"Art making is a form of alchemy, in a way, because you are trying…to make gold from nothing. When it works very well is when you manage to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary."
ART21: There’s an anger and a kind of social criticism in your work. Can you talk about that? Where does that anger come from?
PETTIBON: Well, it just wells up from deep inside me, so watch out: it’s likely to blow any time! (LAUGHS)
I can’t really say that it doesn’t somewhat come from me, but my work is a lot more impersonal than most people give it credit for. It’s not that I’m not angry; it’s that it’s not a really personal thing. Well, I don’t even know about that. I think, when anything is worth getting angry about, you want to hold back and look at it from a distance and without this emotion, if possible.
ART21: Is the anger an undercurrent in the work?
PETTIBON: It’s a mistake to assume about any of my work that it’s my own voice because that would be the most simple-minded, ineffective art that you can make. That would really be talking down to people. And if I had such a burning need to express my opinions or whatever, then I don’t think art would be where I’d want to do it. It’s not a good area for that. But when we’re talking about the schools and gangs and segregation and so forth, those are very obvious problems, and no one really needs my weighing in on it. But there’s more underlying problems or issues, and those will be the things I would want to cover in my work.
And you know, that’s what I do all the time. There is a very direct kind of anger in some of my work, to figures like Ronald Reagan or J. Edgar Hoover or whatever. You can have a million artists sign petitions, one side or another, and so what? You’d really have to go back to the Greeks and the Romans and to the satire or the very personal kind of rancor that they wrote about people of the day, to see what I’m doing: the pretentious, the powerful, the decadent, and the corrupt. It’s not done from analyzing their positions and correcting them or weighing in your own solutions, because it’s not the kind of form that works.
It’s like when we were talking about heroes, and I brought up that the usual person who is considered a hero is really the opposite of what I would consider [a hero]. And it’s a way of trying to break down this kind of natural awe and respect that comes out of a fear or envy. There’s this built-in respect that shouldn’t be there, completely. I told you how much I consider characters like Gumby with respect. And just on the face of it—anyone, I think, should compare cartoons to the President of the United States, this one or anything of them, really: those are the real cartoon figures, and those are the real ridiculous figures. I want to make works where someone like Gumby or Vavoom or Felix the Cat or whatever comes out as someone to respect and to listen to; and you’re glad you did, when you’re given that opportunity.
I’ve never considered myself much of a political artist. And most of my art doesn’t really deal in explicitly political issues. But I’m not going to apologize or shy away from it any more than I would any other subject. But there is no area where anyone is dealing with this in the way I am—which is, for once, not to assume someone like the President automatically has a claim on anyone’s respect, to follow him or to take him seriously. We don’t see that at all because the real pathetic thing is this generation of journalists. Not that it was any better, really, that much before. But it is really incredible today because they probably pat themselves on the back and say, “Well, we’re responsible journalists,” and really they’re just the punks of the political establishment they cover. I’m not trying to encourage art to become political. Just because you’re artists doesn’t mean you should have a platform. When Hollywood figures or artists decide to get on their platform, often that is going to do much more harm.
ART21: Anger and humor—it’s a delicate line.
PETTIBON: I don’t think humor is a bad thing at any time, really, or in these times. I make decisions all the time, in my work, that I won’t make fun of someone just for the sake of going for some cheap laugh. I won’t do that if it hurts someone whom I would feel bad about. If it’s based on things that people have no control over—that should be condemned for any reason. We as humans still, so oftentimes, feel the need to have someone to pick on who is different.
I don’t think there is subject matter to consider too important to use humor with. A lot of times, people wonder if any of this was intended. You know, like, humor is just by accident all the time, and maybe it’s not a good thing to laugh, or maybe they’re not getting it. Maybe they’re seeing something in it that they shouldn’t. But that’s not the case. I have no problems with my own attempts at humor.
ART21: A recurring subject in your work is Patty Hearst and the SLA [Symbionese Liberation Army]. Can you talk about that, in relation to your use of humor?
PETTIBON: Patty Hearst and the SLA would really be impossible not to treat with some broad comic aspect to it, because the SLA and the whole situation was such a broad burlesque. A lot of the best humor, whether it’s the Three Stooges or Molière, is about someone who is really strident or pretentious. The SLA and a lot of political groups from the ’60s and ’70s—to any time period—are so strident and they’re so full of their own righteousness for the moment. Inevitably, a year later—like, in Patty’s case, she went from being a debutante to an urban guerilla and then back again, where she married her own bodyguard.
Anyone from groups such as that, who have gravitated to the other extreme—such as the current radical right, the reigning power of now, the neo-conservatives . . . That all comes from a very left wing position; almost all those guys were at one time the opposite. And so, it’s hard to take that sort of thing seriously if you can see it from any historical distance. If you look at the Hearst case from the beginning to the end, it’s like the Keystone Kops. That can happen by chance or by the kind of ideas behind it as well.
Humor doesn’t trivialize the real consequences, the people that get hurt, for instance. I’m not making light of that. If I’m going to be condemned for broaching that subject from a comic angle, that is completely absurd. I’m not a fan of the underground or the SLA, personally or their politics. But to demonize them, in particular when you had a war going on that was killing millions (the Vietnamese people and all people who should be allowed to live) . . . It’s a way for me to objectify the lines there, to even the playing field a little bit, rather than picking one enemy and demonizing them to basically cover your own ass. It’s a way of making nothing sacrosanct and above comedy, and at the same time not taking away all their humanity by completely objectifying a whole group of people in a way that makes them totally disposable, either. I’m not doing that with any of those groups.
ART21: Portraying people is always tricky. For instance, some viewers might think the way you depict women is misogynist. How would you respond to that?
PETTIBON: When you get asked something like that, you almost expect someone to be disingenuous about it. In my personal life—of course, you can’t read my mind. My work really isn’t coming from a very personal point, so to psychoanalyze my work really isn’t going to reveal anything. But then again, that becomes a very circular kind of thing because you could say, “Well, maybe it’s hidden under the surface and he just doesn’t realize it,” or whatever. But specifically, like with Gumby, I never had a doll phase or an action-figure phase, and certainly not now. So, that wasn’t an obsession for me, or a very personal thing. It came out of a certain subject matter, used in a certain way. I think a lot of the work that would be considered misogynist comes from a strain in my work that is usually described as a film-noir type. Most of my work that would be considered the most misogynist would be work where the woman character is like a caricature in comic books, like the Dragon Lady in Milton Caniff, or a girl usually named Velma or Velva Lee or whatever.
I’ve been asked a few times, of my work, that all the characters, almost without exception, are white. That’s a legitimate question. But there still is an element of caricature to my work, and I’m not representing this kind of multicultural melting pot in my work just for appearances sake. If you looked at my work based on race, the work would call attention to itself in ways that would make it a completely different kind of work. I don’t make any apologies for not doing that because it’s for what purpose?
This is not autobiographical work by any means, even the emotions involved. If someone thinks they understand me and disagree, then okay. But there’s something in the nature of comedy and especially in the element of caricature and cartoons that my work retains. An editorial cartoon is trying to be positive. It’s usually really very cloying and sappy, and there’s no hook to it at all. I also don’t like my humor to be in the service of making fun of people based on superficialities. People get picked on or looked down at. I’m conscious about that as a problem.
ART21: Do you think there are elements of failure and longing in your work?
PETTIBON: Longing, yes, because I think it’s work that is best when there isn’t any final resolution. When you don’t finally arrive. And failure—I have to say that, maybe, that’s because this sort of work tends to have more of a negative edge to it. There probably is more failure depicted in my work than there is success.
ART21: Is there sadness in the work?
PETTIBON: Yeah. I think maybe it’s as much as humor. It’s just more latent. I think the life of the drawing is that you’re always kept in suspense. It’s like a serial, which goes on from day to day in the paper. There’s always something from the sky just about to fall on you. Even though my work is usually just one drawing, it is more of a narrative than it is a cartoon with a punch line and a resolution and a laugh at the end.
This interview was originally published on PBS.org in September 2003 and was republished on Art21.org in November 2011.