Has the Right Hand Lost its Cunning?
A few months ago, I had occasion to interview Tunuku Varadarajan of the Wall Street Journal who is responsible for assigning both articles and illustrations on the op-ed page about how he commissions. He said that he often simply asks the illustrator to “make a subject look ‘somber,’ or ‘goofy,’ or ‘drunk,’ or ‘statesmanlike,’ or whatever impression the author of the piece is trying to convey.”
The emotive face is the page’s unofficial motif, and, while the method does let the reader know the author’s opinion in a hurry, making one’s friends look statesmanlike and one’s enemies look drunk does little to engage the policies that inspired those visual barbs and cheers.
Illustration has the ability to give an argument emotional force and at times to make complex relationships understandable. Using it for what amounts to graphic name-calling may give satisfaction to those who already agree with the conclusions reached but rarely makes those who don’t question their views.
The New York Times and Washington Post editorial pages use illustrations that are more nuanced and idea-driven than the Wall Street Journal’s. Both the Times and the Post are often dismissed as part of the “left-wing media” by conservative commentators. However, both of these publications feature a range of opinion on their op-eds and, even more importantly, are written for a politically diverse audience. In contrast, the WSJ’s op-ed, known as place where right-wing thinkers give free reign to their most extravagant fantasies, is preaching to its choir.
A better place to compare politically liberal and conservative approaches to illustration are smaller political magazines that tend to be read by subscribers who expect to find political writing that bolsters, rather than challenges, their point of view. The requirements for illustrating such material may be no greater than rather simple-minded graphic propaganda. However, when the magazines exceed expectations one can get insights into the obvious—how left and right wing readers see themselves and the world; and the not-so-obvious—how invested individual illustrators are in the subject.
By looking at these political magazines, it is possible to draw some conclusions. As a whole, small liberal magazines—The Progressive, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Nation, Mother Jones, In These Times, and the Washington Monthly—tend to take a less ad hominem approach and, as a group, do better at visually presenting ideas than their conservative counterparts—The American Spectator, The American Enterprise, The Weekly Standard, and The American Conservative—which tend to use images as bludgeons or mere decoration—if at all. It is true that not all the liberal magazines use illustration consistently: The Nation (Fig. 1) uses illustration well but only occasionally reaches for that arrow in its quiver; The American Prospect (Fig. 2) and Washington Monthly can be guilty of the visual personal attack; and In These Times has always relied on a rolodex of illustrators no more than a few cards deep, giving the magazine a unfortunately uniform appearance despite widely-ranging topics. However, these are balanced by The Progressive and Mother Jones (Fig.3), which use a range of styles and approaches and are more likely to use illustration to get at core ideas.
The liberal press at its worst is nearly always better than the conservative magazines, which rarely use illustration that is not a distorted portrait of one kind or another.
(Full disclosure: I have worked with some of the illustrators mentioned or quoted here, and until recently, I consulted for the Washington Monthly.)
In their March/April 2004 issue, The American Spectator takes on the issue of the “fraud” of diversity by going full minstrel with a picture of Al Jolson in blackface. But the combination of image and headline leave the reader baffled: Is diversity a fraud because blacks aren’t really black? A story entitled “Chinese Triple-Cross: Spies, Sex, and Nuclear Secrets” (Fig. 4) uses, a 50s-era advertising cut of a rocket with a hammer and sickle pasted on it, graphically missing the spy story that the cover promises. Spectator covers are unified by the use of found art, which seems to trump other virtues. These days, The American Enterprise also relies on a mix of clip art and stock photography when not specifically caricaturing a person. The March 2004 cover of the magazine shows a farmer carrying an enormous tomato in a wheelbarrow along with the headline “Biotech’s Bounty” (Fig. 5). The photo-illustration is provided by Getty. While headline and image match, it is a shoot-the-arrow-then-draw –the-target approach to illustration. The image would be equally at home under the headline, “How to win your next county fair.” This cover could only be intriguing because stock imagery is intentionally vague—so it can be used in a variety of contexts. During the MonicaGate years, however, readers of the Enterprise were greeted with a series of grotesque portraits of Clinton: Bloated, crossing his fingers behind his back and winking; dressed as W.C. Fields; or with a long nose.
The National Review typically uses caricature in the rare cases it uses illustration and usually reserves illustrations for its enemies. The April 19, 2004 issue shows Richard Clark pointing a ghostly, accusing finger at the White House, illustrating a piece explaining that Clark’s apology for failures of counter-terrorism was really a veiled partisan attack on the current administration. A 1998 cover depicts the “liberal” media so abusively (or incompetently) that the three newscaster depicted are nearly unrecognizable. Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson (also from 98), on the other hand are depicted as God and Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Of the conservative magazines, The Weekly Standard has consistently dedicated the most resources to illustration, routinely giving cover assignments to marquee illustrators such as C.F. Payne, Drew Friedman, and Daniel Adel. Nevertheless, stylistic differences seem to be flattened by righteous indignation. Two images of Bush could have been drawn by the same artist. In C. F. Payne’s “Bush’s Winning Hand” (Fig. 6) a smiling, cocky Bush looks over his shoulder. We see his royal flush, and a pouting donkey across the table. In Dale Stephanos’s “Why They Hate Him” Bush is again depicted as confident, cocky and relaxed. Various liberals, including Barbara Streisand, go through facial contortions, pull out their hair, and seem upset and frustrated as they look covetously through the Oval Office windows. In both cases, the enemy is reduced to cliché—in the first instance to the tiresome donkey and in the second to a scowling mob. While Payne’s forte is hyper-realistic caricature, he is certainly capable of, and usually delivers, more nuance than is seen in the winning-hand piece. But the goal of both these illustrations is to ignore the issues, instead demonizing the left and puffing up the right. Art director Lev Nisnevitch—who is responsible for purchasing art at the Standard—told me about his working method, “I work with artists who have worked with us several years, [for inside illustrations] all I’m trying to do is find them reference material...I don’t have to tell them anything, just supply the kind of photo references that will get them to do their hatchet job...look [the illustration] could be kind or unkind, there are people we like and people we dislike...On one cover the idea we started with was, ‘What’s in Saddam’s brain?’ I’m a movie buff, in Silence of the Lambs there’s a scene where Hannibal is cutting the top off the head and feeding the brain to someone, so I had this idea we’d show Saddam with his head flipped open and parts of the brain labeled....Bill Kristal loved it so much we bought him the original for his birthday.”
“The Battle is Joined” manages to mix styles—and flattery and ridicule—within a single drawing. In a joust scene, one knight, Newt Gingrich, is depicted nearly photo-realistically, an expression of mature concern on his face. His opponent, Bill Clinton, has taken on what became typical visual abuses—a drunkard’s red and bulbous nose, 150 extra lbs. of weight—and his jaw is slack and his eyes are glassy. He appears stoned, or stoned with fear. This cover reflected only wishful thinking in June of 1998—before Gingrich’s resignation but well after his congressional reprimand and the disintegration of the “Contract with America.” A July cover from 1998 shows a realistic and handsome portrait of John McCain. Admirers, scaled so as to make McCain appear a giant, gaze lovingly at him. In January 1997, Gary Baur is depicted as Superman, and, on another occasion, Reagan gets a heroic treatment that could have been commissioned for a commemorative plate by the Franklin Mint.
Payne, who did the “Winning Hand” cover is an illustrator without strong political opinions and is happy to play the roll of attack dog for either side. “I don’t think any one goes into politics to screw anybody...I just can’t see it as that black and that white. Unfortunately, in politics the name of the game is winning elections and you do that by painting malicious portraits of the other side.”
The liberal magazines present a much greater quantity and variety of styles. A Mother Jones illustration by Brian Cronin that tackles the bonanza of government money for private contractors due to the Homeland Security laws: A man in a suit sells balloons—or what would be balloons—but are actually eyes and ears floating at the ends of strings. The message is that what we are getting for our homeland security money is ethereal and insubstantial. Even when Mother Jones takes on the president, they do so with more nuance and variety than the right-wing press does, or did, when they took on Clinton with an endless series of W.C. Fields-esque caricatures. A John Kascht illustration for an article about Bush’s use of the executive order takes an approach superficially similar to the right-wing magazines. Kascht depicts Bush as a judge, with a thoughtful expression, issuing laws from an enormous desk to citizens below a ring of clouds. The difference is, of course, that the Mother Jones illustration uses irony. Bush is not shown as a smirking finger-crosser, but as a thoughtful jurist. A Tim Bower drawing shows Bush as a boxer in a ring, recognizable only by his distinctive ears. The trainers hold one enormous glove, ready for the opponent who can wear it. Finally, a David Plunkert portrait for a story on Bush’s image gives the reader a diptych view. Two Bushes, both with bodies made of television sets, show the two sides of Bush most visible in other countries: avenging angel and gee-shucks populist.
The Progressive has a long tradition of illustration and has so much faith in the ability of drawing to communicate complex ideas that it frequently runs cover images without a supporting headline. A Richard Borge picture of a high tech ballot box shows a hand reaching in to the box to remove a vote (Fig. 7)—it is clear that the story will argue that the possibility for another Florida debacle will not be solved by technology. In a portrait of Bush unusual for the Progressive, the President plays the violin while flames rage behind him (Fig. 8). While this is clearly an anti-Bush message, there is nothing demeaning about the way the President is painted. Context communicates all. And, this image—like much of the imagery in liberal magazines gives the reader credit for a relatively large cultural vocabulary—or at least larger than the Standard’s reliance on poker and comic book references. As Nick Jehlen, art director of The Progressive, puts it, “One of the things that grows more clear to me is you have to approach illustration with a fresh eye, I try to think about it every issue...Some illustrators work really well if I give them carte blanche. Some need more guidance or a push in a certain direction— that’s usually trying to get them to stretch a little.... Sometimes you have to have the [tough] conversation—it’s like being a good editor, you don’t want to imperil their voice but push them to their best work.”
The American Prospect is not above the cheap caricature but is as likely to savage a Democrat as a Republican. “Does Dean Have Legs” (Fig. 9) showed most of the pre-Iowa filed as a group of globby, out-of-shape clay figurines with Dean, then the frontrunner, looking particularly dorky and with Kerry, the eventual winner, with a chin so long and sharp he could defend himself from a knife attack with it. The Prospect often takes a more conceptual approach. In “America Alone,” a story about the U.S. growing political isolation, the U.S. map is depicted as an island, tiny in a vast sea.
Similarly, the Washington Monthly shoots to kill, but is as likely to point the guns at fellow liberals as at conservatives. Dean is shown Don Quixote-style attacking a cardboard castle representing the state of the democratic establishment. In an interior piece on the failures of the “No Child Left Behind” campaign, Bush is reduced to a moronic caricature who has scrawled “mishin accomplished” on the blackboard.
If the left’s approach to illustration has been more wide-ranging, and the right’s more ad hominem—regardless of which side happens to be in power—it is tempting to suggest, as Illustrator Steve Brodner does, that the difference is found in the ideas both sides advocate: “The reason the right wing is more successful on radio is because that’s where sloganeering is successful. But once you have to explain something, it’s a different story...the right requires a top-down lockstep structure. That’s how it succeeds. The left says ‘here are the facts, make up your mind.’ It’s a battle of ways of thinking, not just ideology.” Ann Landers used to put it more bluntly. “People with great minds talk about ideas, people with average minds talk about things, people with small minds talk about other people.”