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The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power


A lavishly illustrated, witty, and original look at the awesome power of the political cartoon throughout history to enrage, provoke, and amuse.

As a former editor of The New York Times Magazine and the longtime editor of The Nation, Victor S. Navasky knows just how transformative—and incendiary—cartoons can be. Here Navasky guides readers through some of the greatest cartoons ever created, including those by George Grosz, David Levine, Herblock, ...

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The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power

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A lavishly illustrated, witty, and original look at the awesome power of the political cartoon throughout history to enrage, provoke, and amuse.

As a former editor of The New York Times Magazine and the longtime editor of The Nation, Victor S. Navasky knows just how transformative—and incendiary—cartoons can be. Here Navasky guides readers through some of the greatest cartoons ever created, including those by George Grosz, David Levine, Herblock, Honoré Daumier, and Ralph Steadman.  He recounts how cartoonists and caricaturists have been censored, threatened, incarcerated, and even murdered for their art, and asks what makes this art form, too often dismissed as trivial, so uniquely poised to affect our minds and our hearts.

Drawing on his own encounters with would-be censors, interviews with cartoonists, and historical archives from cartoon museums across the globe, Navasky examines the political cartoon as both art and polemic over the centuries. We see afresh images most celebrated for their artistic merit (Picasso's Guernica, Goya's "Duendecitos"), images that provoked outrage (the 2008 Barry Blitt New Yorker cover, which depicted the Obamas as a Muslim and a Black Power militant fist-bumping in the Oval Office), and those that have dictated public discourse (Herblock’s defining portraits of McCarthyism, the Nazi periodical Der Stürmer’s anti-Semitic caricatures). Navasky ties together these and other superlative genre examples to reveal how political cartoons have been not only capturing the zeitgeist throughout history but shaping it as well—and how the most powerful cartoons retain the ability to shock, gall, and inspire long after their creation.

Here Victor S. Navasky brilliantly illuminates the true power of one of our most enduringly vital forms of artistic expression.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
[Calvin] Trillin likes to call Mr. Navasky "wily and parsimonious," and in his book Mr. Navasky gets some of that wiliness onto the page. He's agreeable company, a crusty tour guide, a man who knew many of the great cartoonists of the 20th century and has stories to tell…Among the best reasons to come to The Art of Controversy is that as it rolls along, Mr. Navasky strews, like breadcrumbs, a minimemoir of his own busy life and times. We read about everything from his Jewish childhood in New York City…to stories about the blacklist era and his cantankerous office mates at The Nation. Mr. Navasky's volume is not a coffee-table book, though it does provide a nice selection of cartoons and caricatures.
The New York Times Book Review - Deborah Solomon
…thoughtful and deftly illustrated…
Publishers Weekly
The longtime editor and publisher of The Nation offers a highly personalized inquiry into the history and nature of political cartoons, and how they serve as a powerful tool of social criticism. Navasky (Naming Names) begins with an anecdote about a 1984 staff revolt at The Nation over a David Levine caricature of Henry Kissinger that staff perceived as sexist, then introduces three explanatory models vis-à-vis the apparent potency of such pictures: content theory, image theory, and neuroscience theory. Each is briefly sketched and fairly superficial, and the author combines all three theories in analyzing a variety of artists and past controversies, including the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Nazi publication Der Stürmer, and the 2005 protests over a Danish paper’s depictions of the prophet Muhammad. The bulk of the book is devoted to a “gallery” of cartoons by giants like Honoré Daumier, Thomas Nast, and Ralph Steadman, followed by a timeline of flashpoints from 1831 to 2012. Sometimes perfunctory, sometimes rich in detail, these entries—and the brilliant illustrations accompanying them—help make the book a valuable reference on the subject. Readers searching out a serious analysis of the social, political, and psychological sources and implications of the cartoon or caricature, however, will find this lively but capricious study less then satisfying. But the book succeeds as an introduction to the subject by a consummate insider. 76 b/w illus, 4 pages of color illus. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
“Thoughtful and deftly illustrated…an engaging meditation on cartoon history.”
The New York Times Book Review

“The visuals in The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and their Enduring Power are irresistible and the passionate Victor S. Navasky is a wonderful storyteller.”
The Boston Globe

“[Mr. Navasky] is agreeable company…a man who knew many of the great cartoonists of the 20th century and has stories to tell.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Accessible, yet acutely academic…With The Art of Controversy, Navasky has made a substantial effort to bring understanding to the power of caricature.”
The New York Daily News

“Mr. Navasky’s wonderful book is a spirited homage to the art and craft of political caricature.”
The Wall Street Journal

“This heavily illustrated, entertainingly written look at political cartoons is both personal—Navasky’s experience with controversial drawing as well as writing is considerable—and thoroughly researched. It is also deeply insightful.”

“A lavishly illustrated, witty, and learned look at the power of the political cartoon throughout history.”
Publisher’s Weekly

“Engaging and often illuminating.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Navasky argues eloquently and convincingly [that] censorship of caricature artists amounts to an assault on individual free speech. The Art of Controversy is an amazing historical document from a political journalist all too familiar with caricature’s intuitive and divisive power.”
—Shelf Awareness

"A novel approach to the history of political cartoons. From Picasso, Grosz, and Daumier through Herblock and Ralph Steadman, Navasky illuminates an underappreciated art form."
-Oliver Stone

"As Victor Navasky, a word man, investigates  the wordless art of the political cartoon -- what, he asks, accounts for its implosive power? -- we find ourselves in the hands of a writer of  indefatigable  curiosity  and are caught up in the tempestuous history of newsprint art. An expansive, illuminating work. I know of nothing comparable."
-E.L. Doctorow

"Victor Navasky's The Art of Controversy is an entertaining and instructive reminder of the important place of political cartoons in exposing lies, hypocrisies, stupidity, and corruption in the public arena. Be prepared to laugh and get angry all at once."
-Tom Brokaw

"Victor Navasky pulls it off - he showcases the significance and power of political cartoons without taking the 'funny' out of them or cloistering the amazing rage they evoke that is far beyond the power of mere words to explain."
-Ralph Nader

“For the political junkie, journalist, artist, cartoonist or student, The Art of Controversy is a wonder story of an amazing art form.”
-New York Journal of Books

“An invaluable account of two centuries of comic art, with a galvanizing emphasis on the specific conditions of its creation.”
Barnes & Noble

“Thought-provoking…a compelling meander through the complex world of satirical cartooning.”
Ashbury Park Press

“An entertaining tour through a wonderfully affecting mode of illustration.”
Drawing Magazine

Kirkus Reviews
The veteran journalist offers a survey of political caricature, international in scope, but a little sketchy in its short biographical summaries. As the former editor and publisher of the Nation, Navasky (Columbia University School of Journalism; A Matter of Opinion, 2005, etc.) at least twice faced open revolt from staffers at the liberal magazine for caricatures that he published, including a famous one by David Levine that shows Henry Kissinger raping (or at least sexually dominating) the world. Most of the outrage came not from the right but from the left, from feminists who decried the sexual stereotype of a man having his way with a submissive female, who protested in a group letter that "a progressive magazine has no business using rape jokes and sexist imagery (he screws, she is screwed) to make the point that Kissinger revels in international dominance. Kissinger is a man, but the globe is not a woman." The incident underscores many of the points made in the book: that there can be a big difference between the way a caricature is conceived and perceived, that images have a different and often greater power than words, and that "unfairness, by the way, is the point--there really is no such thing as a balanced or objective caricature….Caricatures by definition deal in distortion." Admitting that "my methodology was anything but scholarly," the author presents a variety of theories on how and why caricature derives its communicative power before proceeding through an "unguided tour" of more than four centuries of political caricature and a gallery of more than 30 caricaturists and publications, most represented by a couple pages of text and a couple pieces of work. Where even a master of the form such as Ralph Steadman dismisses caricature as "low art…nothing but a cheap joke," the imprisonment or even murder of some whose work has offended suggests how severe the consequences can be. Generally engaging and often illuminating, but the study might better have gone deeper rather than wide.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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 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.

A writer living in southern Connecticut, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications. He also writes a food blog, The Poor Mouth, which can be found at

Reviewer: Stefan Beck

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307957207
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/9/2013
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 534,394
  • Product dimensions: 7.18 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Victor S. Navasky is the former editor and publisher of The Nation, and a former editor at The New York Times Magazine, who once founded his own quarterly of political satire, Monocle, “a radical sporadical.”  He is the author of, among other books, Naming Names, which won a 1982 National Book Award, and A Matter of Opinion, which won the George Polk Book Award. He teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he is the director of the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism and chair of the Columbia Journalism Review. He lives in New York.

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Table of Contents


The Cartoon as Content
The Cartoon as Image
The Cartoon as Stimulus


William Hogarth
James Gillray
Francisco Goya
Charles Philipon
Honoré Daumier
Thomas Nast
Pablo Picasso
The Masses: Art Young and Robert Minor
Käthe Kollwitz
George Grosz
John Heartfield
Der Stürmer
David Low
Philip Zec
Victor Weisz (Vicky)
Bill Maudlin
Herbert Block (Herblock)
Al Hirschfeld
Raymond Jackson (Jak)
Ralph Steadman
Robert Edwards
Naji al-Ali
Edward Sorel
Robert Grossman
Steve Platt and the New Statesman
The New Yorker
Doug Marlette
Plantu and the Danish Muhammads
Qaddafi and the Bulgarians
Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro)
David Levine

Selected Bibliography

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