Sunday, July 20, 2008
Dick on a desk, not funny; dick in a box, funny
I don't know what's worse, that humorist Gina Barreca so clearly misses the point about the infamous Barack Obama cartoon New Yorker cover, or, as a professor of English literature at UCONN, that she so clearly misses the entire concept of satire.
There are a variety of definitions of satire (e.g. here, here and here) available using a simple Google search. But what is common among all these definitions is that satire is work that holds human folly, fault and wickedness up to censure, through the use of humorous devices which can include exaggeration, ridicule, irony, mocking, parody, comparison and wit. In the strictest sense, satire is supposed to edify those being satirized to demonstrate how they have strayed from a shared moral code.
As I've written before here, satire should shock all who read or observe it, into recognition of human faults. Satire should have an identifiable target. At it's best, it should make the observer gasp.
Under any of these definitions, the New Yorker cover qualifies as satire. But to all the densest of viewers, the cover belittles those who are so afraid of the possibility of an African-American president, that they would assign him qualities which are ludicrous to even imagine.
That Gina Barreca, and many others, don't like it, is meaningful only from the standpoint that most satire is meant to instruct by offending.
Barreca writes that the cover art: "was about as sophisticated a piece of satire as a penis drawn on a desk," which further illustrates her misunderstanding of satire. How a penis carved into a desk could ever be construed to be satire (unless it were a masterful, woodcut replica of Michelangelo's David's penis), or even humor, is beyond comprehension. A penis etched into a desk is meant to offend, or titillate, plain and simple.
Now, a vagina carved into a desk would be satire. The vandalizing vagina would satirize the juvenile, self-indulgent preoccupation with the phallus which has driven men to leave impressions of it everywhere in art history.
Barreca continues with an example of Neandrathal cave drawings. Somehow she construes a drawing of "a mastadon stomping one of the stick figures" as satire, "or an attempt at satire." While actual cave drawings show human figures being gored by wild bulls, it's a lot easier to imagine these drawings as being instructive, and not satirical. Who, exactly, does Barreca think is being held up for mockery? Now, if in the next panel of the cave drawing we see the same group of Neandrathals eating leafs, roots and berries, then we might consider it a satire of the beginnings of a vegetarian movement.
I believe Barreca has drawn the tortured Neandrathal comparison simply to be able to imply that the cartoonist and editor of the New Yorker, are beneath the intelligence level of your average Neandrathal. It's a non-joke. Or a joke that's simply not funny.
Finally Barreca says the New Yorker cover is "an equivalent of a football stadium of boors on Coors singing "Born in the USA" as if Springsteen's lyrics were a national anthem celebrating the caring, generous, nurturing attitude of the U.S. government toward its veterans rather than the heartbreaking, darkly satirical, deeply fatalistic song it actually is."
Barreca's predjudices are showing. Who are these "boors on Coors?" Are they the same people who might not understand the satire on the New Yorker cover (after all they can't understand a plainly straightforward Springsteen song). Are they alcoholics who don't listen to anything but the choruses of songs? Is there anyone, save Ronald Reagan's campaign consultants, who on hearing the song once, don't understand it as an indictment of the promise of the American dream?
BTW, I'm not quite sure Springsteen's song is "satire." While there's some irony implied in the chorus (which was taken, neary whole cloth from Ron Kovic's book Born On the Fourth of July, a title, itself, which might seem like a satire of the jingoistic, patriotic George M. Cohan song, Yankee Doodle Dandy, if it weren't for the fact that Kovic was actually born on July 4), the song's target is complex - it's the twisted entitlement, and the attendant disappointment, expressed by the song's narrator, of having a life at least as good as the one promised in recruitment ads.
So the comparison between people lustily singing "born in the USA," and completely misunderstanding the lyrical intent, and a cartoonist who seems to understand the vicious damage of those who claim things that aren't true, is lost on me.
In the end, Barreca's essay is so poorly thought out and argued out that I would suggest it's dishonest. It's clear she neither gets the satire implicit in the New Yorker cover, nor likes it. And that's what her essay should have said. It would have been a whole lot clearer, and not left the impression that the State of Connecticut employs a professor of English who doesn't know what she's talking about.