The Art of Controversy

I came by my consciousness of politics, of current events, through the Sunday funnies. Each day I’d run down to the breakfast table, where the pages of the Hartford Courant were fanned out alongside Trix or cinnamon toast, and turn my fingers frostbite-black perusing the comics. First I’d read the good stuff — Calvin & Hobbes, Bloom County — and then grow increasingly despondent as I made my way through The Family Circus and Apartment 3-G, until at last, with a few minutes left before school, I was reduced to hunting for those curious single-panel cartoons, elsewhere in the newspaper, that weren’t even funny. They were comic methadone, not quite the real thing, but welcome in a pinch.

In time those cartoons made more sense and illuminated such events as the Gulf War, the Waco standoff, and the O. J. Simpson trial. Comics weren’t just for kids, they said, and more to the point, life wasn’t just for kids and didn’t revolve around them. Today, when I read about the decline of print journalism, I have to wonder: How long will such breakfast table epiphanies be delayed when Daddy gets his news on an iPad and Mommy leans in to a pair of Google-powered specs every morning? If you’re worried about your children growing up without a visual vocabulary, without knowing what printer’s ink smells like, you’d do well to set aside a copy of Victor Navasky’s The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power.

The Art of Controversy is, by my count, three books in one: one bad, albeit thought-provoking; one merely charming; and one outstanding. Let’s get the charming one out of the way first. Navasky, the author of the National Book Award–winning Naming Names, was the editor of The Nation for nearly two decades and is now the chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review. He’s known and employed many cartoonists and caricaturists over the years, and his reminiscences about them amount to a slight but winning memoir of a life in journalism (as when, e.g., he leads off the book with an account of publishing a David Levine cartoon of Henry Kissinger screwing the planet). This autobiographical element involves a fair bit of name-dropping, but it’s been earned.

Navasky’s bad book makes up only the first forty or so pages of The Art of Controversy. It is a treatise, or an attempt at one, about how political cartoons work, what makes them so powerful. Navasky believes that “under certain circumstances cartoons and caricatures have historically had and continue to have a unique emotional power and capacity to enrage, upset, and discombobulate otherwise rational people and groups and drive them to disproportionate-to-the-occasion, sometimes violent, emotionally charged behavior.” There’s no disputing that, but will it really take us forty pages to understand why?

Navasky divides his attention between what he calls the Content Theory, the Image Theory, and the Neuroscience Theory. Do provocative cartoons provoke because of what they say (Content), because of how they convey it (Image), or because the combination of message and medium operates on the human brain (Neuroscience) in some elusive, mysterious way? To those of us who will never deliver a TED talk, this question seems to answer itself: It’s always worse to be told you’re stupid or evil by somebody who is simultaneously laughing at your big fat stupid face. If understanding that fact qualifies as “neuroscience,” then I, for one, have been missing out on an awful lot of grant money.

Navasky’s impulse to pull a Malcolm Gladwell on political cartoons leads him to make some rather content-poor, even embarrassing observations. Although he is “not an art scholar or a historian,” he informs us, he has “not been unaware of the importance of the image in the history of art.” Oh, well, that’s reassuring. “The more powerful the caricature,” he says, “the more outraged the protest.” But this is wishful thinking: The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons were crude, not powerful, and the violent outrage that greeted them had to be ginned up and choreographed by political and religious leaders. In our jaded and image-saturated age, even the most brilliant cartoonists sometimes wield far less power and influence than they deserve.

When The New Yorker ran a Barry Blitt cover depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as fist-bumping terrorists, some readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Navasky explains: “The cancellers saw the cover as an accusation that Obama was in league with the terrorists.” Then he extrapolates: “Maybe the moral is that this sort of meta-caricature (a caricature of a caricature) reveals the limits of the caricature form.” Maybe. Or maybe the moral is that subscribing to a highbrow magazine is no guarantee that one has any common sense, never mind a sense of humor. Blitt’s “meta-caricature” might have looked anti-Obama on, less so on David Remnick’s New Yorker.

Navasky’s strong suit is appreciating great cartoonists and sharing that passion with his readers. As an analysis of the power of graphic satire, The Art of Controversy doesn’t hold a candle — or a Rapidograph — to, say, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. But it’s great as a companion to H. W. Janson’s History of Art or Camille Paglia’s recent Glittering Images. His book number three, a procession through the history of political cartoons — from Charles Philipon’s “Le Poire” (1831) to Aseem Triveldi’s 2012 arrest on sedition charges — is an invaluable account of two centuries of comic art, with a galvanizing emphasis on the specific conditions of its creation. The reader who learns that the Syrian artist Ali Ferzat had his hands broken — “This is just a warning” — for tweaking his political enemies will grasp the power of this medium without the aid of any rickety theoretical framework.

All the masters are here. We meet William Hogarth and James Gillray, Francisco Goya and Honoré Daumier, David Low (scourge of the Führer) and Al Hirschfeld. The role of comic art in perpetuating suspicion and hatred isn’t neglected, either: A section on the Nazi weekly Der Stürmer notes that its cartoons were “more insidious” than its articles, “since even the illiterate could see, understand, and be moved by them.” Philipp Rupprecht, a.k.a. Fips, depicted the Jews as “toads, vampires, vultures, horned monsters, insects, spiders, bacteria, and toadstools.” The ghastly specimens Navasky reprints are enough to make one’s hair stand on end.

Still and all, Navasky is a “free-speech absolutist,” and God bless him for that. It’s easy to champion the “enduring power” of political cartoons if one only imagines them in the service of benign, populist goals. Navasky sees the combination of words and pictures as ultra-potent and, like dynamite, neither good nor bad of itself. He knows that a cartoon may bring about much-needed change — or a conflagration. But he is confident, despite the risks, that a free society needs this medium. “Why,” he asks, “do cartoonists and caricaturists inspire such fear in tyrants and bureaucrats alike?” Again, the answer may be less mysterious than Navasky imagines. It’s tough to break a man when he’s laughing his head off.

Illustration from The Art of Controversy by Ralph Steadman.