Books: “The Art of Controversy”

June 18, 2013

NAST'S SANTA CLAUS

NAST’S SANTA CLAUS

It’s one of the ironies of 19th century history that the same man who gave us the roly-poly image of Santa Claus that warms our hearts every year was also one of the most damaging political cartoonists of his era. But that’s the way it was with Thomas  Nast, one of the artists Victor N. Navasky  discusses in The Art of Controversy, a meditation on the art and implications of the caricature.

Nast famously set his sights on Tammany Hall, as the Democratic Party machine in New York City was known, and particularly on William M. “Boss” Tweed, a businessman and politician who dominated the affairs of the city largely through his control of patronage in the form of both contracts and jobs.

As Navasky relates, Nast’s work in Harper’s Weekly during the 1871 election campaign is credited with purging city government of the Tammany gang. Tweed and others in his circle were subsequently charged with enormous thefts of public funds and sentenced to prison. Tweed tried to flee, but a Spanish customs official arrested him after recognizing him from Nast’s caricatures.

VICTOR S. NAVASKY

VICTOR S. NAVASKY

Tweed was no stranger to criticism, but he famously remarked about Nast’s assaults on him: “Stop them damn pictures! I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles. My constituents can’t read. But they can’t help seeing them damn pictures!”

The story of Nast and Tweed illustrates many of the points made by Navasky, who is the former editor and publisher of The Nation and a former editor at The New York Times Magazine. One of those points is the power of caricature, which is a form of cartooning that emphasizes or exaggerates distinctive physical characteristics of the subject: Richard Nixon’s ski nose and widow’s peak, for example, or Lyndon Johnson’s ears.

"Characters and Caricatures" by William Hogarth

“Characters and Caricatures” by William Hogarth

This is neither a technical analysis nor a history, although Navasky reaches back a few centuries in discussing the origins of caricature, noting that Leonardo da Vinci may have originated the form in the 16th century and William Hogarth was one of those who had perfected it in the 18th. This book is more a matter of Navasky thinking through the subject of political cartoons and not necessarily answering all of his own questions about the topic.

The author writes a lot about what makes caricature so effective. How effective? He points out one case in which an artist’s work landed him on Adolf Hitler’s “death list” and another case in which a cartoonist for Arab daily newspapers in Europe and the Near East was assassinated. In a far different vein, he devotes a chapter to the Nazi periodical Die Stürmer, which conducted a relentless campaign to ridicule and demean Jews, with caricature as a principal method. The editor, Julius Streicher, was hanged after the Nuremberg trials, and the cover cartoonist, Philipp Rupprecht, was sentenced to six years in prison, a sentence Navasky thinks was too light.

This potency raises in Navasky’s mind the question of whether political cartooning should enjoy exactly the free-speech protection that the written word has in the United States. He isn’t arguing that it shouldn’t, but he explores significant ways in which the two forms of expression are not identical — including the lasting (and frequently negative) impression a caricature makes and the fact that one can answer words with words (as in a letter to the editor), but can hardly make an effective response to a cartoon.

Navasky writes about editorial decisions (to publish or not to publish) such as the “Danish Muhammads” and a case of his own in which practically his whole staff opposed his choice to print a cartoon that portrayed Henry Kissinger “screwing the world.” This is a provocative book from Alfred A. Knopf about the use of caricature at various times in history and in various parts of the world. I screened editorial cartoons for my newspapers for the better part of four decades, but Navasky’s musings have given me new insights and raised questions that I had never considered.

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One Response to “Books: “The Art of Controversy””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good caricature might be worth ten thousand, or more. As a testament to the power of caricature, I offer this: all it took was the mention of Boss Tweed for his image to appear in my mind. I did an image search to confirm my memory, and there he was. I have no idea when I first was exposed to those cartoons, but it’s been a good while, and they haven’t faded.

    i never would deny First Amendment protection to political cartooning, myself. I don’t often recognize the slippery slopes of life, but this seems like one of the worst. It’s absolutely true that cartoons and words are different, but if we were to proscribe cartoons, what would we do about tee shirts? I’ve seen some pretty memorable political tee shirts in my life. If cartoons no longer were protected, would the tees survive?
    And what about late night tv comedy sketches? Animated youtube videos? and so on.

    Navasky probably is right that it’s nearly impossible to respond effectively to a cartoon, but in an increasingly image-driven culture, learning how to respond may be the most important task of all.

    If I were a political staffer, I’d be enrolling in a good visual rhetoric course so fast it would make your head spin.

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