Book review: The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power

Victor S. Navasky's new book on images that sting worse than words

The art of controversy: Political cartoons and their enduring power

In 1984, Navasky, then publisher of the leftist magazine The Nation, decided to publish a cartoon by David Levine, depicting Henry Kissinger in bed, under an American flag and on top of a naked woman who had a globe for a head. The message was obvious enough and, in Navasky’s mind, surely congenial to Nation writers and editors: the United States, as personified by its former secretary of state, was engaged in “screwing” the world. Two hours after Navasky okayed the drawing, he was presented with a petition signed by 25 staff members—out of a work force the puzzled publisher thought totalled only 23—denouncing the image’s sexism. That experience, reinforced by the deadly riots over the Danish Mohammad cartoons of 2005, set Navasky to searching for the reasons behind the galvanizing emotional impact of political images.

He investigates the three leading theories. Content is the obvious choice, except the same message expressed in words doesn’t seem to have a fraction of the impact. Content, in fact, looms largest when it’s misinterpreted: New Yorker cover illustrator Barry Blitt was mocking Obama caricatures, not Barack and Michelle Obama themselves, in 2008 when he portrayed the presidential candidate and his wife dressed in terrorist garb and doing a fist bump, but it was Obama supporters who poured vitriol on the magazine. Second, the image theory: simply to draw something is to make it come alive in a way it wasn’t before (the cartoonist as creator of what he is mocking). Finally, neuroaesthetics: some scientists believe our facial recognition hardwiring responds more powerfully to caricatures than to the real thing, because the former exaggerates the very features we use to distinguish one face from another. In other words, if you harbour strong feelings about Richard Nixon, you will respond more quickly and forcefully to a caricature of the former president than to a photo.

There’s something to be said for each theory, Navasky suggests, but explanations are clearly of less interest to him than the rich survey he offers: exquisite samples from two centuries of political caricatures, from Hogarth to Levine.

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