When Art Gives Offense

A satirical New Yorker magazine cover cartoon depicting Barack Obama and his wife as flag-burning, fist-bumping radicals drew outrage from the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign as it appeared on newsstands Monday. Video by AP
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; 10:42 AM

From the second I saw the New Yorker's cover on Obama-as-Muslim-terrorist, I knew it was a ticking time bomb. But when I reached David Remnick, the magazine's editor, over the weekend, he was in what's the big deal? mode. Obviously, he said, people would see that it was a sharp-edged satire.

Maybe the world looks different from midtown Manhattan, but it was obvious that the illustration was going to draw immediate fire--in fact, both the Barack Obama and John McCain camps united in denouncing it.

From a marketing point of view, it was pure genius: Take all the worst rumors and slurs against Obama, splash them on the cover of a liberal magazine, sit back and enjoy the buzz.

But let's face it, the cover was offensive. It was deliberately offensive, in the sense that Remnick and company felt they were going overboard in mocking all the phony smears. But that involved putting the smears out there in high-impact, strikingly visual form.

Did the cover succeed in skewering the very thing it depicted? I don't think so. Few commentators, on the left or right, seem to like it.

It would have been smarter for Remnick to write a little essay about why he was publishing the cover, rather than having to play defense on CNN yesterday, saying his magazine was channeling Stephen Colbert. Instead, there was nothing in the magazine to explain why the art--titled 'The Politics of Fear'--was not what it seemed at first glance.

Perhaps it could be argued that a liberal magazine that has been sympathetic to Obama has the standing to make fun of what Remnick says are clearly lies. But imagine if the Weekly Standard had run the same cover, and then Bill Kristol said well, don't worry, it's just a satire. Liberal commentators would be calling for his head.

The artist, Barry Blitt, defended his work to the Huffington Post: "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 he did put the New Yorker on the cultural map this week.

HuffPost's Rachel Sklar says that "presumably the New Yorker readership is sophisticated enough to get the joke, but still: this is going to upset a lot of people, probably for the same reason it's going to delight a lot of other people, namely those on the right: Because it's got all the scare tactics and misinformation that has so far been used to derail Barack Obama's campaign -- all in one handy illustration. Anyone who's tried to paint Obama as a Muslim, anyone who's tried to portray Michelle as angry or a secret revolutionary out to get Whitey, anyone who has questioned their patriotism-- well, here's your image."

National Review's Jim Geraghty sees the cover as some kind of . . . liberal alibi?

"If Obama loses, the editors of The New Yorker would prefer to be able to blame it on 'paranoid fearmongering' rather than the public actually rejecting Obama on the basis of his positions or lack of experience.

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