Caricature, as Victor Navasky points out in his engaging and essential account of the subject, The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power (Knopf; $27.95), is derived from the Italian verb caricare, which means to charge or load “a vessel or weapon.” Navasky knows well of what he writes. In February 1984, in his sixth year as the editor of this magazine, he chose to publish a nearly full-page caricature by David Levine of Henry Kissinger having 
his way with the world, and Navasky absorbed the brunt of its repercussions. Twenty-six Nation staffers published a letter to the editor condemning the image as sexist and contrary to the values of “a progressive magazine.” Christopher Hitchens—whose column about Kissinger’s latest dark deeds in Central America, now in service of the Reagan administration, was paired with the caricature—disagreed. “How depressing that so many Nation colleagues should confuse the use of a stereotype, even as an artistic satire, with the reinforcement of a stereotype.” Never one to forgo an opportunity to launch a gratuitous dart, Hitchens closed by insisting that the “only safeguard against such a literal mentality would be the adoption of 
the Islamic Code.”

Each side had a point. The petitioners’ response underscored that caricature depends on the exploitation of stereotypes. For his part, Hitchens was right to emphasize that there is no such thing as a balanced, objective or politically correct caricature. Instead of creating an ideal form, the caricaturist exploits “the discredited pseudo-scientific principles of physiognomy,” to quote Art Spiegelman, in order to create what Navasky describes as “indelible degradations” and the Supreme Court, in Hustler Magazine Inc. vs. Falwell, as “intentionally injurious speech.” One could argue that a flaw of the image, which Levine called Screwing the World but was published in The Nation without the title, is that there’s a little too much ambiguity. The look on Kissinger’s face is one of malevolent pleasure, but what’s happening here exactly? Yes, he’s on top, where he always wanted to be, but is he having sex with the world, or raping it? (Not that this distinction was central to the Nation staffers’ objections.) The ambiguity muffles the meaning, and so the image can’t compare to Levine’s indelible 1966 caricature of LBJ baring an appendectomy scar in the shape of Vietnam.

The Art of Controversy is Navasky’s attempt to explain the issues raised by Levine’s Kissinger, nearly three decades later. The book opens by sketching several theories about the capacity of caricature to “enrage, upset” and otherwise move readers. Does its power lie in the “argument” of the editorial content? In the totemic power of the image, which, as the art critic Michael Kimmelman has written, “transcends logic or aesthetics”? Or in the way the argument/image package is processed by the brain? Navasky investigates each theory without accepting any of them as airtight. He devotes the bulk of the book to an illustrated survey of the history of caricature, from a 1545 print commissioned by Martin Luther of Satan excreting Pope Leo to Barry Blitt’s 2008 New Yorker cover of presidential candidate Barack Obama and his wife Michelle dressed as terrorists and doing a fist-bump.

In his resourcefulness, Navasky has written a necessary corrective to the definition of caricature promoted by Infinite Jest, a wildly popular exhibition about political cartoons installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011–12. In her introduction to the catalog, curator Constance McPhee proposed that the pieces in the exhibition were hardly related to contemporary cartooning and caricature because they were “usually conceived with greater seriousness of 
purpose”—as if cutting down to size Napoleon, Louis-Philippe and Boss Tweed was a more noble calling than eviscerating Hitler, Nixon, Kissinger, Thatcher, and sundry other modern despots and miscreants. Had Navasky curated the Met exhibition, he probably would have organized it around the theme “Essential Pests.”

In 2006, during the uproar over the publication by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, the philosopher Ronald Dworkin argued that ridicule “is a distinct kind of expression…. That is why cartoons and other forms of ridicule have for centuries, even when illegal, been among the most important weapons of both noble and wicked political movements.” And it follows that “in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended.” Navasky’s treatment of ridicule is different. In his survey and analysis of the history of caricature, he suggests that political cartooning is almost always radical and progressive; base, objectionable works, such as the anti-Semitic images published by the Nazi weekly Der Stürmer, are the exceptions. Like Dworkin, Navasky assumes a fair degree of tolerance for offensive speech: he accepted his staff’s indignation over Levine’s Kissinger as a necessary cost of running a magazine of opinion. But whereas Navasky suggests that the tolerance of offensive speech can, in the form of caricature, sometimes take the form of a better (progressive) argument, which he made it his business to discover and publish, Dworkin considers tolerance of offensive speech itself to be the best test of, and argument for, the democratic process. “If we expect bigots to accept the verdict of the majority once the majority has spoken, then we must permit them to express their bigotry in the process whose verdict we ask them to accept.” It’s a provocative tension, and The Art of Controversy provides enough footholds into the subject of caricature to allow readers to resolve it on their own.

In “The Wicked Art of Caricature” (Feb. 6, 2012), legendary cartoonist and longtime Nation contributor Edward Sorel reviewed the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Infinite Jest,” an exhibit of five centuries of political pans by a lot of old masters and a few new ones.