The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power

Image of The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power
Release Date: 
April 7, 2013
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“For the political junkie, journalist, artist, cartoonist, or student, The Art of Controversy is a wonder story of an amazing art form.”

Ask a baby boomer about political cartoons and caricatures. Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” will immediately come to mind as would Walt Kelley’s “Pogo.” His depictions of Richard Nixon (Kelly’s favorite target) and Vice President Spiro Agnew during the Watergate hold a special place. Even Pogo’s political philosophy is known by most: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

To read Victor Navasky’s The Art of Controversy is to bring a better understanding of the editorializing through pictures, lifelike and grotesque. It is a look at political cartoonist most have never known and the ability to be friend or, most likely, foe of the political target.

Mr. Navasky also beings a personal touch to the stories, as 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, as well as being the chair of the Columbia Journalism Review.

In fact, he begins the discussion with his experience with political caricaturist David Levine and his now infamous depiction of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “screwing the world” (Kissinger on top of a female nude with a globe for a head, covered by an American flag). The cartoon was rejected by another magazine and Levine wanted it published in The Nation. This leads us into the theories and tales of the power of the picture. You must trust that the picture is indeed worth 1,000 words.

Mr. Navasky’s explanations of content, image, and neuroscience theories of the power and life of the political cartoon are a necessary and vital part of this book. The history of the political cartoon is fascinating, with the first illustration the 1545 Lucas Cranach the Elder’s The Birth and Origin of the Pope slapping the reader with its extremely irreverent depiction of the” Satan excreting” the new Pontiff. As interesting is the knowledge that the woodcut was commissioned by religious reformer Martin Luther.

The “Gallery” has over 30 political cartoonists and publications including those persons we know, Al Hershfeld, The New Statesman, and The Saturday Evening Post, and Edward Soral; however, there are names in the gallery that one may not know or associate with caricatures and politics, as Pablo Picasso and William Hogarth.

It is Mr. Navasky’s personal touch, his own stories and antidotes that help this book flow. The “Oh, I knew this guy,” or “I had a conversation with . . .” may appear a bit egotistical at first, yet to understand Mr. Navasky’s love for the art or the caricature the reader must know his contacts and research.

With over 80 illustrations, mostly black and white, the reader notes with pleasure that the art form has not changed much—nor have the targets of the ridicule. Most intriguing are Robert Minor’s 1916 The Perfect Soldier, showing a muscular giant of a man with no head, the various depictions of politicians like Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon, and of religion, as in Edward Sorel’s “Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition.”

We are also given a tour of the use of political cartooning as a propaganda tool. The anti-Semitic cartoons of Nazi Germany’s Der Strümer; Robert Edwards depiction of the “homicidal maniac” Menachem Begin; the exaggerations of African Americans and Africans with inflated lips; and World War II U.S. cartoons of Japanese showing thick glasses, slanted eyes, and buck teeth.

Of course, there is a section dedicated to the Danish newspaper’s 2005 depictions of Mohammad. It is the history of religious intolerance that is key. Jyllands-Posten was not the first; that honor goes to David Low and his drawing showing a statue of Mohammad looking up to British cricket star Jack Hobbs in 1927.

For the political junkie, journalist, artist, cartoonist, or student, The Art of Controversy is a wonder story of an amazing art form.