

  8. I agree with Wileyâ??s first comment.

    Editorial cartoonistsâ?? offer graphic commentary that is every bit as important and valid as editorial commentary in words. â??Hecklersâ? and clowns are not taken seriously. The New York Times labels its editorial cartoon round-up â??Laugh Lines.â? That is how editors often see us and diminish our value; we shouldnâ??t diminish ourselves in the same way.

  9. Sniper is good. Heckling Sniper, maybe? Kalaschnikov carrying clown?
    And what’s wrong with gags and humor? One can still sneak in the pontificating bits under the radar. Just make it funny.

  10. There’s nothing wrong with gags and humor, “Tabby” (what happened to posting real names here?). However, the term is EDITORIAL cartooning. If the cartoon doesn’t make a point, then it serves to further erode the profession. That doesn’t mean you can’t utilize humor as a vehicle to make that point. The best example still is Pat Oliphant, whose work is always scathingly funny, and there’s never much doubt about the editorial point he’s making. That used to be the norm. Today, sadly, it is the exception.

  11. “Letâ??s face it, most people are just plain nice. Most are reluctant to impose their comments or observations on others when those views are either unkind or unsolicited.”

    Clay’s obviously never spent any time in Philadelphia.

  12. I believe Clay had used the term “heckler” as a sort of self deprecating humor that I have found alot of cartoonists seem to have. A very tongue in cheek sarcastic description that perhaps was a poor choice to use in an interview when it seems, at least here anyway, that many feel he was speaking for the industry in general rather than himself in particular.

  13. Yes, I’m sure he did, Garey. I’ve known Clay for many years, and this is definitely his type of self-deprecating humor. It’s the sort of thing we joke around a lot when we get together in a group. But when it’s used in a public manner like this in an interview, it doesn’t serve the profession well, especially in these dire times when the profession is all but extinct. It just gives editors and publishers more ammunition to devalue the art.

  14. “If the cartoon doesnâ??t make a point, then it serves to further erode the profession. That doesnâ??t mean you canâ??t utilize humor as a vehicle to make that point.”
    Wiley, I know, and I totally agree with you. But sadly lot of cartoons nowadays are anything but funny, they’re preachy, badly drawn and boring. Just like most of the editorials beside them.

    And another complaint I’ve had for some time, when did it became acceptable that cartoonists are “Left” or “Right”? The bias I see in today’s toon offerings is just stomach churning, I could name names but I don’t have the space. Whatever happened to objectivity or, as Oliphant phrased it I think, equal opportunity character assassinations?

  15. “The best example still is Pat Oliphant, whose work is always scathingly funny, and thereâ??s never much doubt about the editorial point heâ??s making. That used to be the norm. Today, sadly, it is the exception.”

    Hm. So-o-o-o-o, in the good old days drawing tables were occupied by naught but Oliphant-level talent? I have a copy somewhere of “Today’s Cartoon” — an early-1960s roundup of U.S. editorial cartoonists — that would disabuse anyone of that idea. Sprinkled with great work from the likes of Hugh Haynie, Bill Mauldin and Herblock, most of the other artists come off as competently derivative at best. The sameness of all the cartoons is broken only by the relative skill levels employed in their creation.

    Bottom line: There’s tripe that passes for editorial cartooning; But there’s ALWAYS been tripe passing for editorial cartooning. Every age has its Oliphant, MacNelly, Herblock, Darling or other talent whose work sorta justified the form’s existence. Further, the work being done today has greater variety and more originality than a lot of what was being produced a half-century ago. Considering the current threats to our craft, that’s purty effin’ remarkable.

    (I haven’t read all of Clay’s interview, but if he omitted “I was tired of shoveling snow” as the main reason for moving to Ruby Falls, TN, he’s not telling the whole truth.)

  16. Hecklers and snipers are not good descriptions for editorial cartoonists.

    ‘Sniper’ has negative connotations, a sniper is a hidden adversary, taking potshots from a position of safety. Snipers were rife during the war in the Balkans, where they shot innocent people, women and children included, just because they were from the other side of the religio-political divide. There were peculiar punishments for snipers, once caught, in a war situation. They were regarded as cowardly and their fate was often to be summarily executed – not necessarily quickly or humanely.

    ‘Heckler’? Anyone who has ever performed publically knows that a heckler is NOT a sympathetic figure. A heckler has the arrogance to think his material is funnier or better than whatever he’s come to watch, and the lack of manners to think everyone will agree with him.

    I think Court Jester is a much more accurate description of an editorial cartoonist. He or she is in a position often of privilege, and often able to poke fun at the king himself.

    What an editorial cartoonist SHOULD be is a pricker of consciences, a swimmer against the stream, a precient, courageous independent voice, perhaps at odds with even the newspaper in which he/she appears.

    All too often, especially in the early years of the Bush administration, editorial cartoonists and the influence they could have brought to bear were AWOL.
    When 2028 rolls around, I wonder how many of them will be proud of the cartoons they drew a quarter century before?

    What did you draw in the war, daddy?

  17. Staff and salaried???


    Why don’t we just go back to the days when syndicates had stables of artists they paid peanuts, so that they could own the strips, own the copyrights, own artists’ souls, and keep almost all the money for themselves?

    If paid staff positions are the ultimate dream of editorial cartoonists, then the artform really is doomed.

    Perspective. If you want perspective wake up to fact that this is 2008.

    Those who do save editorial cartooning will not be doing so from an office cubicle that sports an employee handbook and a salary cap.

  18. While Dawn’s term and Malc’s definition of “sniper” seems to me to fit really well most editorial cartoonist would probably object for the same reasons as Malc. I harken back to the Muppet Christmas Carrol and the term “god-like smarty pants” comes to mind. How about it Wiley?

  19. The most common reference over the years has been the one Malcolm used, “court jester”, as the function for both historically has been using satire to speak truth to power. This is why “heckler” doesn’t suit us well, as hecklers are mostly just trying to call attention to themselves.

  20. I agree with Wiley and Daryle’s initial comments. I once had an Editorial Page editor of a Major Daily tell me that he wanted Editorial cartoons that simply “Entertained” and didn’t editorialize. This same editorial page editor promptly dropped both MacNelly and Oliphant upon taking his job because he didn’t “get” them and didn’t think they were very good. He actually boasted of the phone conversation he had with MacNelly when he called to ask why he was being dropped. I also believe that an Editorial Cartoonist is no different than a columnist with the exception that we out produce them. But if you have an Editorial page editor like the aformentioned as your boss, who doesn’t, and you can’t afford to walk away, what can you do but make the best of it. Granted there are cartoonist who are just gag oriented,regardless. But I have a feeling there’s plenty who’d be doing more profound commentary if they were allowed. In the end it the Editorial page editors who have the most influence on the direction of the craft.

  21. If you’re talking to me, John, no I wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek, I was being condescending and arrogant. SMILE

    Actually, I’m just concerned that there are a lot of editorial cartoonists out there missing the boat because they are looking for jobs instead of creating opportunities for themselves.

    Hey, I know it’s much easier said that done, believe me. I’m trying to put something together to make it much easier, but that itself has been a huge mountain to climb.

  22. This seems a discussion on whether the cartoonists’ toupe’ is on straight. If Clay wants to refer to himself as a “butternut squash” that’s his perception of his job. That it infers something on the the profession as a whole may or may not be a valid concern to those in the same profession. That he’s bringing attention and a degree of respect to MY job is, to me, far more important.

    But “heckler” pales in comparison to the last Pulitzer that was awarded to animated “editorial” cartoons with the explanation, “…impressive use of zany animation”. Personally, I don’t do “zany” and I’d be lying if I said that the branding didn’t bother me.

  23. I had that same reaction to the Pulitzer board’s explanation, MIke. I found it very disturbing and only served to validate that editors remain utterly clueless about the the art form.

    But I have to disagree with you that you “don’t do zany”. I think your work is consistently and wonderfully zany while making an editorial point very clearly. That’s what makes it stand out from the majority of work out there today.

  24. Maybe no one is taking cartoonists serious because of their constant belly aching, navel gazing and petulant complaining?

  25. I can only hope that the metaphors I use in my cartoons stimulate this much debate. Conversely, I hope they are spared the excessive analysis.

    Reading all of Wiley’s objections does have me second-guessing my metaphor however. I’m sorry for comparing editorial cartoonists with hecklers. I apologize to hecklers everywhere.

  26. I also don’t like it when cartoonists call their work a “craft.” My daughter made some lovely bracelets, while she was at summer camp, that suffer from the comparison.

  27. Sorry to have offended your daughter’s bracelet-crafting skills, Daryl.

    It bugs me to hear us referred to as “professional” cartoonists. Professions typically describe careers requiring a specific course of study and degree, such as law, medicine, the clergy, etc. In my case, my gig involves skills honed in some cases IN DEFIANCE of formal education.

    But a newsroom office manager I once worked with was an active member of “Professional Secretaries of America,” so what do I know?

  28. You’re right, John. I’ll be getting rid of the “Professional” title soon. I put it on my site in 1995, when cartoonists were complaining that the web was only for self publishing amateurs, and I was making a point that they shouldn’t worry about the company they keep on my site – that’s not an issue anymore and the title just seems a bit strange. That said, it has been helpful to point to in fending off the hundreds of aggressive, unsolicited submissions from amateur cartoonists.

  29. I’m ticked off at “artichoke.” It’s an affront to my biological and emotional needs for vegetables that don’t remind me of all the violence and danger in the world.

    And while I’m at it, Wiley, I don’t like your shoes.

  30. “And while Iâ??m at it, Wiley, I donâ??t like your shoes.”

    I’m offended by your dismissive and condescending use of the term, “shoes”. It’s footwear, madam!

  31. Wiley, TAB is the name I go with, Tabby or Tabster to my friends. Did I offend someone with that? I certainly hope so.

    Gotta go and do more drive by swipes on the editorial pages…

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