Powerful Rulers Reduced to Laughable Caricature in ‘Art of Controversy’

August 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
While not always considered high art, journalist Victor Navasky says the power of cartoons to provoke and amuse is so strong that their creators can end up famous, jailed or dead. Navasky joins political editor Christina Bellantoni to discuss "The Art of Controversy," a look at how cartoons have shaped politics worldwide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a look back through history at the surprising influence of political cartoons.

NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni has our book conversation.

A picture is worth 1,000 words. That old adage of how drawings have for centuries shaped the conversation about government and its leaders is the subject of a new book, “The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power,” by journalist Victor Navasky. He’s the former editor and publisher of “The Nation” magazine and now teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Thanks so much for being here. Very interesting book.

VICTOR NAVASKY, author of “The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power”: My pleasure.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Let’s dive right in with a broad look. What role do you think political cartoons play in our society?

VICTOR NAVASKY: It’s very difficult to say because you could argue that Herblock’s images of Richard Nixon is what stays with us to this day, or David Levine’s picture of Lyndon Johnson showing his scar in the shape of Vietnam is going to be with us in history books in perpetuity.

So they have a lot to do with it. But they seem to — despite the fact that art critics don’t take them — many of them don’t take them seriously, they seem to enrage people. The leading Palestinian cartoonist was murdered on the streets of London. Daumier was thrown into prison. They have a power that no one can fully understand.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: And, in fact, one of sort of man that you dubbed as the father of American political cartooning had Boss Tweed had put in jail.

Tell us about Thomas Nast, who really had this big influence in the late 1800s.

VICTOR NAVASKY: Thomas Nast, who gave us — gave the Democratic Party its donkey and the Republicans their elephant and actually gave us the image of Santa Claus with his white beard and his rosy cheeks, did these cartoons of Boss Tweed.

And Boss Tweed famously said: “I don’t give a damn what they write about me. My constituents can’t read. But get rid of those damned pictures. They can all see the damned pictures.”

So, that’s — and then, ironically, when he was under indictment, he was identified by someone in Spain who had seen Thomas Nast’s cartoons of him.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: And so getting that to how the politicians themselves react, Richard Nixon, obviously this famed example, because he had such a distinctive face, got a lot of character.

VICTOR NAVASKY: You know, they all react differently.

And in some cases, they end up buying the cartoon at the other end, no matter how outraged they are. Hitler famously would go through the ceiling every time David Low, who was a well-known British cartoonist, would do a caricature of Hitler. He would call a meeting of his general staff.

Everyone would go into a great frenzy, and the foreign secretary of England went to visit — at the behest of the publisher of Low’s paper, “The Evening Standard,” went to visit Goebbels, the propaganda minister in Germany, to ask him how they could get the paper restored in Germany, because it was banned. He said, get rid of David Low’s cartoons. That’s how you can do it.

And then Hitler tried to do the impossible thing. He wanted to — he got so upset, he wanted to answer all of the cartoons with words, which it’s very hard to answer cartoons with words.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: And, in fact, you get at that. You say you can’t really write a cartoon to the editor if you’re a reader getting provoked this visceral response to a cartoon. How important is the medium?

VICTOR NAVASKY: I think it is critical, because I think one of the reasons that people get so enraged by cartoons is they’re frustrated because if you don’t like an article, you can write a letter to the editor even if it’s only in your head.

There not only is no such thing as a cartoon to the editor, but cartoons and caricatures are by definition unfair. They only tell one side of the story.

They exaggerate it. And so you believe that you have been unfairly or someone you identify with has been unfairly accused, and you’re powerless to respond to it.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, and you write about this very blunt cover of The New Yorker on July 21, 2008, provoked unprecedented emotional blowback. This is the image of then candidate Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, dressed as terrorists doing a fist bump.

And why was that so powerful?

VICTOR NAVASKY: I think that was a case where the cartoon was misunderstood, and David Remnick, the editor of “The New Yorker,” explained that this wasn’t a parody, this was not a satire of Obama. It was — and it wasn’t intended to show him and Michelle as terrorists. It was a satire of right-wingers who thought of them as terrorists.

So, different people read it in different ways. And the great cartoonist Art Spiegelman did a Hasid kissing a Caribbean woman. And when Tina Brown was running “The New Yorker,” she put an explanation in the very issue in which the cover appeared, but it still caused cancellations and outrage.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: In the book, you seem to be as intrigued by the imagery behind a cartoon as you are by the message. How important is the art of it all?

VICTOR NAVASKY: Well, I think it’s critical.

You know, we go back to the Old Testament, no graven images. The famous Danish cartoons of Mohammed, which caused hundreds of thousands of Muslims all over the world to demonstrate against it, resulted in injuries and deaths. The images themselves, however, ironically, in the case of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, most of the people who demonstrated never saw the cartoons.

It was the idea of the image, of the imagery that was upsetting. It was like a Ku Klux Klanner burning a cross on your lawn. You don’t have to see there and be it to understand why it’s a desecration.


Thank you so much, Victor Navasky.

VICTOR NAVASKY: Thank you for having me.