The recent New Yorker cover by illustrator Barry Blitt depicting the Obamas in the White House has caused unending furor in political circles and the media over the past week. The Obama camp has called the cover “tasteless and offensive” and the mainstream media has agreed and roundly denounced the cover. The cover’s main media proponents (outside of those directly involved) have been Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, nobly defending the art of satire.
I confess that this cover made me uncomfortable. And I didn’t like being on that side of the issue. So I had to ask myself: why?
I’m with Maher and Stewart on the general principle of satire, but the mainstream media's argument—that this illustration of the political right’s stereotype of the Obamas serves to perpetrate negativity and is the same as repeating a rumor—is persuasive. (The media, by the way, gave more attention to this cover than it would ever get on its own in a newsstand in Dubuque, especially since The New Yorker obscures fifty percent of their cover image with a paper flap filled with cover lines.)
But if the media argument is correct, then Lenny Bruce could have never mocked racial epithets and social mores, nor could George Carlin. George Lois’s spectacular Esquire covers would never have happened. So what's the difference?
The problem with the Obama joke is not that it’s dangerous and tasteless. The problem is that it isn’t dangerous or tasteless enough. There’s nothing wrong with a joke, it’s how its executed. It’s just not that shocking, and it isn’t funny. It’s simply bad art direction. The cover is an illustration when it should have been a photograph. It’s a cartoonish illustration at that, not even a realistic painting. It's not what you said, it’s how you said it.
To be effective, this kind of political outrageousness has to appear to be absolutely real. You have to look at it and think, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it! Did they actually do that?” It has to be so tasteless that it becomes good. Lois achieved that with his cover for Esquire of Lieutenant Calley, then accused of leading the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam Mai Lai massacre, posing with a bunch of smiling Vietnamese children—an actual real photograph. In this portrait, Calley was a villain or an innocent, depending on your point of view. When it appeared on the newsstands, the cover was so shocking, so appalling, so unbelievable in its mere existence, you didn’t stop to think about whether or not it was offensive or tasteless. Other Lois covers such as his cover of Muhammad Ali or President Nixon work similarly.
Barry Blitt’s illustration is a caricature of a stereotype, not an overt stereotype. The illustration creates a distance between the viewer and the viciousness of the content. In fact, the illustration form itself, coupled with this particular content, makes the whole thing appear whimsically tasteless instead of appallingly shocking.
The New Yorker is an illustration magazine and really has to be careful when approaching this form of outrageous satire. The New Yorker is at its best with idea-oriented silliness like the spectacular Maira Kalman-Rick Meyerowitz New Yorkistan cover, or the obvious political cartoon—also by Barry Blitt—of Obama reaching over Hillary in bed to answer the phone at 3am. Realism wasn’t necessary in either cover to make the joke effective. The Art Spiegelman cover of the Hassidic Jewish man kissing a black woman during the Crown Heights affair, on the other hand, had the same problem as the current Blitt cover. It would have been much more effective as a photograph. As an illustration, it was neither especially provocative nor funny.
Jon Stewart has done the Obama-as-a-terrorist joke on his show several times. He always uses photography. He uses it because for the image to be funny, it has to look real. Making visual humor work is really a function of editorial art direction. Barry Blitt had a good idea, but he was the wrong guy for the job.