American Culture

ArtSunday: design, meaning, and more about the damn Obama cartoon

By Ann Ivins

“The political cartoon is not a news story and not an oil portrait. It’s essentially a means for poking fun, for puncturing pomposity. Cartooning is an irreverent form of expression, and one particularly suited to scoffing at the high and the mighty.”

Even an unrepentant smartass (ahem) can grasp the nuances of the controversy over David Remnick’s unfortunate choice of a certain political cartoon as cover art for the July 21st issue of The New Yorker. However, amid the flurry of accusations and defenses – racist, anti-racist, inappropriate (a milquetoast catchall and a perpetual irritant), too easy to misinterpret, impossible to misunderstand, bad taste, protected speech, not funny – one criticism resonates with me as perhaps more of a fundamental issue than many realize.

It’s bad satire. It doesn’t work.

The reasons for its failure have very little to do with its potentially explosive subject and almost everything to do with some basic tenets of art in general and editorial cartooning in particular.

“A cartoon does not tell everything about a subject. It’s not supposed to. No written piece tells everything either. As far as words are concerned, there is no safety in numbers. The test of a written or drawn commentary is whether it gets at an essential truth.”

Clarity and focus is the essence of good communication, whether drawn or written. Forget the subject. Examine the drawing using some of the basic principles of design. Line weight (heavy or fine) and value (dark or light) is very consistent throughout the picture, and here this is not a good thing. Focus requires contrast. (Think wallpaper. Wallpaper is designed to be spread over a large surface without drawing attention to any one point; it is designedly consistent and unfocused.) In the cartoon, Michelle Obama’s hair, by virtue of its difference from the rest of the washy elements, attracts the eye first – certainly, this was not the artist’s compositional or editorial intent. And once yanked away from the Mod Squad Afro, where does the focus travel? In a well-composed drawing, the artist leads the viewer through and around the picture with the skillful use of line, repetition, unity, stopping the eye at certain points by breaking the rhythm, changing the pattern. Here, the next object to jump out is… Michelle Obama’s shirt? The contrast thing again. Only after that do the details of the Senator’s costume and surroundings begin to emerge.

The impression I get is that the artist became carried away with slick but nonessential elements: the hair, the portrait, the burning flag, the fist bump. In the process, he lost focus, and in losing focus, he sacrificed clarity to cleverness. A very intelligent commenter on this blog was brave enough to confess that when he first saw the picture, he truly didn’t know what to make of it. Here’s a thought: when the part of the brain dedicated to interpreting visual stimuli is working overtime to make sense of what it sees, the very different parts of the brain which connect ideas to information to opinion to emotion are left hanging for a while, no matter how smart or well-informed the viewer is. Timing is everything. Seconds, milliseconds, even – in any form of humor, if the audience doesn’t get at least the main idea right away, the point is lost.

“It may not sound very exciting or “cartoony,” but to me the basic idea is the same as it ought to be with a written opinion — to try to say the right thing. Putting the thought into a picture comes second. Caricature also figures in the cartoons. But the total cartoon is more important than just fun with faces and figures.”

Here again I see a fundamental problem with this drawing as an editorial cartoon. The “total cartoon” – the sum of its images (and text, when applicable) should express a complete and unmistakable thought, the “right thing,” regardless of context. Take away “The New Yorker” logo. Take away everything the frequent reader of this magazine knows about its political leanings and editorial stance. Try it. What remains? Skillful but controlled caricature, images of anti-American activity in the sanctum of the Oval Office… and what else? What’s the message? Is it satire or caution? A poke or propaganda? If the view being satirized is unrepresented (say, Dick Cheney looking on in horror), there has to be another signal within the work itself. Here, no one element is exaggerated enough to be an unmistakable tip-off. If its origin is obscured, if its context is unknown, this particular cartoon fails the test of independent clarity of message, no matter the audience.

So should satirists “dumb down” their work to make certain the majority of a questionably enlightened and inconsistently educated population can grasp it? Of course not. Should every attempt, successful or not, at irony or parody or just good old burlesque be stamped “HA HA HA” in large red letters in order to protect the delicate sensibilities of the perpetually offended? Never. But in this case – well, it’s unfortunate.

David Remnick, albeit entirely due to his own choices, is now in the excruciating position of defending a bad example of a good principle. And that’s just not funny.

all quotations from the brilliant and legendary Herblock

4 replies »

  1. In my dark, demented past I was an editorial-page editor. The initial joy of the job was selecting editorial cartoons. It’s an uncommon art married to a common craft — drawing. Over time, I learned that the best (meaning hardest-hitting) political cartoonists had two qualities:

    — using as little ink as possible (meaning, only drawing the line that means the most)
    — being as independent of caricature as possible.

    The best work, while using caricature, did not depend on it. Your critic of the Obama cartoon is spot on target — it overdoes caricature, apparently for its own sake. In doing so, whatever point or moral coda is buried.

    Tom Toles, the great Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, long ago told me: “Hey, either it works or it doesn’t.” For Mr. Toles, his cartoons “work” time after time after time. That’s because he has something to say — the Obama cartoon doesn’t. Hence the lengthy critiques of the cartoon that do little to unravel its mysterious meaning.

    Nice work, E. Thanks.

  2. I curious. Maybe I’m just a cynical SOB, but could it just be that the editor had an ulterior motive and just tried to couch it, however badly, in a satirical format? Could it be that they really just wanted to bring all these stupid ideas about Obama to the forefront and FORCE the conversations we’re having now?

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