About that New Yorker Cover
The New Yorker came out with its customary October Surprise the other day, to a mixed reception. Like most art, and quite a lot of humor, it’s an ambiguous image in which folks will see a reflection of their own inner life and preconceptions.
Some on the Democratic side of the aisle have taken it as a slam at President Obama’s supposed absence during the debate, as have others on the Republican side with their usual childlike kneejerk jubilation (Col. Mustard: ” An empty Obama chair on the cover of The New Yorker smells like ... victory”; Dan Riehl: “Ouch!: The New Yorker set to mock Barry ‘The One’ Obama with next cover”).
I can accept that interpretation as one among those that are valid, but I’m not the sort of mindreader who can tell you what exactly cartoonist Barry Blitt’s intention was. Not that it matters that much, because often those who create an artwork are hostage to their own unconscious’s promptings and the subsequent interpretation the audience imposes on their work.
The image inevitably reminds me more of Clint Eastwood’s widely ridiculed scolding of an empty chair during the massive fail that was the climax of the GOP Convention.
Eastwood engaged with a caricature of Obama onto which he could project his own prejudices and spout untruths unchallenged, and assumed that the audience would go along with him as he pursued his theme. The aftermath wasn’t exactly a triumph for the Republicans. Not only did Eastwood’s overrunning bump Mitt from that vital media time slot the whole campaign had been building up to, but discussion of Eastwood’s performance vastly overshadowed the other coverage of the convention, and not in an entirely flattering way. Indeed, it doesn’t sound like Eastwood himself saw it as a particular triumph in retrospect, later saying: “If someone’s dumb enough to invite me to speak at a convention, they get what they get.”
A New Yorker cover from 2008 was also controversial and ambiguous.
Some Republicans rejoiced at this portrayal of the contender in all the gruesome glory they’d been ranting about. Those Democrats, and others, who weren’t outraged because they shared this interpretation, however, saw it as a slam at the ridiculous myths that these same Republicans, led by Sarah Palin, had been spreading. Again, I can’t read the mind of the cartoonist, but in that case I find it less easy to imagine that the intention was as the Republicans saw it. And all their trumpeting of the “Muslim!!!!” “Terrorist!!!!” fistbumping image didn’t prevent Obama’s election.
A New Yorker cover isn’t going to win or lose any election, so I’m quite happy to let the wingnuttiest of the wingnutty have their cheap chortle right now if that pleases them with just a month to go. There are other, possibly more powerful—and less ambiguous—memes out there, and the battle’s only just begun.