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Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power

by Victor S. Navasky

Pub Date: April 10th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-307-95720-7
Publisher: Knopf

The veteran journalist offers a survey of political caricature, international in scope, but a little sketchy in its short biographical summaries.

As the former editor and publisher of the Nation, Navasky (Columbia University School of Journalism; A Matter of Opinion, 2005, etc.) at least twice faced open revolt from staffers at the liberal magazine for caricatures that he published, including a famous one by David Levine that shows Henry Kissinger raping (or at least sexually dominating) the world. Most of the outrage came not from the right but from the left, from feminists who decried the sexual stereotype of a man having his way with a submissive female, who protested in a group letter that “a progressive magazine has no business using rape jokes and sexist imagery (he screws, she is screwed) to make the point that Kissinger revels in international dominance. Kissinger is a man, but the globe is not a woman.” The incident underscores many of the points made in the book: that there can be a big difference between the way a caricature is conceived and perceived, that images have a different and often greater power than words, and that “unfairness, by the way, is the point—there really is no such thing as a balanced or objective caricature….Caricatures by definition deal in distortion.” Admitting that “my methodology was anything but scholarly,” the author presents a variety of theories on how and why caricature derives its communicative power before proceeding through an “unguided tour” of more than four centuries of political caricature and a gallery of more than 30 caricaturists and publications, most represented by a couple pages of text and a couple pieces of work. Where even a master of the form such as Ralph Steadman dismisses caricature as “low art…nothing but a cheap joke,” the imprisonment or even murder of some whose work has offended suggests how severe the consequences can be.

Generally engaging and often illuminating, but the study might better have gone deeper rather than wide.