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‘Cartoons Are Like Seismographs’

The Art of Controversy

Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power



The Art of Controversy
Victor S. Navasky
256 pages, $ 27.95

Available: 9 April 2013

Victor S. Navasky is a former editor of The New York Times and The Nation, and in his long career he has dealt with many cartoonists. Better yet, he is a fan of cartoons and caricatures, and understands (and appreciates) their power. The Art of Controversy is, as the author calls it, an 'unguided tour' of a number of great cartoonists (starting in the 18th century) and the controversy surrounding their work.

Before taking us on his tour, Navasky uses four chapters to talk us through three theories about why cartoons, and caricatures in particular, are so powerful: the Content Theory, the Image Theory, and the Neuroscience Theory. The Content theory focuses on what the cartoon is about, and the Image Theory on how the subject is portrayed, but the most interesting one is perhaps the Neuroscience Theory. Neuroscience has revealed (through experiments with birds) that, because of their simplification, the area of the brain involved in facial recognition reacts more quickly to caricatures than to photos of real faces. Although the implications of this theory for understanding how cartoons work are contested, it could expain why carticatures can be so powerful and upsetting to the ones portrayed. Caricatures are registered more clearly by the mind's eye, and therefore remembered longer and more strongly than photographs.

The book is not an academic attempt to methodically catalogue cartoon controversy through the centuries. Rather, Navasky describes himself as an aficionado who has 'long believed in satire as a particularly effective instrument of social criticism.' He also describes himself as a free-speech absolutist. The public sphere is, or should be, governed by what German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls the power of the better argument. Satire, and thus cartoons and caricatures, are in as sense good or bad arguments competing with other arguments within the public sphere.

It is here that I divert somewhat from the review, and might even stir up some controversy myself, to pose what I (a free-speech absolutist myself) found to be a conundrum. Navasky shows that powerful cartoons can work as 'totems' that, once unleashed, can have an uncontrollable power, independent of the creator of the image. The book shows these images, the good ones (e.g. cartoons condemning corruption and power abuse), but also the very, very despicable ones. In the latter category, we find no better example than the work of German cartoonist Philipp Rupprecht (pen name Fips), a weekly contributor the Nazi weekly newspaper Der Stürmer.

Der_StürmerDer Stürmer was an important propaganda tool for the Nazis, and the images by Fips are viciously anti-Semitic, employing every gruesome stereotype available. At the beginning of the chapter on the work of Fips, Navasky recounts that Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Stürmer, was hanged after the Nuremberg trials, but Fips only served six years for his contributions to the magazine. He goes on to suggest that justice might have been better served with a death sentence for the cartoonist as well.

Although, in light of Fips' work, I can certainly understand the sentiment, it struck me as an odd one in a book that in all the other chapters whole-heartedly defends the rights of cartoonists to draw as they please. There were, are, and probably always will be despicable opinions out there, spreading hate, discrimination, aggression and intolerance. But either we agree that opinions (whether they be written, spoken or drawn) are so powerful that we need to punish those we, as a society, consider sufficiently dangerous, or we cling on to our hope that in the end, the better argument will prevail.

Apart from this incongruity, the book is a pleasant read, with a tone reminiscent of an old man with a wealth of anecdotes to share. It is especially interesting to read about his own experiences (and opinions) as editor dealing with cartoons that gave rise to protest among the readers and staff of The Nation. The book is a testimony that shows the influence and impact of cartoons in world history in the last two-and-a-half centuries. The cartoonists featured, over 30 in total, are excellent. Some notable examples are British artist David Low (who landed himself on the Gestapo death list because he enraged Hitler with his cartoons), Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali (whose figure Handala lives on long after the artist was assasinated in London in 1987) and John Heartfield (probably the world's first Photohopper). If you are not familiar with one or more of these names, then this book is certainly recommended reading. Because the book is basically a collection of cartoons, the publisher would do well to make it available as an art edition, with all the cartoons printed large and (when applicable) in full color. The works published in The Art of Controversy certainly deserve it.

Tjeerd Royaards


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