About That New Yorker Cover…

I’ve been in about three dozen plays over the past ten years, at least a third of them comedies. I mean comedy not in the classic sense — antithetical to tragedy — but in the contemporary sense. Funny. Plays which people attend because they expect to laugh, to have a good time.

In every one of those dozen or so comedies, there has come a performance — usually a Friday evening or a Sunday matinee — when Act One has produced, at rough count, four smiles, two giggles, and zero laughter. None. Backstage, trying to gather energy for Act Two, the cast will assess the problem, and always, ALWAYS, at least one person will say, “Man, what a dull, dumb audience. They don’t get any of the gags.”

Beyond that, I don’t have much to say about the cover illustration on the current issue of The New Yorker. As Paul Woodward argues,

What the editors of The New Yorker don’t seem to get, but have perfectly demonstrated, is that it’s very easy to be clever and stupid at the same time… any time satire has to be labeled (inside the cover of this issue, the magazine explains that the cover is satire), it has failed.

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, explained, in response to wide-spread criticism of the cover,

I respect people’s reactions — I’m just trying to as calmly and as clearly as possible talk about what this image means and what it was intended to mean and what I think most people will see — when they think it through — that it means. The fact is, it’s not a satire about Obama – it’s a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama.

Yes, you can tell yourself the problem is that the audience is simply slow on the uptake. But while you’re combing your hair and checking your make-up for Act Two, it might be a good idea to look carefully into the mirror.

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4 thoughts on “About That New Yorker Cover…

  1. truly an ill-advised cover. The New Yorker, while offering some of the best political and investigative reporting, does tend to be a bit smug and insular. of course, any subscriber will understand the sarcasm, but that’s not the problem. thousands of people we see it on newsstands and it will become another image to fan the flames of racism and ignorance. not to mention, the notion that this was some sort of outrageous stunt to gain publicity seems likely.

  2. I think the real problem is that it seems to be an illustration rather than a cartoon. (Or, worse, an illustration of an editorial cartoon [and, perhaps, not a terribly clever one]).

    In the hands of a gifted editorial cartoonist, a single perspective informs the emphasis (usually the exaggeration) of character details. Here, it looks to me as though Barry Blitt, whose work I am not familiar with, was merely fulfilling an editorial assignment and had no informing personal perspective.

    The New Yorker’s view: The cover “combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are.”

    In fact, Blitt does not obviously manage to distort anything (except perhaps the size of the Obamas’ heads — the mode of the amateur parodist). There is nothing “fantastical” in his style. His command of detail is cramped and naturalistic; his lines are tight and busy. There are several visual tokens he wants to place, but there is no visual hierarchy. In short, regardless of the potency of the underlying idea, it’s pretty crappy work.

    Imagine the same subject in the hands of an Oliphant, or a Toles, or any of our best editorial cartoonists — if they bothered to work with it. They would frame the idea differently. The lines would be clearer and looser. Symbolic details would assume special emphasis. Their own, clearly exaggerated personal style would allow an immediacy of perspective.

    Here, Blitt and the New Yorker simply show no perspective. Now, this may be a carefully calculated mode of ambiguity intended to stimulate public discourse — and sell issues amid a declining subscriber base. But, frankly, it just doesn’t seem that competent. It looks harried and distracted, perhaps because someone — likely the artist himself — was uncomfortable with the material. So it comes across as, well, anonymous and gutless.

  3. The whole thing stinks of a Larry Flint stunt. Remember the 1978 Hustler cover on which the lower half of a woman is sticking out of a meat grinder while the upper half (the less “useful” part sexually and the part with the brain) has been turned into a pile of meat on the table below? I think the headline accompanying the picture was something about how women would no longer be viewed as pieces of meat. Well, it’s to be expected of Flint to push taste aside and do the outrageous in order to sell magazines while claiming it is satire aimed at his critics. The New Yorker on the other hand has tried to do something in the same fashion. They tried to take the Obama critic’s supposed prejudices and turn them into an extreme exaggeration in an attempt to be clever. Didn’t work. I agree with Jim’s analysis of the cartoon. The execution is faulty to say the least. The whole thing seems half-hearted to me. One curious thing is the light tone of their skin. Why didn’t that get exaggerated like the O.J. cover of Time (I think) from back during his trial? If you’re going to make them frightening to Middle America why not darken them? Isn’t that the real issue at the heart of all the fear? He’s black.
    If Hillary had won would she be pictured in a Nazi SS uniform burning the constitution and her bra with a picture of Gloria Steinem on the wall? Who knows? I don’t know what Middle America’s fears are when it comes to her. And would we have been so taken aback by a cover such as that? What if they had a cover of Mcain in a similarly bizarre situation?
    In the end it’ll sell a few magazines but the effects will be minimal otherwise. It was a bad execution of what could have been, in another venue, a funny remark on the unfounded fears of ignorant people.

  4. Wonderful post, Dad, look in the mirror indeed, a truly dreadful performance. Cancel my subscription.

    Interesting insights, agree with you all. What struck me was how, as Jim says, the cover looks like an illustration. Looking at it with my “French eyes” I confess I was totally astounded at first and did not get it. I went literal, given the lack of exaggeration and too much distance from the Big Apple. Does Michele have a some rough past I ddin’t know about? Maybe… Does Barak wear that get up at home? Maybe… And then, since I haven’t been “foreign” for that long, the “oh yeah” set in. It’s a democrat-supporting magazine, I got it… But like Paco says a lot of newstand browsers and internauts out there, both abroad and at home, won’t — they never really understood that Seinfeld episode where they are trying to puzzle out the New Yorker cartoon. I like Mike’s question: What would be the McCain version? Here is a UK cartoonist’s view that I thought was good.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/07/15/do1507.xml

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