The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power

Victor S. Navasky, Author
Victor S. Navasky. Knopf, $27.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-307-95720-7
Reviewed on: 02/18/2013
Release date: 04/09/2013
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The longtime editor and publisher of The Nation offers a highly personalized inquiry into the history and nature of political cartoons, and how they serve as a powerful tool of social criticism. Navasky (Naming Names) begins with an anecdote about a 1984 staff revolt at The Nation over a David Levine caricature of Henry Kissinger that staff perceived as sexist, then introduces three explanatory models vis-à-vis the apparent potency of such pictures: content theory, image theory, and neuroscience theory. Each is briefly sketched and fairly superficial, and the author combines all three theories in analyzing a variety of artists and past controversies, including the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Nazi publication Der Stürmer, and the 2005 protests over a Danish paper’s depictions of the prophet Muhammad. The bulk of the book is devoted to a “gallery” of cartoons by giants like Honoré Daumier, Thomas Nast, and Ralph Steadman, followed by a timeline of flashpoints from 1831 to 2012. Sometimes perfunctory, sometimes rich in detail, these entries—and the brilliant illustrations accompanying them—help make the book a valuable reference on the subject. Readers searching out a serious analysis of the social, political, and psychological sources and implications of the cartoon or caricature, however, will find this lively but capricious study less then satisfying. But the book succeeds as an introduction to the subject by a consummate insider. 76 b/w illus, 4 pages of color illus. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (Apr.)
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