Monday, July 14, 2008

Barry Barry Quite Contrary!

[UPDATE JULY 15 2:00 CST. Welcome to Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish readers, and also to Drawn! readers. Thanks to Andrew and Jaleen for the links...]

I haven't gotten my copy yet, but I am looking forward to having a chance to review this week's New Yorker, both for Barry Blitt's controversial cover as well as Ryan Lizza's article about Senator Obama.

For those of you who have not yet encountered the huffing and puffing about "offensiveness" [from both campaigns thus far, plus a raft of commenters on Democratic netroots sites--Huffington post is a 4500+ the last time I checked a few minutes ago] the shocking saga goes like this: Blitt, an illustrator with a caricaturist's gift for funny exaggerations, both conceptual and visual, did this week's cover. It shows the Obamas celebrating in the Oval Office, she in guerrilla-militant garb with a automatic weapon, ammo belt, and resplendent 'fro; he in Osama-wear. They are doing the fist-bump. An American flag is burning in the fireplace, and a portrait of Osama Bin Laden hangs over it.

The picture is, in short, a spoof of kooky-malevolent right wing fabrications of looming Obamanian national betrayals, etc.

Why is this offensive? What is it with this word, offensive? Who ever said you get to tumble through your days without encountering a point of view that mocks your own, or which, in this case, mocks the views of your opponents by holding them up to the light of day, but which also might possibly be misconstrued by an undecided cocker spaniel after several drinks?

Magazines do this sort of thing. Especially opinion magazines. It works better for selling issues than setting small type on a colored background. Have you ever seen Foreign Affairs at a subway stop newsstand? Below, a hit job on Chuck Schumer in National Review. (Illustrator credit unavailable.)

This controversy, which I am certain will be extremely short-lived, is an excellent example of the visual-cultural illiteracy of a great many people. I do not wholly blame them. If cultural history or art history courses actually spent some effort engaging the subject areas of cartooning, illustration, and visual rhetoric in social and political history, perhaps we could contextualize these things a little more successfully.

[UPDATE JULY 15: For new readers, Graphic Tales has devoted editorial attention to the visual-cultural aspects of the campaign as things have progressed through the season. Most particularly, the racial dimension, especially in the aftermath of the Jeremiah Wright brouhaha is covered here.]

So let's review. Immoderate, exaggerated, provocative visual-textual "speech" is what cartoonists, satirists, and cultural smartasses do. Sometimes they gore the other guy's ox, and we think they are hilarious. Other times they gore ours, and we are not amused. But for God's sake, that is the cultural work that they perform. And in this case, the voice of the publication lines up with the spoof being offered. That is, this is the cover of The New Yorker, not the Weekly Standard or the National Review. It is implicit that the editor(s) and publisher of The New Yorker are in rough alignment with the political values of the Democratic Party. The magazine's content and pattern of visual satire as played out on its covers make this plain, especially in the David Remnick (editor) and Francoise Mouly (art director) era, although it bears remembering that Remnick argued in support of the Iraq War, but recanted in light of later revelations. (Also recall that a lot of people fit in that category.)

So The New Yorker is a left-oriented but independent editorial voice. It also happens to be the only national magazine in America which continues to rely on illustration and cartooning to present its cultural vision. The cover of The New Yorker is the best gig in American illustration today, a fact which has made this dispute possible. Bully for them, I say! (Full disclosure: I did a few illustration projects for the magazine several years back, when I was pursuing editorial work. David Remnick personally killed my last job for them. But the guy is plenty brave, if you ask me--he rowed upstream on Iraq at a cost, and he publishes challenging work like this. Hats off.)

Meanwhile, back to the image. I'm guessing that they decided to go with this cover concept pretty late, because the image is a little thin for Blitt. Meaning his work always has a light touch but can be quite well developed. This piece is light in tone and touch, but not fully realized. Michelle's figure--especially waist and legs--is rough. He probably had to bang it out in nothing flat. That's a clue, I think, that they must have debated the idea pretty significantly in the editorial suite.

Would the same image have a different cultural meaning if it appeared on the cover of the Weekly Standard? Okay, would it have a different meaning if it appeared on the cover of The New Republic? Yes, in both cases, but not so different that it'd be completely beyond the pale, either.

I don't read the Weekly Standard, but I do read about it a little, insofar as I like to track opinion journals and their blogs. I have seen Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol on TV from time to time, and I read Kristol's Times column, though increasingly less often. I do not have an interest in the Standard. But if they ran the same cover I imagine they'd have to do it in a Just Kidding!! sort of way, as if they too were spoofing right wing perceptions while disingenuously hoping they'd stick. (Of course Blitt would probably not work for the Standard, and they don't hire illustrators, anyway.)

By contrast I do read The New Republic. They are often more hawkish than other liberal opinion journals, particularly as regards Israel, but they are certainly aligned with the Democratic party. They could run the same cover, and without a doubt have run some pretty aggressive ones. Two come to mind. One, last year, featured a menacing-looking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a sort of vampire, with (presumably nuclear-tipped) missiles for teeth. The other, shown above, provoked allegations of misogyny: Hillary as a Hysteric.

Here's the bottom line, folks: political speech is a rough business, and satire is a protected field, whether the satire goes after facts or perceptions of facts.

Speaking of which, and given the mention of Iraq, how about this scene in Team America in which Kim Jong Il feeds Hans Blix to a shark? It's a hilarious moment in the movie, primarily because it involves puppets, forbidden foreign-accent humor, and big dollops of sheer ludicrousness. Of course Kim Jong Il has undoubtedly caused the deaths of a great many people in his country through corruption and fanaticism. He is not a funny person. But giving him a musical number that sounds like I'm Rohn-ry, So Rohn-ry (Lonely, So Lonely) makes him funny at his own expense.

Meanwhile, American political history provides instructive precedent.

Thomas Nast practically hounded presidential candidate Horace Greeley to death in 1872. Greeley argued for pulling troops out of the South, thereby ending Reconstruction five years earlier than what actually came to pass. Nast editorialized against him mercilessly. The cartoon shown above "accuses" Greeley of murdering blacks to win an election. [Of course there can be no disputing that the end of Reconstruction did turn out to be a death sentence for black aspirations, as well as the beginning of a state-sponsored reign of terror in the South.] But Greeley certainly never murdered anybody, nor did he advocate for the ill-treatment of blacks. He'd been a reformist Republican from the beginning in the era of Lincoln. No matter. Greeley lost the election badly, spiraled into madness and died before year's end.

Thanks Tom! Back at ya!

Finally: I was stuck waiting for someone late today where a television was playing. Chris Matthews' Hardball came on, and The New Yorker cover was the subject of the day. Ryan Lizza was on, along with the editor of The Atlantic, on whose name I am suddenly blanking. At no time in the 20 minute interview was Barry Blitt's name mentioned. It was as if the magazine itself had made the drawing. What is that? Perhaps they were protecting him from crazy people, a la the Danish cartoonists. Maybe he got surprised by the uproar and wanted no part of it. But why wasn't he mentioned as the illustrator?

Back to my original point about visual-cultural illiteracy. The Hardball conversation was about the imagined effect the cover image would have on viewers. As if it were a pictorial Andromeda strain, or an insanely effective piece of pornography. No historical frame of reference, no term definition or professional context, nothing. It was all words and politics, cause and effect. Oh, and Chris Matthews was offended.

The most promising aspect of Barack Obama's candidacy from my point of view has to do with his apparent irritation and boredom with dominant modes of political behavior over the past 20 years or so. The stupefying simplicity and know-nothingism that has dominated campaigning seems unappealing to him. Thank God. (For that matter, the know-nothing mode doesn't seem to appeal to McCain either, but because he's been lashed to dumb policy ideas, he's stuck with it. What else can he do?) Yes, some of it comes with the territory. So wear the dumb flag pin. Ultimately I think he thinks we can manage ambiguity or difficult problems, because we're not a bunch of idiots, even though we have been treated as such and been complicit in it to boot. The electorate can handle satire. Have some faith in us, folks.

And thanks to Barry Blitt, David Remnick, and Francoise Mouly.


GregM said...

Hi DB--you got linked by Andrew Sullivan, so expect a readership boost.
This is a smart, well-written, literate essay. Here's my sticking point: "...e're not a bunch of idiots, even though we have been treated as such and been complicit in it to boot. The electorate can handle satire. Have some faith in us, folks."
I was reading the comment thread at Jake Tapper's post; there were a significant number of comments which were along the lines of "I'm glad the New Yorker is finally telling the truth about the Obamas!" There's also the fact that something along the lines of 10% of voters falsely believe Barack Obama is an EEEVIL MUSLIM. Asking to have faith in the electorate--after the past two elections--and after a lot of Americans believed the Swift Boat veterans for truth--strikes me as a little naive.

I'm a fan of The New Yorker, but I don't have faith in the entire electorate, and I don't believe everyone will recognize this cover as satire. I don't blame Blitt or the New Yorker for that, but I wish the cover had a bit more context.

DB Dowd said...

GregM: thanks for the note. I understand your objection.

Just to make myself clear, I mean the electorate in the aggregate. Yes, some will believe--hope to believe, crave to believe--dumb things that confirm their position. But the Swiftboaters were not satirists, they were character assassins. The way to beat them is to out-argue and out-campaign them, in part by giving people credit for being able to manage nuance. The know-nothingism of recent campaigns has worked primarily because it hasn't been effectively challenged by candidates. As we begin to look back on early 21st century domestic political history, I think we'll conclude that the period from from September 11, 2001 through the 2006 mid-term elections was a perfect storm: of disorienting circumstances, shameless brass-balled Machiavellians, and slow reaction times among the opposition.

As for Barry Blitt and the Tribe of Satirists, they have a different cultural portfolio. Candidates and parties must do their own work.

stephen said...

In terms of analysing the response to the cover there doesn't seem to me to be anything in the concept itself that should have warranted such an odd response.

I wonder if was the more naive than usual style to Blitt's illustration that had an effect here. It's as if the more cartoonish and raw an illustration, as with the Danish cartoon controversy, the more realistically it is judged. If the same concept was done in a more photographic/ photoshopped Time magazine style I have a feeling it would draw instant guffaws and satiric acceptance.

New Yorker covers are often perceived as whimsical, but it is interesting that when illustration ,or cartooning really, pulls back to give a politically edged sucker punch it can still deliver quite a hit on the newsstand if it wants to.

John Hendrix said...

Where was the outcry when Mark Ulriksen, on the cover of the New Yorker, implied that W. and Cheney were having anal sex?


Why is Mark's cover clearly absurd and Barry's just 'poorly executed' - as Axelrod claims? The question we should examine is not "Should the New Yorker cover use satire?" but, "Why does this offend when others don't?" The cover was intended to push buttons, but the fascinating aspect of this is that the OPPOSITE group that was targeted is the outraged party! Astounding.

Its an issue of visual literacy, not validity of satire.

Phillip said...

While I agree that satire is not always pretty, and not intended to be 100% accurate, I find the Blitt cover pretty obnoxious. Satire should be topical; relevant. The only thing on this cover that seems to address a real issue is that there is a Presidential candidate who is black, indicated by the fist pounding and afro. The illustration could have stopped there and been pretty funny. I fail to see how any of the other elements tie in to the reality of the situation. The militant apparel, the Osama portrait (is there anyone that really suspects there is some connection by virtue of the fact that their names sort of rhyme? This is silly.), and the burning flag.
I understand your case that this is an attempt to lampoon the wild fears of the far right. But I think the attempt is an unsuccessful one. Rather than having called attention to the individuals making wild claims about Barack’s loyalties, it has brought the man himself in to an awkward light that really isn’t justified by reality as far as I know.
Anyway, interesting topic, thanks for calling this to my attention. Found the link on

Diana said...

This is my first year voting, so I don't feel like I can say much about these kinds of issues, however, I think this kind of satire can be scary when so many people are worried about whose going to get into office.
I am an aspiring illustrator, and since this New Yorker cover, I've realized most of my family doesn't understand satire when it comes to illustrations. I've been hearing older relatives of mine say things like "it's about time they showed the truth" and "this is why I'm voting for McCain." I live in Chicago- I wouldn't expect this kind of impact on my relatives.
I've tried to explain what the New Yorker is about, but I guess they don't get it.
I love your blog and agree with most of the things you've said, it's just sad that people aren't recognizing this as satire.

Joyce Ann Martin said...

DB --

Imagine my surprise when I found the Ulcer City blog (aka an essay by "the indefatigable DB Dowd") linked on "Drawn!". My new husband and I talked at length about this during a six-hour car ride to Chicago the other day. I hadn't seen the cover yet when it came up on NPR during the drive, and the radio description of it conjured up some off-the-wall, wacky images in my head. Now that I've actually looked at the cover, it's much tamer than I had initially thought it was. Ah, fair imagination. Action-packed and completely wild isn't Blitt's game, but I can't help but wonder if an illustration with the same elements but set up like a superhero action movie poster would have received more chuckles and less outrage. I suppose it's not to be known.

It seems that all of Dan's time spent around illustrators has awakened his sensitivity to visual objects, and he came up with some interesting points on the topic of Blitt's cover (most notably a comment on how portrayal of a person is more quickly seen by some viewers as caricature of that person and not necessarily a commentary on something outside itself, which I do feel is directly affected by visual literacy), and he wants to add to the discussion in his comment below (and felt that he needed an introduction from me).

Dan said...


Until a few moments ago (as I was writing this, in fact) I disagreed with you. So instead of writing what I originally intended to, I'll explain why I thought as I did, and why that changed.

I have heard the cover described perhaps best as a caricature, and I agree with that definition. It expresses that this is, explicitly at least, a dramatization of the Obamas. By definition, caricature creates a recognizable portrait through over-exaggeration of the characteristics that we associate with a person – their chin, their hair, etc. By extension, the cover essentially represents the Obamas as persons recognizable through their apparent extremes, thus making an apparent claim of those extremes as somehow definitional.

What I felt missing was that final knife twist that gives satire its bite, the realization that “Oh my, I have just contemplated eating babies.” The cover seems complete unto itself; its absurdity seems cast as caricature, with nothing to make us examine our acceptance or rejection of its content. And then I remembered the inside cover, “The Politics of Fear.”

Thus what makes the cover difficult for many, I believe, is that its satiric moment comes only after the illustration itself has passed. And though latter realization of prior absurdity is what drives satire, the particularly separate nature of execution here (my how separate two pages can be) serves to both deepen and obscure the cleverness of the work.

The attempt is to bait us into opening the cover out of our anger, or agreement, and then to reveal the trick. It asks liberals to question their gut-defensive “man the angry blogs” reaction, conservatives their too-ready agreement.

The problem is that they'd have to get past looking at the cover to notice the catch.

John Hendrix said...


Imagine this cover drawn in the following manner:

Barack Obama and Michelle, fist bumping, with a fist up in the air, black power style. They are in the Oval Office, but clad entirely in whiteface and minstrel gear.

That cover I described traffics a racial stereotype that is not subtle, unoriginal and fear-mongering.

But, Blitt's cover is not doing that, as many suggest. Nor is it untimely. Have you not heard the recent Fox News journalist's sound bite asking the question of the recent michelle/barack fist bump "What is this sign they do- is it a 'Terrorist Fist Jab?' "

What that journalist said (even with the 'excuse me' question mark at the end) is closer to my hypothetical cover about creating Muslim/Black fear than Blitt's answer to such irresponsibility.

The counter punch to an absurd authority? Satire.
Boss Tweed.
Taxation without Representation.
"I am not a Crook"
and on and on.

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