New Yorker Cover Falls Short Of Satire

07/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week's New Yorker cover, currently inspiring tongues to wag, certainly poses difficulty for critics. No one wants to be a scold, certainly not those of us who value free speech and free expression. And the election season is going to be filled with political caricature of all stripes. The Obama camp is said to be offended, but that's their job: to be offended on behalf of their candidate. Does everyone really want to weigh in every time someone takes artistic license with the candidate's likenesses?

Will the exercised left insist on the same politesse the next time an artist takes a shot at McCain? I still recall the kerfuffle that came out of Richard Serra's parody of Goya's Saturn Devouring Her Children, which you can see here. Obviously, I think that before you decide that the New Yorker's cover doesn't have the right to exist, you should reflect on where you stood when opprobrium flew Serra's way.

I find it hard to believe that the New Yorker, home of Sy Hersh, purposefully set out to defame Barack Obama. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that they even anticipated this controversy. James Carville defended the cover today on Good Morning America, saying that it makes "the point that the Obama campaign would like [to have] made at some point." I'm going to go ahead and accord everyone involved this same benefit of the doubt. But that doesn't change the fact that while this cover may not have a malign intent, it is nevertheless, thoroughly inept.

Cartoonist Barry Blitt himself has taken the opportunity to defend the work, saying:

I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is.

And, frankly, that's the first proof of the ineptness. If you have to explain your joke, the joke failed. And trust me, I speak from experience.

But the larger problem with the piece is that what Blitt has created may be "satire" in the artist's mind, but it is NOT satire as executed. Satire is defined as: "the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly." Blitt doesn't realize it, but what he has created is a burlesque, not a satire. Burlesque is defined as "an artistic composition, esp. literary or dramatic, that, for the sake of laughter, vulgarizes lofty material or treats ordinary material with mock dignity." And that is precisely what this image achieves: the vulgarizing of the loftiness of the Obama campaign (or, to say it better, it's attempt at achieving a "loftiness").

The problem here, is that the image, absent explanation, has a clearly defined subject: the Obamas. I have no doubt that Blitt intended to critique those who trade in spurious rumors of the Obama's lack of American-ness, but their "vice" and "folly" doesn't make it into the picture! Blitt says the image is about the "preposterousness" of "certain sectors." Those sectors aren't depicted. Neither are the "fear mongerers" that Blitt means to paint as ridiculous. For all of Blitt's good intentions, there is no part of the story of the picture that the picture actually exposes.

I'm not sure what could have made the image better. What's appearing on the face of the New Yorker looks like the sort of thing the Weekly Standard or the American Spectator would run on their cover. Perhaps some sort of cover-within-a-cover concept, where a pack of drunk hyaenas are shown mocking up their own fear-mongering cover. Maybe replacing Obama's "super-liberal/scary Muslim" wardrobe with new weeds depicting him as a tired centrist/betrayer of leftist principles would be more current and on-point.

Even that is perhaps, far less subtle than good satire demands. And one of the hallmarks of good satire is that it should take a risk, and walk very close to the line of the joke being missed entirely. I've already read this cover being compared to Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, a comparison that does Swift no end of injustice and only goes to demonstrate how blurred the boundaries of satire have become - where anything with implied irony - even after the fact - qualifies. But the genius of A Modest Proposal is that it's satire is couched in...well - modesty! Its descent into utter depravity sneaks up on the reader, and there are many who do miss the joke. But Blitt's image doesn't even include the artist's joke!

I think that the world can truly benefit from exposing fear-mongering as ridiculous. Next time, New Yorker, you should actually do that.