Poking Serious Fun by Making Frivolous Art

By Michael KammenJuly 2, 2013

Poking Serious Fun by Making Frivolous Art

The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power by Victor Navasky

A NEW TESTAMENT from Victor Navasky is a notable event. Former editor and publisher of The Nation, he is the Delacorte professor of journalism at Columbia University, chair of the Columbia Journalism Review, and director of the George Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism. At 26 he became the founder, editor, and publisher of Monocle, a satirical magazine that appeared twice a year during the later 1950s and ’60s, and later a columnist for several journals. His books include Naming Names (1980), a finalist for the National Book Award, and A Matter of Opinion (2005), which received a special George Polk Award.

Autobiographical elements are pertinently woven into The Art of Controversy, and because Navasky is well launched into his 9th decade, that feels just fine. We learn in scattered bits that he is a Jewish New Yorker who finished Swarthmore College in 1953 while serving as a tour guide for The Washington Post office building in his senior year, and completed Yale Law School five years later where he founded Monocle with some notable pals. He joined The Nation as editor-in-chief in 1978, and explains in the context of a controversial English cartoon how in 1990 he became an editor of the New Statesman, a left-leaning pro-Labour journal quaintly known in the United Kingdom as “Staggers and Naggers” (don’t ask).


James Gillray, "Fashionable Contrasts" (1792) -- public domain

Best of all, perhaps, this svelte book (brevity being the soul of wit) begins and ends with an inquiry / explanation of Navasky’s editorial decision to publish an extraordinary cartoon by the late David Levine titled “Screwing the World” (1984), despite protests from an overwhelming majority of his staff at The Nation, mainly women, who regarded the work as sexist. 


David Levine, "Screwing the World" (1984) (c) Even and Matthew Levine

(One wonders whether it would have been more acceptable if Earth Woman had been on top?) The drawing had previously been turned down by The New York Review of Books, Levine’s employer of note. That whole brouhaha alone provides ample reason to read the book.

Between college and law school Navasky served in the US military as a draftee, and that supplies a terrific tale that he embeds with his riff on Bill Mauldin, the brilliant World War II cartoonist who created two unshaved and immortal G.I.s, Willie and Joe, for his acclaimed strip Up Front. Navasky’s first eight weeks of service took place at Camp Gordon, Georgia:

There’s nothing like basic training to capture the existential absurdity and comic potential intrinsic in preparing otherwise peaceful young men to undertake the necessities of military brutality. The year was 1954. The subject was bayonet training. The drill sergeant explained how to affix the blade to the rifle, how to hold the rifle, how to slash and smash, how to deploy the rifle’s butt to the enemy’s groin. The exercise, as he described it, would require us, when he blew his whistle, to race however many yards toward the dummies with the targets painted on their bodies, our bayonets held high, our adrenaline pumping; then we were to repeatedly plunge the bayonet blade into the dummy’s heart, yelling “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

The sergeant then paused, and put his hands on his hips and said, “Now I have a special message for you and it is from the base commander himself, so listen carefully:

“Some of your parents object to your being asked to yell ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ In fact some of them object so much that they have called members of Congress. And these members of Congress have called the base commander. And the base commander has called me. They think it’s offensive. So we are no longer allowed to require you to yell ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ As a result, those of you whose mommies don’t want you to yell ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ are allowed to say—“ here he paused, then smiled his smile as he drew out the first syllable and said, derisively—“Lollipop!’”

“Oh, yes. One more thing,” he added. “We are no longer allowed to call you ‘knuckleheads.’ But you are knuckleheads and don’t you ever forget it.”


Navasky explains at the outset that he is not offering a definitive history, and judging by his impressively useful bibliography and timeline, that would involve a long-term undertaking. Rather, the book is an “inquiry into how cartoons and caricatures get their power and their ability to make a difference, based in part on my own experience, that of a word person attempting to understand the impact of images.”

The project’s structure is crisp. Following a fine introduction, there are four succinct essays devoted to the cartoon as content, as image, as stimulus, and last, one devoted to caricature. Then comes The Gallery: 31 brief sketches that are partially biographical but mainly devoted to one particular cartoon that caused a ruckus. They range from such crafty forebears as Hogarth, Goya, and Daumier to the English David Low (Hitler’s great nemesis), Herblock (my childhood favorite), and Al Hirschfeld (my adult favorite). Some of these are briefer than they really needed to be. Daumier and Bill Mauldin, for instance, certainly deserve more space and the reader would devour every additional word. But there is a music industry tip that goes, “leave them wanting more,” and this book achieves exactly that.

It contains arguments and lessons of various sorts involving freedom of expression, the place of humor in civic discourse, and the role of cartoons in our changing age of high tech:

We would do well to pay attention to images in general, and caricatures in particular, built as they are on stereotypes, which have the power to distort and degrade, and may involve archetypes, which touch on the deepest questions of identity — personal, political, and cultural. Like it or not, cartoons are here to stay. Rather than dating them, the World Wide Web and digital media appear to extend their reach.

The very nature of cartoons and caricatures, and their connections, provides a leitmotif that Navasky touches upon glancingly here and there rather than in a systematic way. He observes that they are not the same, that caricature is a subcategory of cartoon, and gives us an apt remark by Al Hirschfeld:

A cartoon doesn’t depend on the quality of the drawing so much as the idea. If it’s a good idea anyone can do it. But a caricature has another quality. The word “abstract,” I suppose, is the only one I can use. Are Picasso, Lautrec and Hokusai caricaturists, graphic artists or painters? They were all caricaturist in my view.

I’m not sure that I altogether agree, but that’s very provocative.


Al Hirschfeld, "Famous Fueds: Strasberg vs. Kazan" (1963) (c) The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. www.AlHirschfeldFoundation.org.
Al Hirschfeld is represented by the Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd., New York

Hirschfeld’s fun with famous feuds brings to mind a predecessor from the previous generation he surely had in mind but is oddly AWOL from Navasky’s gallery: the great Miguel Covarrubias (1902-57) who designed such dazzling odd couples as "Al Capone and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes" (1932), a glowering "Sigmund Freud and Jane Harlow" (1935), and the wonderful curves of two lithe bodies, "Sally Rand and Martha Graham" (1934). To view them and much more, as drawn by and about the brilliant Covarubbias, one wants to locate Wendy Wick Reaves’s great volume, Celebrity Caricature in America (1998), strangely missing from Navasky’s extensive bibliography. 

Even stranger is the absence of any overlap in their respective dramatis personae. Reaves’s stars are James Thurber, Al Frueh, William Auerbach-Levy, Will Cotton, Carlo Fornaro, Marius de Zayas, Ralph Barber, Henry Major, Paolo Garretti, Peggy Bacon, and such key members of the so-called Ash Can School as John Sloan, William Gropper, and Everett Shinn. The only figures common to both books are Hirschfeld and Max Beerbohm. Admittedly, Reaves’s focus is celebrity, largely configured as popular culture in general and entertainment in particular, while Navasky’s concern is largely but not entirely political. Even so, Thurber could be political, and Covarrubias caricatured Mussolini and Herbert Hoover, to cite just a few of his subjects. It’s as though Navasky and Reaves perceive their subjects on separate planets.

Moreover, at the risk of seeming ungrateful, Navasky never so much as mentions George Herriman and “Krazy Kat,” a great classic concerned with power, wit, and anti-authoritarianism, nor Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” which could not have been more political, nor Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury,” each one a very conspicuous omission. Some might say that if a cartoonist’s work from the past half-century didn’t touch or impact Navasky’s personal or professional life in some way, he’s not going to make it into this pantheon. But that would be unfair even though a few of the artists included, such as Edward Sorel, are close personal friends of the author.

Unfair also because of the cosmopolitan range of those who make the cut. We get Käthe Kollwitz, John Heartfield, and George Grosz from Germany; Philip Zec and Raymond Jackson (Jak) from the United Kingdom; Naji al-Ali, the murdered Palestinian artist; the French Plantu and the incendiary Danish Muhammads from 2005 (prudently not reproduced though you can readily find them on Google); and Bulgarian artists who attacked Muammar Qaddafi when five nurses were accused of conspiring to infect 426 Libyan children with HIV.


"The Politics of Fear." Cover artwork for the July 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker by Barry Blitt.
Copyright (c) 2008 by Barry Blitt.

The Gallery also devotes cursory segments to artists who worked for The Masses, the Nazi rag Der Stürmer (1923-45), and The New Yorker, which supplies two of the most memorable covers from recent years: Barry Blitt’s election-year fist bump between Michelle and Barack Obama ("The Politics of Fear," 2008), sensationally misunderstood as making fun of the power couple rather than the ways their backgrounds and views were willfully distorted by opponents, and then Art Spiegelman’s notorious kiss and embrace between a Lubavitcher Hasid and a Caribbean-American woman of color at a time when the two ethnic groups were engaged in violent conflict in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York. This was such incendiary hot stuff that editor Tina Brown ran an unprecedented editorial paragraph to explain the cover — an exceedingly unusual attempt to protect the editor’s tukhus from rightly anticipated rage:

About the painting, which is Mr. Spiegelman’s first work for the magazine’s cover, the artist writes, “This metaphoric embrace is my Valentine’s card to New York, a wish for the reconciliation of seemingly unbridgeable differences in the form of a symbolic kiss. It is a dream, of course, in no way intended as any kind of programmatic solution. The rendering of my dream is intentionally, knowingly naïve, as is, perhaps, the underlying wish that people closed off from one another by anger and fear—Serbs and Croats, Hindus and Muslims, Arabs and Israelis, West Indians and Hasidic Jews—could somehow just kiss and make up. Though I’m a maker of graven images by profession, I respect the fact that in the real world, the world beyond the borders of my picture, a Hasidic Jew is proscribed from embracing a woman from outside his sect and his family. (I won’t disingenuously attempt to claim that the woman in my painting is his wife, an Ethiopian Jew.) I’m also painfully aware that the calamities facing black communities in New York cannot be kissed away. But once a year, perhaps, it’s permissible, even if just for a moment, to close one’s eyes, see beyond the tragic complexities of modern life, and imagine that it might really be true that "all you need is love.”

Both of these sensation-prompting covers — each one occasioned an OMG moment — are contextualized and explicated wisely by what Navasky calls the “problem of misinterpretation.” Tina Brown seems to have anticipated the fuss better than David Remnick did the Barry Blitt fist-bump blow-up. Navasky devotes several pages to his own tough call concerning “Screwing the World” and in the process raises important questions, such as: “When a periodical commissions an artist to render an image to accompany an essay, is the image meant to illustrate the writer’s point of view or to be the artist’s own statement?”

Issues involving editorial judgment and control ebb and flow throughout. In 2005, a posthumous book appeared bearing as its title The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln and suggested that Lincoln may have been gay, or at least bisexual. Robert Grossman, best known for his airbrushed caricatures, weighed in with a presentation of the rail-splitter as a buxom, leering, white-gloved queen.


Robert Grossman, "Babe Lincoln" (2005) (c) Robert Grossman

Navasky’s successor as head of The Nation then faced another tough call. The cartoon ran and Navasky, despite being editor emeritus, received mail like the following:

I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds your Abe Lincoln cartoon deeply and painfully insulting. What you mistake for humor is nothing more than virulent and blatant homophobic garbage, utterly unworthy of the 140-year-old magazine that has been entrusted to your care. It’s this kind of ignorant stereotyping that fuels and perpetuates hatred, disgust, and violence against homosexuals.

Lincoln in drag can be gross, grievous and, well, titillating. A man 6’4” doesn’t need three inch heels. He’s over the top.

That sort of thing makes one wonder how this vocation evolves for individual artists. Raymond Jackson, known as Jak when he drew for London’s Evening Standard and The Mail on Sunday, was not easy to get along with. His first job involved retouching pubic hair for the naturist magazine Health and Efficiency, from which he got sacked but moved along to become one of Britain’s best-loved cartoonists, replacing Vicky (Victor Weisz) who committed suicide. Navasky doesn’t highlight the point, but it’s clear that the role of public cartoonist, especially the political as opposed to the celebrity kind, could be very stressful. That aspect of the job awaits its psychohistorian.

Political cartoonists must cope with their conscience, their editors, and the consequences, not to mention the risks of their work. Caricature can assuredly become an act of violence, and verges upon it frequently. Many of the cartoonists represented in The Art of Controversy received hate mail, and at least one suffered a more serious fate. On July 22, 1987, Naji al-Ali, the best-known cartoonist in the Arab world, was shot in the head by a lone gunman as he walked in the Chelsea section of London, near the offices of Al-Qabas, where he worked. It is unclear whether his assassination was ordered by Yasser Arafat or by Mossad, the Israeli secret service.


Naji al-Ali's characater, Handala, a symbol of the "right of return"
in Palestinian culture -- public domain

 Al-Ali’s successor — in terms of direct inspiration and importance to protests in the Arab world right now — is Khalid Albaih, based in Doha, Qatar. “Khartoon!” is the name of his Facebook page, a play on Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. He posts cartoons addressing the politics of his native Sudan as well as developments across the rest of the Arab world. Albaih made his debut just months before expressions of unrest began in Tunisia. In retrospect his 2010 cartoon titled "The Rest Will Follow" feels prophetic. It featured a fist with different Arab flags painted on each finger. The Tunisian flag was affixed to the raised middle finger — a message that Albaih directed at Arab dictators. It was a direct hit. (See New York Times, June 8, 2013, p. A7.)


Michael Kammen is the author of Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (2006).

LARB Contributor

Michael Kammen was the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus) at Cornell University, where he taught from 1965 until 2008. In 1980-81 he held a newly created visiting professorship in American history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and served in 1995-96 as President of the Organization of American Historians. In 2009 he received the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction. His books include People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (1972), awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1973; A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (1986), awarded the Francis Parkman Prize and the Henry Adams Prize; Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991); A Time to Every Purpose: The Four Seasons in American Culture (2004), Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (2006), and Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (2010).

He wrote prolifically for the Los Angeles Review of Books before passing away in November 2013. He will be missed.


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