The New Yorker Misses Again

The pages of The New Yorker have featured, over the years, a parade of America’s greatest literary humorists: Benchley, Thurber, E. B. White, Dorothy Parker, and Woody Allen, to name but a few. In recent years, they have featured some fine political reporting, including the invaluable essays of Hendrick Hertzberg. And of course, The New Yorker raised the magazine cartoon (though they’re still too snooty to call them that on the Contents page, where they are referred to as “drawings”) to an art form, with the work of Charles Addams, Saul Steinberg, Peter Arno, and others too numerous to mention.

So–art, politics, and humor they can do. But they can’t do political satire. And they should really stop trying, at least on their covers.

The latest issue (September 8, 2008) features a Mark Ulriksen drawing of John McCain, dressed like Richie Rich, and smirking over a Monopoly board. On his side of the board, we see seven (get it?) hotels, and a lot of candy-colored play money tucked under the edge. On “our” side (for he smirks at us, the viewers of the cover), there are little “Foreclosure” and “For Sale” signs, and weeds grow on Illinois Avenue. For some reason, there’s a martini glass (two olives) at Richie/McCain’s elbow, and Cindy (I suppose) traipses through the background, carrying a tray with two more hotels on it (if this is a reference to two further McCain properties, I must admit it’s too arcane for me).

It’s a lot less inflammatory than the infamous Obama secret-Muslim / flag-burning terrorist-worshiper number that got them in so much trouble a few weeks ago. It’s also a bit more successful in hitting its intended target–largely because the target of the Obama cover, presumably the people who believed in all of the crazy stuff it depicted, was nowhere to be seen. Here, an ugly caricature of McCain wears a hateful expression: okay, the artist wants us not to like this guy. Message received.

But it’s still lame. The thing about McCain and the 7 houses is about him being out of touch with how ordinary people live, not being a mean-spirited money grubber. They hit the intended target, but they still missed the mark. And, as with the Obama cover, the title (“McNopoly”) wouldn’t clear anything up, even if you didn’t have to check the fine print on the Contents page to see it.

The political cartoon is a blunt instrument–indeed, that’s its strength–and The New Yorker is not a blunt magazine–which is one of its strengths, or at least one of its defining characteristics. During the Obama cover flap, several people suggested that the same drawing could have run on the cover of a right-wing publication (say, The American Spectator), where it would have been taken as hyperbole, rather than irony. But if Barry Blitt’s drawing had run on the cover of a lefty mag like The Nation, it probably would have worked as intended: The Nation, like the Spectator, is a polemical publication. They’re not big on ambiguity.

But at The New Yorker, and particularly on the cover of The New Yorker, ambiguity and artsy open-endedness are their stock in trade. Most New Yorker covers have no punchline, and often aim to communicate a feeling, rather than a message, or even a joke. There’s no “point” to Eustace Tilly looking at that butterfly. It’s just whimsy.

Satire is too important to muck about with ambiguity and whimsy. For the satirist, in fact, being funny only runs a close second to making a point. The New Yorker is trying to do satire without getting their hands dirty, but it doesn’t work that way. Thomas Nast didn’t want people to contemplate Boss Tweed, but to hate him. Eustace Tilly should keep his gloves on.

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One Response to “The New Yorker Misses Again”

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