Few people afflict the comfortable more savagely and effectively than political cartoonists. In "The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power," veteran magazine editor Victor S. Navasky investigates how they work and celebrates some of the greats, from pioneering artist William Hogarth to contemporary caricaturist David Levine.
His book features 76 black-and-white illustrations plus a four-page color inset section; selfishly, I would like to have seen twice that many images.
Navasky, the former editor and publisher of The Nation and author of "Naming Names," is a leftist but also calls himself a "free-speech absolutist." Not every cartoonist in this collection comes from his side of the spectrum. In fact, he allots a chapter to analyzing the imagery in "Der Sturmer," a Nazi propaganda weekly whose hideous cartoons did much to spread anti-Semitism, even to this day.
In the front of the book, Navasky discusses three rationales for why political cartoons are so powerful: the content theory, the image theory and the neuroscience theory, which posits that there's something in the structure of the brain itself that's particularly susceptible to the stimulus of a cartoon.
He also explores the history of caricatures, citing Joseph Conrad's brilliant remark, "A caricature is putting the face of a joke on the body of a truth," as well as 16th-century artist Annibale Carracci's statement that the caricaturist's role is "to grasp perfect deformity, and thus reveal the very essence of a personality."
Navasky begins his gallery, the meat of this book, with Hogarth (1697-1764), who didn't want to be called a caricaturist or satirist, but who was nonetheless "an artist-reformer" whose paintings and engravings led to social changes, especially for the poor.
Taking a broad view of political cartooning, Navasky includes a pair of major world artists, Francisco Goya, for his "Los Caprichos," and Pablo Picasso, for "Guernica" (1937), his still-shocking cubist response to the bombing of a Basque village. Unfortunately, Navasky's provocative decision to classify Picasso's painting as a political cartoon or caricature is hampered by the weak essay accompanying it, and further diminished by an incorrect date for the painting in its caption.
The colossus who bestrides this gallery is Thomas Nast (1840-1902), the man who brought down the Tammany Hall gang, whose cartoons still read clear and forceful more than a century later. We may no longer remember the names of the pols and fixers depicted in "Who Stole the People's Money?" (1871), but we recognize the finger-pointing circle of blame.
Navasky gives us the sharp, simple imagery of Herblock (1909-2001), the longtime scourge of Richard Nixon: The cartoon reprinted in the book has the fallen Joe McCarthy handing off the tarry brush of McCarthyism to Nixon. Ralph Steadman, another Nixon hater, tells Navasky that he has stopped drawing politicians for a time and hoped all his fellow cartoonists would do the same, so the pols would disappear.
Skewering the powerful through cartoon and caricature remains a dangerous, even fatal, pastime. Navasky delves into the contretemps in 2005 of the Danish newspaper cartoons depicting Mohammed, which led to violence. He also offers a timeline of arrest, imprisonment, violence and the murder of political cartoonists.