For political cartoonists, it was the powderkeg that was bound to blow.
Sooner or later, an editorial cartoon published during the Obama administration was going to be viewed by many as incontrovertibly racist. As both cartoonist and critic, I'm half-surprised it took this long.
Forget the chimp for a moment. The true social context for this cartoon is the 800-pound gorilla.
Yesterday, the New York Post lit the fuse by running Sean Delonas's "stimulus chimp" cartoon. When the dust finally clears, I hope one thing can come of it: A real conversation can be had about how President Obama -- as both public figure and African American public figure -- is depicted and drawn, criticized and caricatured, by artists the world over. Because if this woefully ill-conceived, seemingly hateful powderkeg of a cartoon can do one thing, perhaps it can inadvertently light the way.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about how bizarre some cartoon depictions on Obama had become. Most professional political cartoonists were delivering sincere efforts to deftly "capture" Obama's caricature. But an unnerving handful of cartoonists were drawing Obama with conspicuously large lips -- and oddly, some were coloring his lips an electric blue. This interpretation wasn't about oversensitivity; it was a matter of flat-out head-scratching artistic curiosity.
Were these cartoonists intentionally invoking ugly Jim Crow-era stereotypes? Ultimately, it didn't matter. This wasn't about intent anymore; it was one of effect. As cartoonist Darrin Bell, creator of the oft-political strip "Candorville," tells Comic Riffs about the Delonas cartoon: "Monkey metaphors aren't new to editorial cartoons, but context is everything and if you're a cartoonist, you're not doing your job if you don't recognize that. Leave the monkeys out of your arsenal when you're commenting on a black person's administration if you don't want the inevitable perception that you're a bigot to obscure what you were really trying to say." [Editor's update: The coding in this paragraph has been fixed.]
The central question for cartoonists was, and is: After centuries of caricaturing white presidents, are the rules of caricature and lampoon changing with Obama in office? My blogpost generated many e-mails and comments and links (such as this, from Gawker), but few wanted to take up the bigger issue: Will the larger rules of cartoon engagement change even a little with Obama? And equally important: Should they?
If the answers to those questions seem all-too simple to you, then perhaps you are naive as to the real-world undercurrents now in cartooning.
As Al Sharpton, New York Gov. David Paterson, UNITY: Journalists of Color and other public officials and groups denounce the cartoon -- and as Delonas and his editor insist that no Obama reference was intended -- can we finally, genuinely, have this deeper, more probing conversation? (Akin to what Obama asked of us during his "Jeremiah Wright speech" -- specifically, let's aim to elevate the national discourse.)
Some would say: Don't even bet on a genuine conversation about the political subject at hand. Ted Rall -- cartoonist, syndicate executive and president of
the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists -- says: "No one is going to look at this [Delonas] cartoon and have a conversation about the topic at hand -- the stimulus package -- or even to a lesser degree, the dangerous chimp. So in the regard, the cartoonist failed."
Great political cartoons are virile -- not just viral. Rall characterizes the New York Post cartoon as "toxic." (Rall also notes the Delonas/Sharpton backstory: The cartoonist has a history of depicting Sharpton in a particularly nasty light.)
"The Danish Muhammad cartoons and this cartoon ... they don't add anything to the conversation," he says. "Really great editorial cartoons are willing to stir up controversy and stimulate discussion."
Countless factors go into the national conversation about political cartoons that depict Obama. They include not only the ugly history of racist caricatures in this country, but also the primal power of simple cartoons and, tangentially, historic criticism over the lack of diversity among the ranks of staff editorial cartoonists. (And yes, Bush was commonly caricatured as looking like a baboon, which is yet another reason why this conversation needs to be had -- and not in simplistic, knee-jerk rhetoric.)
During last year's election season, both Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury") and Aaron McGruder ("The Boondocks") told me in interviews that a cartoon itself cannot necessarily sway an opinion, but that enough cartoons can at least shine a light on an issue -- crystallize a truth that's already present. (And amid the split of nearly 8,000 poll-votes and comments to this blog -- as to whether the cartoon is "racist" -- certain truths emerge.)
In this case, perhaps such an ill-conceived political cartoon can -- through absolutely no design of its own -- illuminate the 800-pound truth in the room: Namely, that given the power and primacy and sometimes checkered history of cartoons, this is one art form that is not yet post-racial.
SIDENOTE: It will be interesting to see whether this controversy affects the sales of the book "Scuttle's Big Wish," a Midas-like children's story co-written and illustrated by -- yes -- one Sean Delonas.
The morale of his children's story? Be careful what you wish for.