There's been this giant shit storm over the past few days about the latest cover of The New Yorker magazine. It shows a cartoon of Barack and Michele Obama in the Oval Office. He sports Arab attire, she's done up like a Black Panther with a huge 'fro and a machine gun. An American flag is in the fire place, and a portrait of Osama Bin Laden hangs on the wall.
The blogs are aflame. The basic arguments are: "It's racist!" vs. "It's a brilliant satire of the Right's fear-mongering!"
Some claim that anyone who knows the New Yorker's editorial stance, its past covers or this particular cartoonist's (Barry Blitt's) style will understand the subversive twist to the image. Others respond that if you have to know the artist to get the art then the art fails. Some elitists worry that while smart city folk will get the joke, it will negatively influence stupid swing voters.
Back and forth it goes. Is it comedy or is it offensive?
Why can't it be both?
Anyone who has spent five minutes in a stand up club knows that good comedy always pokes at our sore spots. And race is the sorest spot in the USA. This New Yorker cover is absolutely comedy. If it had appeared in The Onion there would have been no uproar. They print far more provocative material than this on a weekly basis.
But what fascinates me is the debate over whether this cartoon is offensive. Some say it is. Some say it isn't. But both sides seem to agree that the quality of being offensive is something that lies within a piece of art or an idea itself. I find this idea sort of scary.
In my opinion this cartoon, like a great many things in life, is offensive. Offensive to some people. To which people? To those people who find it offensive. It is also inoffensive to those people who find it inoffensive. I believe that "offensive" is not a quality that hides in a piece of work and jets out at the poor unsuspecting viewer like a squirt from a gag corsage. It is an interaction that occurs between the prejudices, experiences, strengths, failings and pet peeves of the viewer, and those of the artist as he expresses them in a particular piece of art.
The reason I find the idea that art itself can be innately offensive scary is because it calls to mind this dreary sense of righteous entitlement that exists on both the left and right wings. I'M offended so YOU better fix it. It reminds me of the bad old days in the early 1990s when I was an undergrad. Under pressure, campus newspapers pledged not to include any content that was racist, sexist, homophobic or offensive. The problem was that anyone could take offense at anything for any reason. And they did. A handful of pedantic, barely post-pubescent thought police channeled all the political zealotry of their naive youth into developing glass-fragile sensibilities that could be shattered by a semi-flaccid penis joke. Their righteous rage triumphed for a while over good student journalism. Editorials became toothless. Debate withered. And the great tradition of tasteless collegiate satire died completely. (The sports page, however, did just fine.)
These days Cass and I are performing at a club called The Box in New York City. Rich people come here. Movie and pop stars come here. They come to see the sort of entertainment they can't find anywhere else. On the bill last night were erotic trapeze artists, a woman who pulls a doll out of her cunt and then pretends to fuck it, a mock fashion show in which the MC blithely comments "If you aren't a size zero, you're FAT! Keep doing the coke - it keeps you thin!" and... well... a couple who sings a song about taking it up the ass.
Is it offensive? Yes. And no. Some people would probably feel strongly enough to picket this club if they knew what went on inside. Others will shell out thousands for the best tables. Still others in the NYC performance scene find the club offensive because it markets downtown sleaze to an uptown crowd and turns a tidy profit doing it.
Some people cringe at the statement " I don't know a lot about art , but I know what I like.". I think there's a lot of humility in those words. The humility of a person who doesn't feel a need to force consensus in order to feel justified. The humility of someone who doesn't need to be right. By all means, judge art. Discern. Raise hell if you're moved to. Feel offended. Just realize the feeling is something that rises from within you. It wasn't done TO you.