“Art is science made clear.”
- Jean Cocteau
“your head gonna make a dead end on your street”
- Velvet Underground (White Light / White Heat)
Yesterday’s post left me with a disquieting murmur in the back of my mind. ‘Too easy,’ it muttered. And here comes Jean Cocteau to remind me that art is science made clear.
Can we criticize the New Yorker and Barry Blitt on social or political (or sociopolitical) terms for portraying the Obamas as a Muslim and a terrorist in the White House? No. Can we criticize them on artistic terms? Perhaps…
Decrying Blitt’s cartoon as tasteless and offensive doesn’t mean it’s not satirically funny; instead, it lends the cartoon a couple of the stock credentials of satirical humor.
To understand the failure of the cartoon one must look to Cocteau: ‘art is science made clear,’ he insists. Considering the New Yorker’s high standards, does the cartoon make clear the science it satirizes?
Yes, and no.
Yes, it parodies the ridiculous public fears and scurrilous Foxian paranoia about the Obamas as anti-American sleepers. The New Yorker satisfactorily defends each subversive element of the cartoon (the Muslim garb, the gun belt, the burning flag) as a reinforcement of its plain and simple satirical intent — to explode the damp squib of right wing racism.
But… and here Cocteau helps enormously, it isn’t necessarily funny, because, despite all of these well placed clues, it isn’t made clear.
The New Yorker is a liberal magazine. I love to read it. I’ve often said that I could be happy reading the New Yorker and nothing else. (Not strictly true, but it has some damn fine writing.) It’s also, despite the wry, dry, sprightly daggers of its prose, an essentially sensitive publication. It skewers the bad guys. While for the good guys it reserves a blunted point.
I worked so hard yesterday to repress this awareness. I wanted to laud the New Yorker and Barry Blitt. But as I scrolled through the New Yorker cover cartoons seeking out examples of the same kind of abrasive satire I knew deep down that I wouldn’t find anything quite like the Obama cover.
We see Ahmadinejad being being enticed to a game of footsy in the bathroom stall, Bush as a housemaid standing over a cigar-smoking Cheney, the neocons up to their necks in a muddy flood… Jubilant snickers at the expense of the bad guys.
But with the Obama cartoon, those at whom we would snicker are absent. If we laugh at the cartoon, we don’t laugh with the Obamas and we can’t laugh at them. The objects of our laughter, the conservative commentators and our narrow-minded neighbors, don’t even make the frame. They’re nowhere but in the dim recess of the cartoonist’s mind’s eye. Considered from this perspective, the cartoon veers toward the tragic. The victims take center stage. But clearly the cartoon cannot be tragic if the supposed victims don’t know it. The Obama’s expressions betray satisfaction and mischievous glee.
If the New Yorker in its cover cartoon had, as does the Onion in its copy, a history of satirical lampoon with no holds barred, the cartoon would make more sense; its art would be science made clear. But given the absence of this history, the cartoon’s immediate psychological impact tends to muddy its message.
Not that any of this matters in practical terms. The tiny fraction of the population who even read the New Yorker and would pay any attention to what it has to say aren’t inclined to think that the Obamas might be terrorists, no matter what cartoon it runs on the cover.
A couple more for Barry Blitt, with sympathy and respect…
“The worst tragedy for a poet is to be admired through being misunderstood.”
- Jean Cocteau
“Hey, white boy, what you doin’ uptown,”
- Lou Reed
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