No Joke

The Art of Controversy by Victor S. Navasky

Knopf. 256p $27.95

Newspaper editorial writers labor long and hard and in relative obscurity to craft persuasive arguments to win readers to the publication’s point of view on an issue. But most readers, surveys tell us, give little more than a glance to the columns of black ink that carry those arguments. The editorial cartoon, however, is much more likely to draw readers’ attention and win approving guffaws or oaths whispered through clenched teeth, or even irate telephone calls and letters to the editor. In extreme instances, it can spark violence, as Victor S. Navasky tells us in The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power.


The political cartoon we know today was born in the 16th century amid religious controversy. Citing the anthropologist David Thorn, Navasky says that Martin Luther, in seeking adherents among the peasantry, created prints that showed easily recognizable biblical scenes with members of the Catholic clergy as antagonists. Hans Holbein the Younger depicted Luther as “the German Hercules” wielding a club to beat Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas into submission. From then until our own time, cartoons have often been powerful and controversial, sometimes more than print. King Louis Philippe of France believed he had been defamed by Charles Philipon, who depicted him as a pear. When Philipon showed the court drawings in which the king did, in fact, look like a pear, he was freed. Subsequently, Louis Philippe banned drawings of pears, saying that political writing “is no more than a violation of opinion; caricature amounts to an act of violence.”

Many other rulers as well were affronted by cartoons, and not all cartoonists were as fortunate as Philipon. Navasky includes a long list of cartoonists who suffered legal or physical reprisals for work that offended the powerful.

Navasky spent many years as editor and publisher of The Nation and in that role selected cartoons and defended his choices to readers when he had to and, occasionally, as he describes in detail, to irate staff members. Now a member of the faculty of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, he has given a good deal of thought to what it is in political cartoons, and in us, that leads to the powerful effects they can have. He has settled on three reasons—“theories” he calls them—content, image and neuroscience.

Content is the political message or rational aspect of the cartoon. Of greater importance, however, is the image, or “the cartoon as totem,” and especially a caricature, a weapon in the cartoonist’s arsenal that Navasky examines in detail. While we see events depicted in a photographs as objective, Navasky contends, we see and react to the cartoon as embodying what it depicts. The depiction, of course, is manipulated by the cartoonist, who increases and distorts a subject’s physical characteristics to provide insight into the target’s character. Consider Philipon’s depiction of Louis Phillipe as a pear, Thomas Nast’s late 19th-century Boss Tweed with dark, glowering face and swollen belly, or Herblock’s Richard Nixon with exaggerated ski-nose and five o’clock shadow. “The more powerful the caricature,” he writes. “the more outraged the protest.”

Navasky’s third theory, the neuroscience or brain theory, examines how and why the brain responds to cartoons. Different neuroscientists and psychologists have various explanations for how the stimulus of a cartoon has its effect, Navasky notes inconclusively. His view is that his three theories complement each other. But one must also consider, where relevant, “anthropology, sociology, race, and religion.—and other disciplines and factors too fierce to mention.”

Navasky makes only glancing reference to another element essential to the effect of a cartoon, the reader’s knowledge and understanding of the political situation that is its subject and his familiarity with the individuals depicted. An American can be expected to recognize that familiar stick figure with saucer-sized ears, Barack Obama, or the caricatured basset-hound face of John Boehner. But, as a traveler, that same individual will likely be baffled when he or she studies a political cartoon in a newspaper in Mexico City, Berlin or Tokyo, or even in an unfamiliar American city on a brief visit.

The point is obvious as the reader goes through Navasky’s gallery of representative political cartoons from the 18th century to the 21st. Biographical sketches of the cartoonists, critics’ comments on their work and notes on the times in which the works were produced are all essential to our understanding of the cartoons and the reactions they provoked.

Navasky lets his readers know up front that he is an absolutist about freedom of expression, and he reproduces and defends cartoons on hair-trigger subjects like politics, sex, race and religion that have brought some readers to full boil. He maintains that they ought to be printed, if they have merit. He shied away, however, from reprinting in this book cartoons depicting Muhammad as a terrorist that appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten depicting Muhammad as a terrorist. Every printing of them had led to protests by thousands of Muslims, even by many who had not seen them. Even though Navasky had disagreed with The New York Times’s decision not to reprint them, he did not include them in his book. His reasoning: Given the violent reaction to their first publication, he was reluctant to put the lives and property of others—presumably his publisher—at risk. Moreover, he believed the cartoons “lack distinction.” Besides, he writes, they are only a Google search away on the Internet.

Navasky’s approach throughout is somewhat like that of a memoirist. He relates his own experiences and those of cartoonists and other journalists he has known. His writing is personal, even chatty, and Navasky himself is rarely out of the reader’s view.

All told, The Art of Controversy is a readable introduction to its subject. Unfortunately, the author does not provide footnotes or a bibliography. But for more depth, readers can turn to works occasionally mentioned parenthetically in the text.

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