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Art as a sword: An interview with Roman Genn

By Bernard Chapin
web posted August 16, 2004

Roman Genn is the principal cartoonist for the magazine National Review, but his drawings have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Los Angeles Times, and Barron's. For those readers who have never seen his work, they can tour the professional website he maintains where a healthy sampling of his depictions can be found. Luckily, he has included several of his color portraits (which are the most striking) such as this one of Yasser Arafat.

Genn (L) with Mikhail Kalashnikov creator of the famed AK- 47 assault rifle
Genn (L) with Mikhail Kalashnikov creator of the famed AK- 47 assault rifle

Mr. Genn was raised in communist Russia and displayed artistic talent from an early age. While in college, his aptitude for drawing public figures got him into considerable trouble with the authorities and the unfavorable attention he received from the police resulted in his being dismissed from school without taking a degree. Unlike many native born Americans, Mr. Genn has acute understanding of the freedom we possess in the United States. He can now draw anyone he wants to and not meet with any harmful consequences -- at least from the government.

BC: The way in which many readers are familiar with your work is through National Review where you are a contributing editor. How important do you feel the art of political caricature is today? Do you think that depictions of political figures hold the same power that they did 50 years ago or when Thomas Nast was all the rage?

RG: The fact that none of the American cartoonists have been jailed or physically harmed lately, shows that we are useless, toothless entertainers at best, although some of us, myself excluding, hold an opinion that they are of some importance and have the ability to influence others. Besides, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has been offered $100,000 to leave the country, the way Nast had been. The only power caricature has today is the power to prevent columns from bumping into one other on the printed page.

BC: How did your experiences in Russia, as an involuntary student at one of Brezhnev's "toddler indoctrination camps" contribute to your conservative outlook? Does the experience of living under communism automatically make one a believer in the free market?

RG: It should, unless you have a total deficiency in the capacity to make moral judgments.

BC: You must encounter plenty of people who still highly regard communism and socialism. Does it make any impression on them when you relay stories from your past? Along these lines, what do you personally find most exasperating about today's liberals?

RG: Their militant stupidity and lack of historical knowledge. It is especially irritating considering the abundance of material in any library or a bookstore available to the public.

I generally think that people are looking more for the confirmation of their pre-existing opinions rather than acquiring new ones .I don't think that I suffered all that much, if at all, however, the stories about the people that I personally knew do not create anything but annoyance among left-wing demagogues and underachievers who breathlessly lecture me about Cuban health care or happy re-education camps in Sandinista Nicaragua.

Egalite, fraternite, the next thing you know the guillotine is working overtime…

BC: Do your opinions about a public figure have an impact on the ease with which you are able to caricature them?

RG: Definitely. Like a peasant who loves and cherishes his cow, I worry that something bad will happen to, let's say, Arafat – an illness or worse, God forbid, and I will be untimely robbed of an easy way to make a couple of bucks.

BC: Is there anybody that you studied repeatedly but still had no idea how to reproduce on the page? Are some people naturally caricature resistant?

RG: For whatever reason, I could not get O.J, but then neither could U.S. Justice.
Unlike U.S Justice though, I finally got him. It is great to be the cartoonist!

BC: Which political artists had the heaviest impact upon your work? Further, among your peers, whom do you respect most?

RG: They are mostly lefties. The great Daumier, of course. Pat Oliphant who is probably the best cartoonist of the 20th century. David Levine has an astonishing draftsmanship (somehow while acquiring the talent his political wisdom was sacrificed), Paul Conrad, Steve Brodner, anybody who has an opinion, sense of humor and ability to draw well. I also admire some Russians whose drawings I grew up with: Boris Efimov, Kukryniksy group, and Vladimir Mochalov.

BC: One critic referred to one of your drawings for the cover of National Review as "extremely offensive and racist." Can you share with us some of the most virulent reactions to your art?

RG: I believe, you are referring to Daphne Kwok from the Ethnic Grievance Industry. She should date more…

The most interesting reactions were ironically to my caricatures of Stalin that I used to exhibit on the street in Moscow in the late eighties and nineties. Once a month at least someone with insulted proletarian consciousness would rip it from the wall and tear to shreds. Swift physical retaliation followed on my part, so the enemy became creative and waited until I would take a step away to consume some alcoholic beverage for the benefit of my health and warmth. Some of the drawings thus fell victims to guerilla warfare waged by the ruthless Marxists. Once though, a Georgian bought a Stalin caricature (Stalin was from Georgia and is still admired there by many) and ripped it apart in front of my eyes. That was a rare respect for my right to make a living, but then Georgians are known for their chivalry.

BC: A New York Times article about you was entitled, "Caricature in the Age of Political Correctness." Does political correctness still exert the same pernicious influence that it did a decade ago? I ask you this in part because of someone remarking to me the other day, in response to my "Politically Incorrect and Proud of It" t-shirt, that it "wasn't the eighties anymore."

RG: It has gotten much worse. You cannot draw any remotely critical caricature of any minority or ethnic group. I am yet to see any of my drawings of Farrakhan published.

BC: Thank you very much for your time, Roman.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.

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