Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

April 28, 2011

Go, Read: Stephen Hess And Mike Luckovich On Racism In Cartoons Aimed At President Obama

Michel Martin has a fascinating chat up at the VPR site with the cartoonist Mike Luckovich and the cartoon historian Stephen Hess about racism in cartoons aimed at President, specifically the crude photo-shopped monkey cartoon recently distributed by the political official Marilyn Davenport. What friction there is in the piece seems to come from the fact that Luckovich wants to stick to ideas of racist caricature and is more than willing to call Davenport's act racist and if not consciously so, at least the expression of an ingrained part of character. Hess seems more interested in the satellite issues like the ability of anyone to Photoshop something that appears as a cartoon but is not professionally made, with the ethics one assumes that brings, and the racist output of cartoonists past.

I think what worries me about Davenport's photo-shopped image and the analysis of it -- I sort of object to it being labeled a cartoon, but I'm happy to discuss it as one as it's informative -- is that it's seen as some sort of natural result of discourse. The thinking seems to be that because you can make at least some sort of argument that other people did something sort-of similar at some time, or that you can make a case that there's some larger or alternative point being made, that this excuses, well, just about everything. Since you can't look into someone's heart and prove that they're racist on the incredibly generous "turn dogs and hoses on black people" standard, the thinking seems to be that any sort of feeble motion towards equivalencies somehow excuses grown people using offensive imagery to make a dehumanizing point, an argument buttressed by the ability to boast of the cultural sensitivity and general awareness of a dimwitted pre-teen without having that called into question as its own terrifying, disqualifying negative. The thing about the Davenport "cartoon" is that it's so ridiculously over the top it's almost hard to process. One feels absurd pressing the argument; indeed, arguing it at all gives it the veneer of something that has an argument on its behalf. If suggesting a black man is born of chimps isn't, by intention or easily avoidable accident, racist, I don't know that a racist cartoon is possible.

Where this gets tougher -- much, much, much, much tougher -- is when looking at the employment of imagery such as, say, depicting the current President as a criminal, particularly when the aptness of that metaphor is assumed rather than argued. Just because it's a tough job doesn't mean it's not worth doing. We unfortunately live in a society with no shortage of avenues for cultural assault on people of color. As this sucks far worse for people of color than it does for people looking for an apt, appropriate visual metaphor shorn of history's crud, I have no problem expecting people not to employ them, or to be sorry when they do. I refuse to believe it's impossible to recognize the nature of many of the most troubling images, and to draw a line between imagery with a recognizable rhetorical legacy and those that fall into more traditional realms of caricature and exaggeration and point-making. In fact, recognizing the first strengthens one's stand on the second. Acting that this kind of thinking is some sort of bizarre imposition contributes to the problem, and ultimately that problem becomes bad cartooning and lousy discourse. If you want to use some loaded piece of visual shorthand, that's fine -- but you should own it. One hopes that our cartoonists and thinkers about cartooning at the very least recognize the more obvious tropes for what they are -- unnecessary, unfair, and ultimately a distraction from actual points being made on more concrete issues. I think Luckovich gets this; I'm not entirely sure about Hess.
posted 9:00 am PST | Permalink

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