Alexa van Sickle


There are several ways to defur a feline.



Political Cartoons: A Dying Art?

© The International Institute for Strategic Studies


Review Essay

Political Cartoons: A Dying Art?

Alexa van Sickle

The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power
Victor S. Navasky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. $27.95. 232 pp.

In July 2013, the Syrian Electronic Army – a group of pro-regime cyber- warriors – hacked into the Thomson Reuters Twitter account and used it to spread cartoons that criticised the United States, Israel and the Syrian rebels.1 In one of the more subtle renderings, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives birth to a Free Syrian Army fighter – depicted as a terrorist – with the midwife represented as Israel.

We cannot measure how successful the group was in trying to spread its message. But it is clear that they were attempting to harness the power of the image – the cartoon – in presenting the regime’s narrative that outside powers are to blame for the conflict.

If journalism is the first draft of history, what function do political car- toons have? Devotees of fine art may think they are just doodles in the margin – but anyone who has been the subject of a nasty cartoon would disagree. In The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power, the Nation’s publisher emeritus Victor Navasky tries to explain what accounts for political cartoons’ ‘outsized political influence’, and why some leaders are more upset by cartoons than by criticism in prose (p. xv).

Navasky begins his study by recounting his first and only experience of revolt in his career as an editor. In 1984, New York Review of Books illustrator David Levine sent him a drawing the magazine had refused to publish: a sketch of a naked Henry Kissinger on top of a woman, with a globe where her head should be. The two figures were in bed, and an American flag served as a blanket.2

As a ‘First Amendment absolutist’, Navasky wanted to publish the piece without delay.3 His staff then presented him with a petition, signed by 25 people – ‘in an office I had thought only employed twenty-three people’ – demanding that he not run it (p. xii). As the flagship of the left, the Nations staff had no love for Kissinger, but many objected to the cartoon because they said it was sexist for portraying the female participant as the stereo- typically submissive party.

Navasky listened to all of their arguments, but published the cartoon nonetheless. Recalling the incident, he writes, ‘I can see that in underesti- mating 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 ... dismissed cartoons and caricatures as fundamentally “not serious”’ (p. xiv).

Cartoons and controversy

Navasky was still editor of the Nation when in September 2005 the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The paper’s editors argued that the move was meant to contribute to the debate about criticism of Islam and self-censorship. The drawings, which were subsequently reprinted by other European newspa- pers, led to protests around the world; riots; boycotts of Danish products; attacks on Christians, churches and European embassies; and, by some accounts, around 200 deaths. A terrorist plot against the newspaper was foiled in Norway. Then Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen called it Denmark’s worst international-relations incident since the Second World War.

Navasky himself decided not to publish the drawings, partly because he did not want to be needlessly provocative. But he wondered what was

it about cartoons that could incite people to commit acts of violence. Of course, the prohibition on any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad was a factor: although it is not explicitly set out in the Koran, the hadith – the tradi- tions based on how the Prophet lived his life – forbids images of him and any Christian and Jewish prophets, it is thought because imagery could lead to idolatry. The incident also came at a time of strained relations between Islamic countries and the West. But Navasky feels it was also ‘the fact that the commentary was done in the form of a cartoon is what got people so upset’.4 Still, nothing seems to account for what he calls the ‘most baffling’ aspect of the controversy, which is why the ‘terrifying’ photographs of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by US sol- diers at Abu Ghraib – images that were seen regularly on television news and were widely circulated in news- papers – failed to provoke the kind of violent backlash that accompanied the Danish cartoons that relatively few of the protesters saw (p. 21).

The controversy is what spurred him to write the book: ‘In the wake of these events, I began to think seri-
ously about why this medium that is often criticized as silly can be so powerful.’
5 He suspected that the emo-
tional reaction of many of the world’s Muslims to the cartoons, as well as his staff’s reaction to the Kissinger drawing, ‘had as much to do with the medium as it did with the message it contained’ (p. xv).

Theory of cartoons

Jerelle Kraus, a New York Times art director, once wrote that ‘nearly any notion is palatable when rendered in prose. When the same notion is pic- tured [editors] see it as a much greater threat.’6 Navasky attempts to explain this power by analysing elements of cartoons; for example, he investigates whether it is precisely because such a drawing has artistic merit that it pro- vokes outrage.

In what is arguably the least engaging portion of the book, he tries to determine whether a cartoon is powerful because of its political content (‘content theory’); the way in which the content is conveyed, as was the case

with the Danish cartoons (‘image theory’); or whether some combination of the two elicits a neurological response that we cannot quite articulate (‘neuroscience theory’). The Art of Controversy succeeds best in convincing the reader of the power of cartoons when it encourages us to reflect on the extent to which political cartoons can actually influence political events, as well as comment on them. Navasky’s many examples of influential cartoons, from the eighteenth century until today, relate a long history of leaders and powerful figures who have been irritated by cartoonists. Caricatures can be threatening and infuriating because they only tell one side of the story and are accordingly unfair, he says. Historically, such drawings were able to reach a larger audience because they could be understood by members of the public who were illiterate.

Navasky reports that Napoleon once said British caricaturist James Gillray, who in a series of drawings nicknamed the French emperor ‘Little Boney’ and portrayed him as tiny and perpetually angry, ‘did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down’ (p. 61–64).

David Low’s cartoons depicting Adolf Hitler in the London Evening Standard during the 1930s and 1940s often showed the German chancellor as brattish and childlike. In an attempt to appease the Germans, who fell into uproar every time one of Low’s cartoons was published, the UK govern- ment approached the paper, but the editor could not refuse to publish the drawings because they were not blasphemous, obscene or libellous. Low only relented after the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, took him to lunch to explain the situation. Hitler even published a book that was meant to provide a rebuttal of Low’s cartoons, explaining how and why they were unfair or inaccurate. After the war, the cartoonist’s name was found on Hitler’s death list. Low later observed that:

No dictator is inconvenienced or even displeased by cartoons showing his terrible person stalking through blood ... that is the kind of idea about himself the power-seeking world-beater would want to propagate ... what he does not want to get around is the idea that he is an ass, which is really damaging. (p. 113–16)

Texts from Hillary

What role do political cartoons play in an age dominated by the Internet, and information and data saturation? Navasky engages little with newer forms of political commentary, but does argue that the Internet and digital media extend the reach of cartoons rather than dating them.

One would think that new, Internet-savvy ways of satirising public figures would complement, rather than replace, traditional cartoons. However, last year, Slate’s technology columnist Farhad Manjoo made the case that in an era of clever TV shows such as the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, satirical online newspapers such as The Onion, social media and ‘crowd-sourced humour’, single-panel editorial cartoons are on their way out as an art form.7 Reviewing recent Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoons, he said that ‘even the best ones traffic in blunt, one-dimensional jokes, rarely exhibiting nuance, irony or subtext’.8

Manjoo argued that new forms of graphical commentary, which can make use of data, infographics and ‘hilarious’ images and videos, have pro- vided sharper commentary, while editorial cartoons remain constrained by space concerns and the outdated mindset of newspapers.

Internet-based satirical depictions of leaders and political processes are certainly thriving. Just two examples of this are the ‘Texts from Hillary’ blog site and several mock-misogynistic music videos which lampoon Mitt Romney’s comment in a 2012 presidential debate that, as governor of Massachusetts, he had requested ‘binders full of women’.9

Manjoo argued that, with the exception of the Danish cartoon contro- versy, it is hard to remember when a traditional political cartoon entered the political debate. But will newer forms of graphic political commentary be as powerful as such cartoons have been in times past? It seems logical that new, digitised forms of political satire should have a longer shelf life because they are there forever, not just in today’s newspaper. Paradoxically, however, the sheer volume of Internet content, which is constantly growing, can also dilute the impact of these forms because they fade from public con- sciousness more rapidly. Twitter’s editorial staff recently examined how content ‘goes viral’ (is quickly spread from certain Internet users and sites to many others around the world) and mapped the results on their own blog; they found that the faster something spreads, the faster it ‘disappears’ – or stops being shared.10

The art of controversy

In many ways, the traditional cartoon still wields outsize power. Although we cannot measure how much they really influence political events, it seems many politicians do not want to take the chance. In September 2012, an Indian cartoonist was jailed for criticising government corruption and mocking national symbols.11 Many of Iran’s cartoonists have either left the country or made their work more ambiguous.

In a July 2013 New Yorker article reporting on a crackdown by Egypt’s military on critical cartoons, US scholar Jonathan Guyer said that although in the past cartoonists had felt free to caricature both the armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, in the period before Muhammad Morsi’s election to the presidency, at least three artists told him that they received personal phone calls from military officers telling them to tone down their work.12

‘The claim was that such a cartoon hurts the military council and affects their performance,’ according to Amro Talaat, the head of caricatures at Al-Tahrir newspaper, an opposition daily.13 Talaat also told Guyer that the military ‘is sensitive toward cartoons, as it is more effective. You may attack them in an article, but not in a cartoon.’14

In an August 2013 post, Guyer observed that:

At the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya, in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo, where protesters spent more than a month protesting the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, cartoons were a form of resistance. A tent hosted an improvised gallery of comics from Brotherhood-affiliated newspapers; canvas walls at the back entrance displayed demeaning caricatures of the military and Photoshopped images of figures like the Coptic Christian Pope ... An art tent stood beside groups such as Lawyers for Morsi, Actors for Morsi, and Geologists for Morsi. That was Tuesday.

Wednesday morning, authorities began to clear the demonstration.15

The health ministry estimated that in the ensuing confrontation between Morsi supporters and the military at the camp, 235 people were killed.16 Hundreds more deaths were reported in subsequent days’ violent clashes all over the country. The uneasy holding pattern following Morsi’s ouster by the military had shifted abruptly to widespread horror.

‘While Egyptians watched the news Wednesday night, cartoonists were preparing their illustrations for Thursday,’ wrote Guyer.17 However, an increase in self-censorship in Egypt’s mainstream press has kept many anti- military cartoons from being published.

Navasky may have been correct in asserting that traditional cartoons, rather than becoming obsolete, benefit from new technologies. Egyptian car- toonist Andeel recently told National Public Radio that editors were shying away from publishing his work by claiming they did not understand it.18 But when this happens, Andeel – like many other cartoonists – publishes his work on Facebook, where he has 15,000 followers, and where the most notable cartoons on Egypt’s conflict can be found.

Alexa van Sickle is an Assistant Editor at the IISS. Some of the content of this essay originally appeared on ‘Politics and Strategy’, the Survival blog.


1  Ryan W. Neal, ‘Reuters Twitter Hacked: 7 Images Tweeted By The Syrian Electronic Army’, International Business Times, 30 July 2013, http:// hacked-7-images-tweeted-syrian-elec- tronic-army-1364749. 
2  David Levine, ‘Screwing the World’, 1984. Navasky said that ‘the look on Kissinger’s face, mingling ecstasy and evil behind black horn-rimmed glasses, made it somehow more than just a caricature; it seemed to capture Kissinger’s complicated soul’ (p. xii). 
3  Victor Navasky, ‘El Sid’, Tablet, 12 August 2009, http://www.tabletmag. com/jewish-news-and-politics/13244/ el-sid. 
4 Columbia University, ‘Victor Navasky Explores the Power of Political Cartoons’, 19 April 2013, http://news.
5. Ibid.
6. Jerelle Kraus, All the Art that’s Fit to Print (and Some that Wasn’t): Inside the New York Times Op-Ed Page (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 248.
7Farhad Manjoo, ‘Editorial Cartoons Are Stale, Simplistic, and Just Not Funny’, Slate Magazine, 19 April 2012, technology/technology/2012/04/ political_cartoons_don_t_deserve_a_ pulitzer_prize_give_one_for_info- graphics_instead_.html.
9‘Texts from Hillary’ is a series of captions for a photograph of Hillary Clinton on a plane, looking at her phone. Captions are imagined text- message conversations between Clinton and a number of public figures. Adam Smith and Stacy Lambe, ‘Texts from Hillary’, http://textsfromhillaryclinton. Ironically, Romney’s com- ment was intended to demonstrate his commitment to addressing inequalities in the workplace. 

10Marlow Stern, ‘Mitt Romney’s “Binders Full of Women” Comment Sets Internet Ablaze’, Daily Beast, 17 October 2012, http://www. mitt-romney-s-binders-full-of-women- comment-sets-internet-ablaze.html. 


12 Jonathan Guyer, ‘Egypt’s Fault Lines and Its Cartoons’, New Yorker, 9 July 2013, online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/07/ egypts-fault-lines-and-its-cartoons. html#slide_ss_0=1.

13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Jonathan Guyer, ‘The Writing on Egypt’s Walls’, New Yorker, 14 August 2013, http://www. desk/2013/08/writing-on-egypts-walls. html#slide_ss_0=2.

16 Charlene Gubash and Ayman Mohyeldin, ‘Egypt Bloodshed: At Least 235 Killed as Camps Cleared’, NBC News, 14 August 2013, http://

17 Guyer, ‘The Writing on Egypt’s Walls’. 18 Merrit Kennedy, Culture War Rages In Egypt, NPR, 7 August 2013, http:// npr1375867849-Culture-War-Rages-In- Egypt.html.

18 Gordon Macmillan, ‘How Videos Go Viral on Twitter – Three Stories’, Twitter, 12 August 2013, https://blog. on-twitter-three-stories. 
19  Committee to Protect Journalists, ‘Indian Cartoonist Jailed for Images Criticizing Government’, 10 September 2012, http://www.cpj.