The Power of Caricature: Victor Navasky ’54

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

photo by Brendan Work

Victor Navasky ’54, former editor of The Nation and the New York Times Magazine, and currently a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, delivered the annual McCabe lecture Monday night titled, “The Art of Controversy: or why caricatures may be worth 10,000 words.” The lecture explored why the so-called “low art” of caricature manages to have such an outsized effect on politics, and the reasons why caricature and political cartoons are inherently more incendiary than other mediums.

Navasky began the talk by discussing the near-universal contempt the art world and sophisticated journalists have for caricatures. He quoted one critic who called caricature “a dangerous infraction against the rules of beauty” and discussed the origins of cultured society’s contempt for caricature. He sought to determine, he said, “From what does this so-called inconsequential form derive its power?”

This is a relevant question, according to Navasky, precisely because of how significant caricature has been both historically and in contemporary politics. He rattled off a list of famously incendiary cartoons, included the depictions of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper, the caricatures of Hitler drawn in the late 1930’s by British cartoonist David Low, and the New York Post’s recent cartoon that, critics allege, depicted Barack Obama as a giant monkey.

Navasky discussed with awe the reactions each of these cartoons had garnered, noting that the Danish cartoonists “had been forced to go into hiding with million dollar price tags on their head.” Navasky mentioned that many of the most difficult editorial decisions he had to make at The Nation centered around the decision on whether or not to publish various caricatures. A mini-revolt was declared in the news room, he said, when he decided to publish a now-famous cartoon that depicted Henry Kissinger having his way with a woman, whose head was replaced by a giant globe. “Kissinger is depicted literally screwing the world,” he said, noting that many of his feminist writers resented the submissiveness of the woman, and thought that the woman should better be replaced “by a third-world man.”

Navasky presented four theories for why the cartoons “have powers that stretch beyond our comprehension. These theories ranged from the neurological (that people’s brains are hardwired to react to images) to the sociological (that there is a certain “totemic power” to visual imagery) to the political (that the content in the cartoons was generally offensive, regardless of its medium). He found none of these theories particularly persuasive, primarily because none of them accounted for why photos of the abuses at Abu-Ghraib did not elicit anywhere near an extreme reaction among Muslim Arabs as the Danish depictions of Mohommed did.

“Which leads me to theory four,” Navasky said. This final theory is that caricatures are so powerful because “they are an image with a difference… the caricaturist doesn’t see the perfect form, but the perfect deformity.” Navasky found this theory the most persuasive, he said, because the most frustrating aspects of cartoons are their “deliberate distortions of truth.”

Winding his lecture down, Navinsky said that he learned from his late friend John Galbraith, noted economist and author, that “you should always say that you have 5 minutes to go. It puts the audience at ease.” The lecture concluded 15 minutes later, to applause, and Navinsky took a number of questions from audience members. Asked about the history of cartoons and when the medium became so powerful, Navinsky responded, “These are not original questions. They go back to Aristotle and before. I am only at the beginning of my journey.”

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