Barry Barry Quite Contrary
This piece was written in response to the hue and cry which attended Barry Blitt’s July 2008 New Yorker cover of Barack and Michelle Obama in mock-terrorist garb. The controversy revealed widespread ignorance of the history of satirical images as well as the contemporary practice of producing them.
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 alsomight 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’sTimes 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 Yorkercover 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 Hardballconversation 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.