Victor Navasky Explores the Power of Political Cartoons

Eric Sharfstein
April 18, 2013

In more than three decades as editor and publisher of The NationVictor Navasky witnessed a staff uprising just once. Employees objected to a political cartoon by the legendary New York Review of Booksillustrator David Levine depicting a naked Henry Kissinger on top of a woman who has a globe where her head should be. The two are in bed, draped in an American flag.

“The petition was signed by 25 people in an office that I thought employed only 23 people,” says Navasky, the George T. Delacorte Professor in Magazine Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

Illustrator David Levine famous cartoon depicts a naked Henry Kissinger on top of a woman who has a globe where her head should be. The two are in bed, draped in an American flag.

The protest led to a lengthy discussion between Navasky, Nationemployees and Levine about the 1984 cartoon, which angered feminists because it was a stereotypical portrayal of sex, with the woman passive and on the bottom. Navasky, nevertheless, published the cartoon. Six years later, when Columbia University presented an exhibition commemorating The Nation’s 125th anniversary, Levine’s Kissinger cartoon was a highlight.

In his new book, The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power (Knopf), Navasky writes: “Looking back, I can see that in underestimating the power of Levine’s uber-un-PC image to provoke, I may have internalized the views of the many art critics, art historians and artists who themselves have, over the years, dismissed cartoons and caricatures as fundamentally ‘not serious.’”

What prompted Navasky—a self-proclaimed “word guy”—to write the book was the furor that erupted in 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. Around the world, Muslims protested. Danish flags were burned. Embassies were closed. People rioted and, by some accounts, more than 200 people died. Navasky says that a majority of the protesters never actually saw the published cartoons.

“The fact that the commentary was done in the form of a cartoon is what got people so upset,” says Navasky, referring to the general Muslim prohibition against making images of Muhammad. “In the wake of these events, I began to think seriously about why this medium that is often criticized as silly can be so powerful.”

Navasky believes that political cartoons work on three different levels, often at the same time. First, there’s the actual content of the cartoon. A good example is Barry Blitt’s 2008 New Yorker cover showing a fist bump between Barack and Michelle Obama, who are drawn as terrorists. It was meant to satirize right-wing opinion about the couple but was misinterpreted as reflecting the artist’s own views. Cartoons also work on a symbolic level, as in the inflammatory Jyllands-Posten drawings. Finally, Navasky says, some cartoons work on a neurological level, stimulating a response in the brain.

His book, which examines influential cartoonists from the 18th century to the present, includes cartoons throughout—though not the Danish ones. Navasky, a free speech absolutist, cites a number of reasons, including the desire to avoid needless provocation. He said the Mohammed cartoon he commissioned by Jean Plantureux (known as Plantu) does a perfect job illustrating the controversy.

A sketchof a bearded Victor Navasky wearing glasses and a suit and tie

The book includes 19th century cartoons published in Harper’s Weeklyby Thomas Nast, whose work helped bring down William “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt head of Tammany Hall. Tweed, who later escaped from prison and fled to Spain, was captured because a Spanish customs official recognized him from Nast’s cartoons.

Navasky also discusses Der Stürmer, the Nazi newspaper that published anti-Semitic cartoons depicting Jews as spiders, vampires and horned monsters. He notes that Julius Streicher, its founder and editor, was executed for war crimes after the Nuremberg trials even though he was a noncombatant.

Herblock (Herbert Block), the Washington Post cartoonist who frequently targeted Sen. Joseph McCarthy and President Richard Nixon, won three Pulitzer Prizes and the Medal of Freedom, the government’s highest civilian award, over his long career.

One of Herblock’s best-known images, from 1954, which is reproduced in the book, shows a crowd during Nixon’s anti-Communist campaign waiting to see the then-vice president with the words, “Here he comes now.” And then, Navasky says, “you see him coming up from a sewer. And I think that is the image that stayed with him.”

A prolific journalist himself, Navasky won a National Book Award for Naming Names, his take on the McCarthy-era blacklist. A founding member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, he believes the organization should put a cartoonist on its board to recognize the dangers they face around the world.

In law school at Yale and for many years after, Navasky edited Monocle, a magazine he founded that often published political cartoons by artists who had political differences with more mainstream magazines.

Navasky believes more newspapers should publish political cartoons, and mentions The New York Timesspecifically.

He notes that throughout history, cartoons have irritated the powerful. “In the past a lot of people were illiterate but they were not blind, and they could see images and understand cartoons,” says Navasky. “King Philippe was upset with Daumier’s caricatures of him as ‘the fathead.’ He knew the masses were seeing these things and were making judgments about him, and that’s true right up until Boss Tweed, who famously said, ‘I don’t care what they write about me but get rid of those damn pictures.’”