By 1874, the donkey (‘jackass,’ the disparaging attack used against 1828 United States presidential candidate Andrew Jackson, one Jackson adopted as a symbol of persistence and strength) had become a known symbol of the United States Democratic Party. Yet by 1874, there was no Republican counterpart, until political cartoonist Thomas Nast created his cartoon for Harper’s Weekly titled ‘The Third Term Panic: An ass, having put on the Lion’s skin, roamed about in the forest, and amused himself by frightening all the foolish Animals he met with in his wanderings,’ a comment on the fears of a third term and a potential dictatorship of then President Ulysses S. Grant. The cartoon featured a nervous elephant marked ‘the Republican vote’ rushing towards chaos, successfully ushering in the age of the Republican elephant, a large yet easily scared beast.
For his illustration ‘The Aftermath,’ contemporary illustrator Mike Sutfin pulls from the commentary began in Nast’s cartoon, and infuses it with his own brand of thoughtfulness and gentle insight. Sutfin’s piece is clearly political, yet with more depth than Nast’s barbed visual attack. Sutfin uses the elephant as his political stand-in — the governing pachyderm stands on the backs of its constituents to protect itself from the unknown beast circling it in the water, paddling with the oar of rule and order, those principles deteriorating with each swing through the water. ‘The Aftermath’ could easily be dismissed as an attack on the Republican party itself and nothing more, but Sutfin’s deft insight comes through — the elephant may be using the backs of its citizens to keep itself safe, but the beast itself is afire, a snake crawling up its arm, a mongoose waiting to defend or attack. The elephant is attempting to help those in the boats, but also itself, but can only do so much. Like all forms of government, the illustration shows us a system heavily flawed, but one that works, for better or for worse.
Sutfin created ‘The Aftermath’ in a red edition and a blue edition, a way of visually spreading the commentary across the party lines drawn in Washington. The piece is beyond sublime — Sutfin has combined the language of the political cartoon with a Picasso-esque look at humanity and the roles we each play in the fate of each other’s lives and the world at large. All are to blame, all are in danger, and all are able to help in some way. In the current political climate where each American is either attacked or on the attack, Sutfin poses a question all art should be asking — so, what’s next? If the aftermath of our collective failures leave us all in danger, both those in charge and those trapped underfoot, where do we go from here? How do we escape or fix this sinking ship? This is not the art of blame, protest, or of high falutin intellectual showmanship, but of honesty and a search for peace and genuine understanding.