Monday, March 9, 2009

You Can Tell It Like It Is, But You Can't Draw It...

Can you imagine for a moment political cartoons so "blasphemous," so "politically embarrassing," so sexually "over the line" that even newspapers like The New York Times gladly shelled out the dough just to protect your delicate eyes from being exposed to them?

Jerelle Kraus, a former Art Editor of the New York Times Opinon/Editorial pages (a position she held for thirteen years) compiled hundreds of such allegedly “not-fit-to-print” illustrations – along with the bizarre and often ludicrous reasons for suppressing them – in a sly, deliciously funny new book called All The Art That’s Fit to Print (And Some That Wasn’t). Her book (published by Columbia University Press) rescues 320 eye-stopping illustrations by 142 of the world’s most provocative graphic artists, including David Levine, Jules Feiffer, Ronald Searle, Milton Glaser, Charles Addams, Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Ralph Steadman, Larry Rivers, Saul Steinberg, Ben Shahn, Art Speigelman, Andy Warhol, Garry Trudeau, and many more.

Now imagine for a moment what spooked those worldly Times editors into panic?

As Kraus points out, Times editors were convinced that illustrators were always trying to put something over on them, forever conspiring to sneak in hidden sexual or political statements. So they frequently watered down editorial art to near vacuity – even though, ironically, the articles they illustrated were often fearless and hard-hitting.

And though its management believed that the pen was mightier than the sword, it had an uneasy suspicion that art might be more brutal than the pen. This resulted in weird, last-minute censorings – especially of caricatures of famous people, against which there was a puzzling, long-standing prohibition.

Case in point: Ohio humorist George Kocar's interpretation of Ronald Reagan's request for missile money alarmed editorial censors -- not because of the nuclear nose or blind eyes, but because it reduced a president of the United States to beggar status:

And this relatively tame portrait of Idi Amin by Peruvian artist Carlos Llerena Aguirre was deemed "too severe" an indictment of the Ugandan tyrant's mass murders of his own people -- even though the article it was to illustrate was far more ferocious in its condemnation.

Once more with feeling: you can say it, but you can't draw it.

We as media consumers owe a genuine debt of gratitude to Ms. Kraus for providing us a peeping-tom-eye's view into the parochial mind-set of the editorial Mafia calling the shots in American journalism, though the Times wished she hadn't.

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