The New Yorker cartoon controversy

The New Yorker cartoon controversy

The Nation has a long history of publishing images even some of our staunchest fans find offensive. Just ask our cartoonists.


This cartoon response to The New Yorker‘s cover appears in the August 4 issue of The Nation.

To some, it was satire. To others, it was offensive and malicious. The New Yorker‘s cover, “Politics of Fear,” shows Barack Obama dressed as a Muslim fist-bumping his gun-toting wife. New Yorker Editor David Remnick defended his magazine’s decision to run the controversial cartoon, explaining that “the intent of the cover is to satirize the vicious and racist attacks and rumors and misconceptions about the Obamas that have been floating around in the blogosphere and are reflected in public opinion polls. What we set out to do was to throw all these images together, which are all over the top and to shine a kind of harsh light on them, to satirize them. That’s part of what we do.” Or, as comedian Bill Maher observed, “If you can’t do irony on the cover of The New Yorker, where can you?” I tend to agree.

We’ve had a long history here at The Nation of publishing what many readers, editors, contributors, staff members considered sexist, or just generally offensive, cartoons, satirical images and pictures. Edward Sorel, David Levine, Robert Grossman, Art Spiegelman have all been the brunt of attack in this area. (For more on The Nation and its history of cartoons and caricatures and showdowns around them, read Victor Navasky’s spirited memoir, A Matter of Opinion.)

It’s interesting how through time, especially in these last years, images seem more powerful, troubling, provocative and threatening than words. Why is that? Hard to fully fathom. Perhaps the speed with which images, unmoored from their original home and context, zip around the 36/7 Internet? Whatever the full range of reasons, it seems to me that one fact is that a caricature is almost by definition provocative, often offensive. It’s a misrepresentation, an exaggeration for effect, a parody.

While I understand why many object to this cartoon–and to images which they believe reinforce stereotypes (and there are many at The Nation who found the New Yorker cartoon offensive), I believe satire–even if it flops or offends –has a place in our culture and politics. But why not listen to the cartoonists? We asked a few of our regulars to help us think through the controversy–from their perspective.

Robert Grossman

As a cartoonist I am unswervingly pro-cartoon. All humor is intrinsically subject to misinterpretation. I am sure there are some oafish Americans out there who believe in ghosts and Bigfoot, who will get hold of this picture and say say, “See, what did I tell you?” But I don’t think there are many of them.

Steve Brodner

It seems that the MSM consensus is that this piece is harmful; that the face value of something is more important than the interpretation that the intellect will give an image. And this image, like all sophisticated satire, takes some puzzling out. As in all works of this kind, the brain absorbs an image, perceives the absurdity of it and then, with a little bit of understanding of the form and current politics, parses out the irony. Our brains can really do that and, believe me, I can tell you, readers of The Nation and The New Yorker do it every day.

So basically we have the Wolf Blitzers pretending not to get this to rev up ratings which rely, largely, on the “outrage of the day.” However, in that process a dialogue is forced, satire is discussed, the truth about Obama is put on the table. And so, even if it’s taking the long way to get there, Barry Blitt’s strong image does what we need it to do: put these issues up for discussion and in a very real way, educate America.

[In a presidential election, satirical cartoons] are an important part of the mix. They are a way to encapsulate ideas, to make them clear and find what is compelling. We look for meanings, for passions, for true things. If you can have all these factors working simultaneously, you are a master. There are very few who can pull this off. Edward Sorel, Mirko Ilic, Victor Juhasz, Ralph Steadman, David Levine, Barry Blitt. Like music by a great songwriter who who can write words and music, when done well, great satirical art informs and gives pleasure. To me, there’s nothing like it.

It is important that you are understood by your readers. I have to say this, that the readers of The Nation are not the same readers of, say, Us magazine. To accept the premise of the “mass audience,” I would have to make my work understandable to people who know next to nothing about the daily changing political landscape. Then you become like Saturday Night Live at its worst: thinking it can, for example, satirize Jack Abramoff by making a lewd joke out of his name (“I don’t even know Abram!”), leaving the viewer comfortable in not knowing anything about the issue. No, we are speaking to our readers, whom we feel very much in a kind of wonderful conversation with.

Overton Loyd

Nothing beats a healthy debate but this “devoid of black illustrators” rag, not only promotes fear-mongering for Obama’s presidency but for all people of melanin. I must admit I was relieved that they graciously omitted the humongous inner-tube lips that were a standard in my day. However, The New Yorker cover still misfires as it clearly demonstrates that pimpin’ might not be easy, but it’s a helluva lot easier than satire.

On a side-rant, I sometimes wonder how the heck we’re going to get a black candidate into the White House, when we have yet to get a black artist into the Drawger blogsite, fer’ crying out loud!

Like any good stand-up comedian, satirical cartoons should entice us to embrace our humanity, while chuckling at the irreverent material, even if the punch-line pisses us off. Else endure the dripping flop-sweat of the not-so-witty court jester. Unlike the bombing comedian who may have a chance to recover the approval of the audience, visual art is left forever open to interpretation.

Why is Lisa Lampanelli funnier than Carrot Top? How can she make you LOL for saying things that would get Michael Richards creamed? Maybe a lot depends on who’s telling the joke, what their intent is and how effectively they can communicate it.

Context is everything.

Generally speaking, commercial art strives to be understood by the masses and avoids alienating it’s audience with overtly offensive offerings (no porn please), whereas fine artists have been known to do the exact opposite….

At the end of the day, perhaps we’re all just over-reacting to the imbalances of the past. We may be forced one way or another to confront just how wacky we occur to each other.

As we declare new possibilities of the future into existence, perhaps the language of art can help ignite the transformation that we’re standing for.

Within that context, perhaps all is well.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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