One of my favourite popular accounts of New Zealand’s history is Ian Grant’s The Unauthorized Version, which endeavours to tell it through cartoons. There are far worse ways of running through a country’s social and political fissures than through the works of its satirists. For the foreign person (hallo), these books provide a series of alternative, orthogonal entry points into official history, and a useful corrective to more well-ordered and narratively satisfying accounts.
Regrettably, the history covered by The Unauthorized Version ends just shy of the Springboks Tour, and I’m not aware of more recent compendiums. Of all the collections of individual cartoonists I’ve come across, the best is probably Tom Scott’s Life and Times, although it too ends in the Seventies. In his heyday, when he was serving double duties as a cartoonist and as a political columnist for the Listener, Scott was sensational, and I’ve been known to hunt his uncollected output through archived copies of the magazine.
It would be ungenerous to call Sharon Murdoch an epigone, but she is as indispensable a guide to the current decade as Scott was of the ones he traversed at the height of his career. These aren’t yet times for a new Heartfield, but we are warming up to it, and Murdoch has proven to be the best we have at capturing them in all of their malevolence – and in full colour.
You don’t need to be reminded of Key’s claim that New Zealand was ‘settled peacefully’ to make sense of the cartoon. Nor do you need to be aware of the most recent association of sexual abuse with our national sport to make sense of ‘Pack Men’.
As is the case with the best satire, Murdoch’s work is both of its moment and more broadly historical; it meticulously explores its specific subjects in order to illuminate larger features of our society. Who the politicians are doesn’t matter very much, either. It is the exercise of power that makes monsters out of banal individuals, as exemplified by the terrifying rictus of Murdoch’s Anne Tolley. But you could look at the cartoon about the closure of Relationships Aotearoa in thirty years, and still recognise that expression, as well as the logic that produces such actions.
Which is not to imply that Murdoch’s cartoons are universal, that is to say ultimately indifferent to the particular features of our epoch. Rather, that they reveal an essence behind those features. They lay things bare. Speaking of which:
‘Ever Upward’ is about the current government’s dealings with SkyCity, owners of Auckland’s phallic casino, but the relationship between masculinity, power and narcissism gets a fair amount of play in Murdoch’s art. Her men are greedy, conniving, effortlessly brutal. Yet at times what she seems to begrudge them the most is a lack of honesty and courage, as in this recent classic (not in the book).
Murdoch is both forthright and fierce – which are necessary qualities – but I’m just as impressed by the compassion that shows through her work. Hers was the final word in this year's debate on some of the nation's default retirement funds investing in armaments.
And her art has spoken just as loudly and often on other events beyond our borders.
I could hardly overstate how valuable I think it is that she is able to formulate such statements in some of our mainstream newspapers, usually the preserve of the pettiest kind of provincialism. For this reason, too, we need Sharon Murdoch.
The commentary supplied by art historian Melinda Johnston underscores the claims as to the present and future relevance of Murdoch’s work, making them explicit. But I’m quite convinced the collection would work (almost) as well without context, as a mute gallery of the early crimes of this century still in its teens.
Sharon Murdoch and Melinda Johnston. Murdoch. Nelson, Potton & Burton, 2016.