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Interview with Joshua Brown: The Historian as Illustrator (Or Illustrator as Historian)

Every week it seems you turn out another illustration. This is an astonishing achievement. Does it wear you down?

I enjoy the task of drawing and painting the weekly Life during Wartimeinstallments, but sometimes coming up with ideas is a bit of a drain. You want to avoid repeating yourself (although I'm all too aware how easily that happens). The essential challenge, though, is to devise a concept that is most powerfully conveyed via the visual -- or at the very least via an evocative juxtaposition of image and text. I wish I could report that I usually succeed in coming up with a pungent vision, let alone render it as a decisive and decipherable drawing (the finished picture is never what I see in my head). But it's that dialectic of image and message that I'm aiming for and sometimes the two do coalesce into something that works . . . and sometimes it's just beyond reach.

Hostility to the Bush administration has been one of the large themes that runs through your work as an illustrator. Are you in a rut or is the Bush administration, in your opinion, THAT bad?

I began Life during Wartime on the first day of the Iraq War as a sort of visual political blog. At the start I had the somewhat inchoate notion to chronicle and comment on the impact of the war on the home frontÑand also to convey some critical views about the war, and the duplicitous reasons for its prosecution, that at the time, and especially in editorial cartoons, were getting comparatively little public access. Insofar as the war was and is what Life during Wartime is about it is indeed hostile to the Bush administration: war as fact and as metaphor is a fair characterization of the vision and the foreign and domestic policies of this presidency, and Life during Wartime ended up, I think logically, expanding its purview to this administration's overall ideas, actions, and inaction. That said, I never thought I'd still be doing this almost three and a half years and 200 drawings later.

But let me address the question of being"in a rut" in a different way. After more than two years of drawing Life during Wartime, I was frustrated with my technique and consciously made a change last year. I've always been impressed by the work of some of the more"painterly" of contemporary political cartoonists (particularly The Guardian's Steve Bell and Martin Rowson). While my earlier, sparser style (using pen supplemented by transparent watercolors and colored pencil) cut down on my labor time, I wanted the viewer to have a reason to dwell longer on the image. One way to do that might involve populating the composition with more stuff, but I opted for using opaque gouache, which I think adds more dimension and depth.

Are you at heart an illustrator or a historian?

That depends on whose company I'm currently keeping at the moment. Having had a checkered career, including bouts of design, filmmaking, and fiction writing, this question of identification has at times been fairly perplexing. Nonetheless, I think it's safe to say that history has for quite some time influenced my other activities, whether in the guise of subject matter or subtext. So, under coercion, I'd describe myself as a historian who studies and presents the past in a number of media and genres, including illustration and cartooning.

When did you begin doing illustrations? Did you do illustrations during the Clinton years? If so, was there an overriding theme?

My father was a painter and cartoonist (from comic books to, in the 1990s, political cartoons in the Institute for First Amendment Studies' Freedom Writer and the weekly Berkshire Record) newspaper), so the influence was there from the start. I studied for a few years at the Art Students League and then at New York's High School of Music and Art. In my senior year I turned to what you might call practical political art: designing and illustrating leaflets, posters, and buttons protesting the Vietnam War. I then spent a good portion of 1968 through 1971 as a staff artist in the antiwar movement, after which I worked as a double-knit fabric designer in the garment center. The latter job underwrote my undergraduate education and drove me to graduate school, where my visual inclinations were somewhat suppressed in the Columbia history program (except for occasional jobs painting murals for hire in the homes of affluent New Yorkers, which helped pay for graduate school not to mention my kids' education).

Life during Wartime really was for me a return to consistent topical political artwork. I did do occasional political drawings for protests and publications during the Reagan administration (mainly involving El Salvador, the anti-nuclear movement, and especially the anti-apartheid movement). But most of my artwork during the mid-1980s through the 1990s was tied to the documentaries, books, and digital projects of the American Social History Project. As it happens, I drew Clinton once or twice -- I believe mainly for our History Matters website (a collaboration with the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University), for example to accompany a historical essay comparing and contrasting the Andrew Johnson and Clinton impeachments.

What made you decide to become a historian? Did you ever consider being an artist instead?

Although for a time a significant part of what I laughingly called my income derived from doing art and design, I never considered commiting myself to being an artist. I'm sure this was influenced by growing up in a household where the frustration of freelance art work was a constant plaint on my father's partÑand where my mother sustained the family via a career in law and then fashion design and then back to law. Conversely, I first became impassioned about history in high school, and that interest only grew as I became engaged in the struggles for equality and protests over U.S. foreign policy in the late 1960s. Later, in the 1970s, like many other historians of my generation, I wanted to study history to understand the whys and why-nots of social and political change in the nation's past. That said, in retrospect I see that the bifurcation between art and history during my graduate education was frustrating and, frankly, indicative of continuing limitations in the discipline's training. It wasn't until I joined the editorial collective of the Radical History Review in the late 1970s that I was able, for the first time, to merge my art and history sides in cartoons, comic strips, and article and cover illustrations, an opportunity that really blossomed after I joined the American Social History Project in 1981.

What are your main research interests?

My scholarly work grapples with the ways that public visual media in nineteenth-century America embodied the social, political, and economic conflicts of that long century. As a social historian with a visual bent, I've turned to the pictorial realm to better ascertain perspectives that textual evidence does not convey--or conveys in distinctive ways. At first glance, this would appear to be the turf of art historians, but I believe it's important for logocentric historians to engage with the visual because we pose different questions and demand greater rigor regarding such things as causality and contingency.

My book Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America (Berkeley, 2002) demonstrates how the late nineteenth-century illustrated press, exemplified by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, was the locus for a continual representational struggle akin to the conflicts that gripped the society throughout the era, its news engravings shaped by a complex negotiation between artists, engravers, editors, and readers. Similarly, in the visual essays I contributed to Eric Foner's Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction (New York, 2005), I tried to show how racial equality and inequality characterized the public visual record as well as the critical role that visual media played on both sides in that long struggle. I've just embarked on a new project that will examine how soldiers' visual depictions of war from the American Revolution to Vietnam differed from"official" images.

How does your being a historian shape the way you view the current administration?

To adequately answer that question I'd need an hour or two. So I'll just say here that my knowledge of U.S. history has led me to fully appreciate the many ways this administration has misrepresented the past to promulgate policies that distort executive power, justify a lethal expansionism, violate human rights, and lay waste to some 70 years of hard-fought social, political and economic gains.

If I may slightly diverge from your question, let me add that being a historian has made me painfully aware of some of the abuses of, well, cartooning and specifically caricature. There is something really compelling about trying to merge message and likeness, which pretty much reduces to laboring upon the shifty turf of physiognomy: working up the signs of weakness, immorality, corruption, stupidity, and inferiority, which has been the bread and butter of graphic humorists for centuries and too often served, and still serves, as a quite effective tool for devising invidious commentaries on working people and people of color. So while I emphasize our president's ears, Cheney's stroke-victim smile, Rumsfeld's grimace, and Rice's scowl, there's a little historian perched on my shoulder who is forever admonishing me to remember the bitter fruits of exploiting somatic signs.

What kind of reaction have your colleagues and students had to your work as an illustrator?

I don't really know. I have a sizeable e-mail list of Life during Wartime"subscribers" that includes a fair number of colleagues and friends in the historical profession -- but that's a stacked deck of like-minded and probably very kind people. I think many historians first got to know my art via the Radical History Review and then more broadly via the documentaries, cd-roms, and websites of the American Social History Project. While, in the latter case, these materials have won numerous professional awards and citations and been widely used in college and high school classes around the country, I believe their very educationalÑand publicÑfocus was, shall we say, under-appreciated by many colleagues.

As for students, my fulltime job is running the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at the City University of New York Graduate Center, so I only occasionally teach classes in the GC's History Ph.D. Program as well as in its Certificate Program in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. I don't know if my students are aware of my art work, but my history students are certainly interested in critical issues about visual evidence and historiography (the course I teach is"Visual Culture and U.S. History, 1776-1976") and the students in the ITP program are attracted to an interdisciplinary approach to teaching that in must accommodate the image.

Do your students at CUNY ever complain that you are too opinionated or that you have a bias?

Well, drawing political cartoons and teaching are two very distinct pursuits. My teaching method is not predicated on promulgating my opinions but to get students to cultivate and exercise their critical faculties in undertaking and evaluating historical method and interpretation and, in the case of the ITP classes, devising sophisticated methods of teaching with new technology. I haven't had any complaints. That said, I teach courses in the City University's Ph.D. granting institution and doctoral students, at least in New York City, are pretty enthusiastic about expressing their own opinions and biases.

Many of your illustrations have a graphic nature, with blood and corpses. Why do you chose to incorporate such elements in your work?

Despite the Bush administration's best efforts to prevent (or shield) the American public from seeing the corpses of U.S. soldiers, and despite the different ways the administration has characterized its mission to downplay the loss of Iraqi civilian life, the ever-increasing death and destruction there are measures of the failure (politically and morally) of this conflict and are, therefore, of paramount importance to emphasizeÑagain and again. Remember, this president has yet to attend one military funeral, let alone do more than glancingly address the war's cost to Iraqi civilians.

Blood and bodies often appear in my drawings, but my depiction of the carnage is largely symbolic and perhaps too tame. Compared to some of the cartoons critical of the war published in Europe, much of which offer quite stark and sophisticated commentary, my work is downright sedate. I'm not trying to spare viewers' sensibilities; I guess on some level I just don't want them to get lost in the graphic depiction of death at the expense of the larger message I'm trying to convey. There are times, though, when I've purposefully opted for revulsion and elicited the e-mail equivalent of gasps from my audience, for example one picture that showed Bush in his White House jogging outfit running alongside a mutilated soldier's corpse (a comment on one of the president's more wretched publicity stunts).

As a historian yourself, what lasting effect in the field do you hope your illustrations will have?

Political cartoons are easily unmoored from their historical context. While we may admire their aesthetic qualities,"parsing" the meanings of even a relatively recent cartoon often requires research to ascertain the events or deeds or misdeeds that provoked it, let alone the meanings of the figures and symbols it employed (so, we all admire the skill and baroque compositions of Thomas Nast's Harper's Weekly cartoons, we may even recognize"Boss" Tweed and the theme of political corruption, but to grasp both the classical and contemporary references embodied in his myriad of faces, situations, and displayed quotes one must do some serious reading or pay a visit to the archives). With that complication in mind, I hope that Life during Wartime will at least serve as evidence of visual commentary on the Iraq War and the Bush administration, and particularly as an evocative example of a new digital form of editorial cartooning viewed and disseminated via e-mail and on the Web. I also hope that this project will be considered not in its individual installments but as one critical visual chronicle of the war that shows some of the dissenting perspectives and visions that were expressed and circulated in the United States from March 20, 2003 onward, but that often were not represented in the established press and news media.

Which illustration that you've done do you like the best?

You've stumped me with that one. There's no one cartoon that I think is"it": there are just too many variables that, if the planets are properly aligned and my hand and head are cooperating, might converge toward some point of . . . satisfaction, but I have yet to reach some sort of personal pinnacle. Most of the time one aspect of a drawing seems just right, but then another seems to just miss the mark. So, I might be very happy with the drawing, but the overall concept is still annoyingly obvious, or too repetitive of past cartoons, or there is just too much damned text"explaining" the image -- or the whole thing might seem to work well, but there's one mismanaged element that leaves a lingering sense of imperfection (say, a badly-rendered hand, a mishandled Bushian leer). However, when I started this project I made a pact with myself to depart from my often obsessive and overworked approach to art and get these pictures out in a timely fashion. In that respect, I guess you could say I've quelled one small inner demon (how I handle research and writing is a different story) and, flaws and all, I've managed to keep Life during Wartime going. And I've learned, perhaps a bit late in my demi-career in art, that I might not be thrilled with what I've rendered but there's always another drawing ahead of me.

If you twist my arm, though, I can point to Life during Wartime 160 as one of my better efforts. I did it in early November 2005 after President Bush made one of his early statements denying that torture had been used on detainees and prisoners. While the stripes on the U.S. flag in the right background are way too pronounced (I didn't notice that problem until after I'd posted the drawing online), I think the likenesses and handling of the medium are pretty good and, in concert with the text, they succinctly convey the message along with a dollop of mordant wit.