The Art of Controversy

Political Cartoons
and Their Enduring Power

By Victor S. Navasky

Alfred A. Knopf. 256 pp. $27.95

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Reviewed by Jim Higgins


Few people afflict the comfortable more savagely and effectively than political cartoonists. In The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power, veteran magazine editor Victor S. Navasky investigates how they work and celebrates some of the greats, from pioneering artist William Hogarth to contemporary caricaturist David Levine.

His book features 76 black-and-white illustrations plus a four-page color inset section; selfishly, I would like to have seen twice that many images.

Navasky, the former editor and publisher of The Nation and author of Naming Names, is a leftist but also calls himself a "free-speech absolutist." Not every cartoonist in this collection comes from his side of the spectrum. In fact, he allots a chapter to analyzing the imagery in Der Sturmer, a Nazi propaganda weekly whose hideous cartoons did much to spread anti-Semitism, even to this day.

In the front of the book, Navasky discusses three rationales for the power of political cartoons: the content theory, the image theory, and the neuroscience theory, which posits that something in the structure of the brain is particularly susceptible to the stimulus of a cartoon.

He also explores the history of caricatures, citing Joseph Conrad's brilliant remark, "A caricature is putting the face of a joke on the body of a truth," as well as 16th-century artist Annibale Carracci's statement that the caricaturist's role is "to grasp perfect deformity, and thus reveal the very essence of a personality."

Navasky begins his gallery, the meat of this book, with Hogarth (1697-1764), who didn't want to be called a caricaturist or satirist, but who was, nonetheless, "an artist-reformer" whose paintings and engravings led to social changes, especially for the poor.

Taking a broad view of political cartooning, Navasky includes a pair of major world artists, Francisco Goya, for his Los Caprichos, and Pablo Picasso, for Guernica (1937), his still-shocking Cubist response to the bombing of a Basque village. Unfortunately, Navasky's provocative decision to classify Picasso's painting as a political cartoon or caricature is hampered by the weak essay accompanying it, and is further diminished by an incorrect date for the painting in its caption.

The colossus who bestrides this gallery is Thomas Nast (1840-1902), the man who brought down New York City's Tammany Hall gang, whose cartoons still read clear and forceful more than a century later. We may no longer remember the names of the pols and fixers depicted in Who Stole the People's Money? (1871), but we recognize the finger-pointing circle of blame.

"I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles," Boss Tweed lamented. "My constituents can't read. But they can't help seeing them damn pictures!" Delightfully, the escaping Tweed was captured by a Spanish customs official who recognized him from Nast's cartoons. Incidentally, Nast is the artist who codified the look of Santa Claus for us, too.

Navasky considers a number of British and European cartoonists and artists, including Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz, and offers gentle praise for Bill Mauldin, the American chronicler of infantrymen via his Willie and Joe cartoons.

Moving closer to our time, Navasky gives us the sharp, simple imagery of Herblock (1909-2001), the longtime scourge of Richard M. Nixon: The cartoon reprinted in the book has the fallen Sen. Joseph McCarthy handing off the tarry brush of McCarthyism to Nixon.

Ralph Steadman, another Nixon hater, tells Navasky that he has stopped drawing politicians for a time and hoped all his fellow cartoonists would do the same, so the pols would disappear.

Skewering the powerful through cartoon and caricature remains a dangerous, even fatal pastime. Navasky delves into the contretemps in 2005 of the Danish newspaper cartoons depicting Muhammad, which led to violence. He also offers a timeline of arrest, imprisonment, violence, and the murder of political cartoonists.

Jim Higgins' review appeared originally in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.