laughing with disgust

This is the paper given by me at the Thinking Critically about society conference held at the University of York on the 5th of May 2016.

The fictional representation of ugliness and disgust in art plays a central role in polemical caricature. Society restricts the public display of subjects relating to the internal processes of the human body. This protects its members from regularly having to encounter their own incontrollable bestiality and inevitable mortality. It also allows the society to determine and perpetuate a hierarchy of its members in which those judged least able to hide their animality are humbled before those adept at disguising their biological reality. Disgusting images transgress these taboos and force the reader to contemplate what has been deemed disgusting by the prevailing culture. It allows artists to undermine the political hierarchy and destabilise the elite class of the dominant culture while claiming to only produce harmless fiction. Deformed and ugly characters and images enter into a shared, humorous vocabulary between the caricaturists and their regular readers from the lower classes. The humour reinforces the group identity because the initiates enjoy mocking their social superiors with like-minded individuals. This paper will review how ugliness and deformity were used and discuss the associated risks and incentives to better understand the subjective position of caricaturist as political actor and as an artist.

Nineteenth century caricaturists had an ambiguous relationship with the bourgeoisie on whom they depended both for the material of their work and for their principal readership. Though caricaturists’  social criticism could be intense, the caricaturist prepares the reader to accept it by creating a rapport through humour. Reading caricatures is turned into a visual game in which the reader is looking for hidden meaning left by the caricaturist. Caricaturists use their  irony to turn their criticism into creative insights for reimagining their world. The caricaturist adopts a jester-like persona whose silliness means he or she can deny full responsibility for the consequences that may arise from touching on political and social controversies. He or she sacrifices conventional social recognition for the particular prestige and freedom of having an opinion which has no weight, letting the caricaturist say anything and nothing about his or her peers.

Our understanding of disgust as a social emotion and how it is used greatly informs us on the importance that the ability to offend might have had for the caricaturist. Anthropologists see disgust as a preservative reaction to what might be harmful or otherwise dangerous to the social order. In nineteenth century France, this order was built on the belief that humans were intellectually sublime and able to abstract from their bodies vulnerable to change and degeneration. Reminders of the closeness between humans and their bodily nature interrupts this way of thinking with an unlimited potential for difference and change.

To restore its integrity, a society shuns discordant experiences that could change its way of thinking. A taboo vocabulary is established to identify by forced avoidance the dangerous border areas, typically nakedness and bodily functions, between the spiritual human and her earthly body. The authorities in a society teach its members to react with disgust to public displays of the human body by shaming those who transgress the barriers between public and private, the visual and the hidden. They can then tautologically use disgust as the reason that these taboos should be kept in place. This is because they want to preserve their authority from any who might go against the customs which have let them rise to the top. By controlling which behaviours and symbols of worth are valued by society, the dominant group can label those who disagree as morally disgusting and so marginalise them as a warning to the rest to remain within the same limits. Immorality becomes complexly interwoven with symbols of defilement, contamination and pollution to the extent that it appears a physical threat to society.

Despite the fear associated with transgressing taboos and indulging in “immoral” or disgusting behaviour, transgression is fascinating because it shows the possibilities that are denied by the rigid social structure. Disorder creates new opportunities, it empowers by its freedom just as order restricts by its categorising system which puts certain behaviours out of reach. In taking steps to embrace disorder, the individual, in this case the caricaturist, is empowered by the new possibilities to challenge the existing social order and offer alternatives to undermine the authorised patterns.

The nineteenth century and the advent of mechanised reproduction of images marks the beginning of a boom in the consumption of visual culture, fed by a huge public appetite for images. The satirical prints opened a window to an ever widening public into how the reader’s social peers and betters lived and allowed the reader to indulge in a socially acceptable form of voyeurism and narcissism.

A caricature by J.J. Grandville subtitled "The part was magnificent and the delight was universal". Published in La Caricature, no. 95, 30 August 1832.
A caricature by J.J. Grandville subtitled “The part was magnificent and the delight was universal”. Published in La Caricature, no. 95, 30 August 1832.

In this caricature, we see a society ball hosted by the government who is well represented both by its ministers and the King, Louis-Philippe. The implication is that this is an exclusive event to be enjoyed by the VIPs of the day belonging to circles not normally accessible to the reader. A suggestion of bad behaviour, on the right, adds to the titivation as it implies that the readers have a privileged access to the undignified side of the authorities not normally on public display.

The reader’s enjoyment is interrupted, however, by a polar opposite scene of squalid, unwashed, near naked human bodies. The pathetic ugliness of prisoners and the lower classes in general is both distasteful and menacing, exposing through visual metaphor, the dark underside of society. The caricature disorders the social order by showing what has been deliberately hidden, highlighting this breach in taboo. The purpose is to incite moral disgust, not with the prisoners but with the fawning ministers and king. The caricaturists wanted to erode the readers’ respect and thereby fear of the authorities, a campaign which lead to legal battles with the government to whom images did not come under the law of freedom of opinion and so were vulnerable to censorship. To defend themselves, the caricaturists tempered the violence of their attacks through humour, gaining popular support to back their suit against the government in the process.

Understanding how caricaturists used humour is key to understanding how they made and kept their place in society. Theorists have shown how a sense of humour depends on a pre-existing community built from shared life experiences and vocabularies that come from belonging to similar social situations. Take as an example the bourgeoisie, whose education, professional opportunities and family ethics established a common vision and expectations of the world. Caricaturists undermined this commonness by developing a specialised sense of humour with a subgroup within the community, fractioning the bourgeois identity. Their regular readers came to recognise cues where the caricaturist twisted the expected to create incongruous situations, typically involving famous political or social figures.

A caricature by C. J. Traviès subtitled "A simple and easy way to catch and tame turkeys". Published in La Caricature, no. 91, 2nd August 1832
A caricature by C. J. Traviès subtitled “A simple and easy way to catch and tame turkeys”. Published in La Caricature, no. 91, 2nd August 1832

In this caricature, Daumier has appropriated the symbols of hierarchy by distorting them or changing their meaning so that baseness represents worth while symbols of honour are associated with disgrace. A turkey, in nineteenth century slang, meant a fat and stupid glutton, a dupe and a pompous boaster. Here, members of the upper classes are transformed into turkeys, demeaning them to appear as grasping social climbers blinded by their sense of entitlement and easily tempted by the government’s corrupting bribes (like belonging to the order of the Légion d’honneur).


These cues are not necessarily explicit but depend on referring to previous caricatures and second-guessing how the caricaturist might perceive the situation referred to. Spotting and interpreting these symbols becomes a game. In learning the rules of the game, the readers establish a bond with the caricaturist that goes beyond their original social affinity. They come to appreciate, value and share the specialised ironic sense of humour. Creating this rapport is a cyclical process as the more the reader appreciates the ironic humour, the tighter the bond between reader and caricaturist and the greater the sympathy with the caricaturist’s rebellion.

This is important because the caricatures do not just vilify the dominant classes in whom their readers might easily recognise an enemy. They also present reflect back the readers’ lifestyle for critical re-examination. The readers are encouraged to laugh at themselves and their peers in grotesque versions of themselves. The grotesque represents pathetic visions of humanity, sometimes mixed with animal features, which play with reality to make the familiar absurd. The shared sense of humour creates a convivial, lighthearted atmosphere to temper any insult. Instead, the grotesque evokes pity and empathy, putting into plain sight the injustices that the dominant culture tries to hide through its moralising taboos.

The grotesque can also portray a popular re-appropriation of society.

11th January 1902 issue of L'Assiette au Beurre drawn by François Kupka
11th January 1902 issue of L’Assiette au Beurre drawn by François Kupka

In this caricature, the caricaturist exposes the unpleasant or hypocritical behaviour of this industrial baron, using this dominant class’ established symbols of defilement to portray him as both physically and morally revolting. His nakedness is only hidden by his grossly distended belly. The reader, appreciating the irony, can enjoy a moment of smug satisfaction as her moral  and social status seems to rise in proportion to her former superiors’ disgrace. The caricaturist turned this transformation into a running joke, disarming the subjects ability to avenge themselves legally by hiding the violent intention behind an innocuous desire to entertain like a court jester. In this position, caricature has the potential to empower the reader with the freedoms and alternative visions of society inspired through the reversal of order it presents.

The caricaturists who, in the nineteenth century, were typically among the middle, educated classes with significant privileges to lose, found themselves in an ambiguous social state. Illustration and caricature in particular were seen as a profession for failed academic artists despite their commercial success. This implies that caricaturists were forced to be polemical because they could not attain social recognition through their artistic talents alone. This was not the case. Nineteenth century caricaturists belonged to an artistic and creative network deeply involved in political debate and enthusiastically in support of caricature both as a political and artistic medium. The Romantic mood of the time fostered an alienation with the classical aesthetics promoted by the Académie française and looked to the grotesque and comedy as a way of expressing the unexplored potential of human creativity. To some caricaturists, particularly when the government’s pursuit of offensive political caricature was at its most fierce, the risks involved were too much and led many to abandon journalistic satire for safer options like book illustrations, children’s literature and non-combative social satire. To others, however, their ambiguity gave them social prestige and notoriety unavailable in other artistic milieu.

Cite this blog post
Stephanie Williams (2016, May 6). laughing with disgust. Only Joking. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from

3 thoughts on “laughing with disgust”

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