ON WEDNESDAY evening, it was possible to walk past protesters on the north side of the White House, their signs reading “Traitor in Chief” and “Trump Dishonors the Presidency,” and head across the street to the Corcoran, where a new exhibition was spotlighting the art of a man who had just been fired for drawing anti-Trump messages in that very same vein.
Here, hung prominently on the walls, were 10 finished cartoons and eight sketched ideas that had been killed in recent months by bosses at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which last month canned its political cartoonist of a quarter-century, Rob Rogers, over such satiric ideas. Most of Rogers’s 18 artworks are critical of President Trump on such issues as immigration policy and the separation of families, national-anthem protests and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe centered on the 2016 presidential election.
The pop-up exhibit, “Spiked: The Unpublished Political Cartoons of Rob Rogers,” had its sold-out opening reception Wednesday night, in the atrium galleries of the Flagg Building as presented by George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. “Spiked” will be up till October, when it will move to join a larger show at the University of Pittsburgh.
The irony of “Spiked,” said Sanjit Sethi, director of the Corcoran School, is its very existence.
“This exhibition should have never happened,” Sethi told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs shortly before the opening. “The Corcoran is stepping in to provide an opportunity for this work” to be viewed.
“What should have happened is, Rob should have produced this work like he had done for 25 years, and viewers could have gone ahead and celebrated it, vilified it or ignored it, as they should,” continued Sethi, who upon learning of Rogers’s case last month was moved to host the exhibit, which was organized in collaboration with the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. “It’s dangerous, [as] cultural institutions see, that work like this is being categorically censored.”
As hundreds of people walked through the exhibit, laughing at the power and punch of the killed cartoons, Rogers was struck by the moment — just one month after he was fired.
“It’s surreal — there’s really no other way to put it — that cartoons that were not good enough for the Post-Gazette are now in the Corcoran Gallery,” said Rogers, a Pittsburgh-based cartoonist for 34 years. “That’s got to say something.”
On Thursday evening, in a talk at the National Press Club, Rogers said that the Post-Gazette publisher, John Robinson Block, began pushing for a more conservative tone on his editorial pages after Trump announced his presidential candidacy. Matters came to a head this year, Rogers said, when Block and the newly installed editorial page editor, Keith Burris, began routinely killing Rogers’s cartoons — a marked change from most of the artist’s tenure, when he said only one or two of his cartoons were typically spiked each year.
Rogers’s clash with his Post-Gazette bosses escalated in May, when he saw six consecutive cartoons killed. “This was the week from hell,” Rogers recalled at Thursday’s talk, adding: “I never got any explanation during this week” why they were spiked.
Block, the Post-Gazette’s publisher and editor in chief, told The Post last month in a statement: “This is an internal, personnel matter we are working hard to resolve. It has little to do with politics, ideology or Donald Trump. It has mostly to do with working together and the editing process.” One week later, Rogers was fired.
Rogers said that one of the works during that six-cartoon blackout — mocking an Ambien-popping Klansman, a reference to Roseanne Barr’s medicinal excuse for sending an infamous racist tweet — was nearly published. “If they had just let this one run, it might have stopped the media frenzy,” Rogers said at the National Press Club Journalism Institute talk, which concluded with a Q&A session moderated by Washington Post cartoonist Ann Telnaes.
Rogers also said that as the ranks of staff newspaper cartoonists dwindled from more than 100 to mere dozens in recent decades, he often anticipated that he would lose his job because of economic-related attrition, not political ideology. The Post-Gazette, he noted, has historically been a progressive paper.
The cartoonist also said that for all the criticism he receives for his left-leaning views, his submission that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1999 centered on cartoons satirizing President Bill Clinton.
Rogers said it was gratifying that the Corcoran show includes eight of his rejected sketches, which range in topic from Barr to ousted Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt. “It’s really interesting to see the roughs on display because those are usually the secret drawings that never get shown,” he said, “and now people can see [all] the work that didn’t get approved.”
Sethi added that it’s valuable for Corcoran students to see these roughs. “Because we have the sketches — because we have the originals with the scratch-outs and modifications as well as the final product — they get to see this idea of iteration in action … and the value of experimentation.”
Plus, Sethi said, it is crucial that students see the value of creating ideas that might be challenged by the powers that be.
“They get to see how these issues are tested by outside forces, and how does one retain a degree of perseverance and tenacity to go ahead and still pursue one’s ideas,” the Corcoran director said. “We need to make sure that they feel like there are role models for them — [to see] how you remain tenacious in the face of adversity.”
“It’s important to take a stand for what you believe in — it doesn’t have to be political,” Rogers added of “Spiked’s” educational mission. “There are going to be haters along the way to tell you not to do it, but I hope [students] look and think: Here’s somebody who risked it all for his art form and lost. But gained, also. That’s important to remember.”
“Spiked: The Unpublished Political Cartoons of Rob Rogers.” Free exhibition open to the public: July 18-Oct. 14; Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturdays-Sundays, 1-6 p.m.; the Atrium Galleries at the Flagg Building; Corcoran School of the Arts & Design, 500 17th St. NW; corcoran.gwu.edu.