With the disappearance of editorial cartoons from newspapers, we lose an example of the way art can shape our opinions.
Word comes that our nation's newspaper of record - The New York Times - has discontinued editorial cartoons. No more of these will grace its opinion pages. Is this a big deal? Well, it is, once you reflect on the power that art has to convey messages beyond the ability of words and our apparent unease in the presence of such power.
What makes editorial cartoons so powerful - when they're good - is the same thing that differentiates good art from great art. Great art often bypasses the rational part of our brain and it hits us right in the spot where we form our opinions and have our reactions without planning them. That gives it the power to shape how we understand our world.
On April 27th of April, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the Italian and Nazi allies of the Nationlist faction bombed the small town of Guernica in northern Spain, killing hundreds of civilians. The world was outraged.
When Pablo Picasso heard firsthand accounts of the horror, he immediately decided to make it the topic of the large painting he was already working on for the Spanish pavilion of the Worlds Fair that would begin that Fall in Paris. 35 days later the result was the black, white and grey modernist masterpiece Guernica, what many art critics say is one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history.
Like a good editorial cartoon it goes right to the human heart of what was one of the biggest, most controversial news stories of the day.
But the discontinuation of editorial cartoons in the Times also says something about our tendencey to react more strongly and often negatively to images than to words. I'm reminded of the controversy over the photographs by Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe that almost brought down the National Endowment for the Arts in 1991 when some people associated the creation and display of the photos with public tax dollars.
Very often your reaction to a work of a great work of art will be more immediate, more visceral and more influential than your reaction to an essay or a newspaper column. Great art catches us in an instant and a good editorial cartoon does as well. As we think about a great work of art or editorial cartoon we don't think of ourselves first. We think from another point of view and then sort of back up towards ourselves, rather than what we usually do - starting with ourselves and moving outward. Sometimes we find that we are changed by our encounter.
Can an editorial cartoon be offensive? Yes.
Can a great work of art be offensive? Yes, again.
But those are indications of their potential influence. I'm sorry to see them go.