Tuesday, September 23, 2008

on being looked upon with some uneasiness...

This past weekend, a fellow from Ashburn, VA wrote to The Washington Post complaining about editorial cartoonist Tom Toles' partisan Democratic slant.

The letter writer said:
"Ideally, a newspaper's cartoonist would show some degree of non-partisanship and address topics with an even hand. Not so in the case of Tom Toles. He wears his Democratic Party hat almost every time he picks up his pen.
  Once in a while it would be nice to see him sling a little mud in the other direction, let's say, maybe one out of five cartoons, or would that result in his being drummed out of the party?"
  — Jack McIntyre, Ashburn

Tom Toles is an editorial cartoonist whose work appears on the op-ed page of The Post. Editorializing is his job and reflects his view of the world. It is the entire point of his work. Tempering that for the sake of some imaginary token "balance" would be disingenuous, and as unreasonable as expecting George Will or Robert Novak or Fox News' Billo the Clown to suddenly take a pro-Democratic stance. Or Maureen Dowd or Eugene Robinson to suddenly "sling mud" in the Democrats' direction. Why does Mr. McIntyre believe that op-ed artwork should follow different rules than op-ed writing?

I suspect there's a little partisanship at work here. I doubt Mr. McIntyre would have felt the same disdain for the father of American cartoonists, Thomas Nast, a staunch Republican, who unrelentingly went after Democrat Boss Tweed. Nast consistently expressed his own views when putting pen to paper, and it's unlikely a reader complaining to Harper's Weekly would have persuaded him to do otherwise. Further, Mr. McIntyre seems to see only what he wants to see, for Toles does lampoon Democrats; in fact he did so the very next day, skewering the DC government — hardly a bastion of the GOP.

Striking a nerve is not blasphemy
I couldn't help but notice that Mr. McIntyre is from Ashburn, VA. That calls to mind the complaint of another Ashburnite, Cary Cusumano, in The Post's Letters To The Editor on Dec. 9, 2006, regarding an illustration I had done for The Washington Post Magazine a week earlier. Ashburn, VA, it would seem, is home to the headquarters of the GOP Ministry of Artwork Inspection.

Mr. Cusamano said:
"The selection of Michael Gibbs's illustration depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a symbol of the Democratic Party is not only insensitive to Christians, especially Catholics, but is also blasphemous ["The Gospel According to Jim Wallis," Magazine, Nov. 26]. Christians should be afforded the same respect for their beliefs as other religions or groups. Sadly, such respect cannot be found in The Post or other news media."
  — Cary Cusumano, Ashburn

Mr. Cusumano doesn't seem to understand three things:
1. Skewering a well-known image is a time-honored form of visual communicaton, closely affiliated with parody and satire, which is "the use of irony... in exposing, denouncing, or deriding ...folly". It only works if the underlying image is well known. A couple of well-known examples are Duchamp's parody of the Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," and the numerous parodies of Grant Woods' "American Gothic."

2. Blasphemy is "the impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things" or, in Judaism, "the act of cursing or reviling God." What was parodied here was not God or Jesus, but a painting (any number of paintings actually). The paintings of the Sacred Heart first appeared as the result of visions experienced by a 17th century French nun. These paintings are not sacred things. They are a 17th century representation of an abstract concept— "the Love of Jesus."

3. I was expressing my view — a right that even artists and Democrats (the last time I checked) have under the US Constitution. At the same time, I was reflecting the content of the article I was illustrating, which is my job. That view, distilled down to its essence, is that Jesus was, in his heart, a Democrat. (Get it?)

As a Democrat and a Christian (I was raised Catholic) I have long been rankled by the GOP's hijacking and exploitation of Christian values. Those sentiments were echoed by Jim Wallis, the subject of The Post article and author of "God's Politics." What Wallis sees as the true mission of Christianity — righting social ills, working for peace — is in tune with the values of liberals who so often run screaming from the idea of religion. Meanwhile... religious vocabulary is co-opted by conservatives who use it to polarize" [Amazon.com].

A political party that promotes corporate greed over the rights of those with the least among us (including immigrants and the poor), opposes controls on Saturday Night specials, opposes basic rights for gays and lesbians, opposes stem-cell research that could save lives, practices racism (remember Willie Horton?), wages an unnecessary and illegal war that kills thousands of innocents — does not represent the heart and love of Jesus. It is the Democratic Party that does. That sentiment led to the imagery I chose.

What I find fascinating is that in both cases, it is the artwork, rather than the text, that seems to get people in a tizzy. Art is meant to disturb, said the French painter Georges Braque. And it seems to disturb conservatives disproportionately.

I have to admit I took a great deal of satisfaction in reading these Letters to the Editor. They're a reminder that artwork still has the power not only to inspire and reflect the beauty of this world, but to piss people off and illustrate the ugliness of this world. And noting the political direction from which these Letters to the Editor invariably seem to be fired, they're also a reminder of the truth of Social Realist Ben Shahn's observation, "The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society."

No comments: