The Indianapolis Star published a cartoon by Gary Vavel in the online edition of the newspaper last Friday, as a commentary on US president Barack Obama's signing of two executive actions that would delay deportation for illegal immigrants. The original cartoon, as shown above, depicts a white family sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner as 3 black-haired, brown skinned people prepare to climb into their home through the window. After a number of complaints and criticism from readers pointing out the racist overtones of the piece, the Star posted an edited version of the cartoon which saw the man entering the window now missing a moustache, before withdrawing it entirely. Executive editor of the Star, Jeff Taylor, addressed the issue and explained the newspaper's decision to remove the cartoon in a statement on Saturday:
'We posted a Gary Varvel cartoon at indystar.com that offended a wide group of readers. Many of them labeled it as racist. Gary did not intend to be racially insensitive in his attempt to express his strong views about President Barack Obama's decision to temporarily prevent the deportation of millions of immigrants living and working illegally in the United States.
But we erred in publishing it.
We initially decided to leave the cartoon posted to allow readers to comment and because material can never truly be eliminated once it is circulating on the web. But we are removing the cartoon from the opinion section of our website, as well as an earlier version posted on Facebook that showed one character with a mustache.
This action is not a comment on the issue of illegal immigration or a statement about Gary's right to express his opinions strongly. We encourage and support diverse opinion. But the depictions in this case were inappropriate; his point could have been expressed in other ways.'
I think that last paragraph is key: this isn't about censorship or even intent, to a point. It's about judging what the text is conveying and how it's going to be interpreted. There seem to have been a few instances like this -and no doubt there will be more-, where there has been one, strong, overt reading of a cartoon by audiences: Hem King Song's Indian space mission cartoon for the New York Times comes to mind -even the Spider-Woman cover by Milo Manara- and where, it seems editorial has been remiss in gauging the tone of a cartoon/art, or anticipating the reaction towards it. It's an editorial/political cartoonist's role to produce pieces that act as a catalyst for commentary and discussion, just as it as editor's role to act as a buffer, as a fresh pair of eyes with the benefit of greater distance than the creator, and to suggest modifications that would better serve the text.
There's a balance to be gleaned in creating images that evoke responses whilst not losing or twisting the message in the measures taken to do so. Giving artists the benefit of doubt and divorcing personal stances and intent can still leave you with work which is inherently problematic and will be read as such. As we saw with James Sturm's The Sponsor, if a reading is present, it's present, despite artistic intent. In Varvel's case it read as 'brown free-loading immigrants stealing from good, white traditional American family.' I appreciate the Star's quick handling of this, -that edited version aside- and Taylor's statement, in particular that Varvel could have expressed his point in a different, non-offensive manner. I don't think we should sacrifice nuance and context for the sake of being 'edgy' or 'controversial.' And I'm glad no-one called satire.