The bizarre features and expressions of the two white men could be due to a lack of skill in modeling, but then again, it might be simply how the artist “saw” the people whose portraits he was making. It could be either, but the Tanzanians are skilled at the plastic arts, particularly wood carving. I suspect that to some degree, at least, we are seeing white people as seen by black people at a particular moment in time.
While sculpture generally makes an attempt at realism, cartooning is a reductionist art form. Photorealism is not attempted; data is simplified in order to suggest reality in the most economical way. Certain features are exaggerated to compensate for others being absent. So, to draw a cartoon of a person from another race or culture, stereotypes – facial features, body type, costume – are used. A German will often be drawn as chubby, with a mustache and a Tyrolean hat, maybe holding a beer mug. A Frenchman will be short, with a goatee and a beret. The same thing is done with other types – the artist’s smock, the scientist’s lab coat, the smart kid’s glasses tell you who these people are.
I remember reading an internet post years ago, asking why the characters in Japanese manga didn’t look Japanese. Someone replied that they look Japanese to the Japanese, then asked how we knew that the Simpsons were white. We process the Simpson’s rubbery forms, their googly eyes, their yellow color, their hair which sometimes looks like a deformed head (Lisa), and we see – ourselves. Cartooning comes not only from a particular mind, but from a culture and an era. And it must communicate to other minds from that same culture and era. If you’re going to draw somebody from Bolivia or China, others have to recognize what you’re doing, or your work isn’t up to its job.
Sometimes, art is made in order to ridicule or defame others. Sometimes, art relies on stereotypes which were born in ridicule or infamy. We can rightly call this racist or sexist or whatever. But sometimes, the art is simply of a particular place and time. It may not have aged well, but to accuse all non-updated images of bigotry is to miss the point. This is the case with the controversy over Dr. Seuss’s early work.
In And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, there is a drawing of a stereotypical Chinaman. Is it unflattering? Perhaps to some eyes. But was it drawn to demean the Chinese, or was it just drawn as economically as possible, in order to suggest to people of its era the essence of Chineseness? I think the latter. In If I Ran the Zoo, we have some strange animals being presented by some Africans. The portrait of the Africans is jarring to us today, and of course, we have to remember that in the era this was published, actual Africans were hired to be zoo exhibits. So perhaps those images are more troubling. Still, if you want to see what I think are really problematic cartoons of Africans, read the adventures of Asterix, drawn by Albert Uderzo.
Should such books be withdrawn from publication? Meh. If the copyright holder wishes to no longer publish them, they are free to do so. If they did so, without announcement, and somebody asked why they were no longer in print, they could simply reply, “we thought they were a little dated.” But when the copyright holder ups and declares that certain parts of their catalog are no longer fit for viewing by children, that’s a much, much stronger statement. And it is usually a prelude to more denunciations and withdrawals. Already, we have people saying that the Cat in the Hat is a thinly-veiled pastiche of black minstrel shows. (I would have placed it as slapstick – a childhood fantasy of anarchy that nevertheless affirms the child’s own need for order.)
And what are we to say, then, about Amazon and eBay refusing to facilitate the sale of these dated titles, when they will gladly sell you Mein Kampf and as much pornography as you can handle? No, the controversy isn’t about how many and which books you maintain in your catalog. The controversy is over who will be denounced next. Our society is afflicted with a very vocal lot of Savonarolas, and the bonfire of the vanities is being kindled in one arena after another. This is far more troubling than a few unflattering cartoons in old books.
In the 1920s, the Nazis denounced what they called “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst). They banned most modern art as a result. They officially approved of nudes in the tradition of the Baroque as high culture, however, but they were a prudish lot in other ways. The result was to produce approved art that made one feel dirty to view it. Meanwhile, the Soviets had an officially approved style of art called Soviet Realism, which critiqued the intent as well as the technique of the artist. But at least both the Nazis and the Soviets were up-front about the fact that they were censoring art. Our woke Savonarolas will tell you that they aren’t engaging in censorship even as they find new vanities to toss on the bonfire. And what they approve of may fit their ideology, but most art made to fit an ideology winds up being bad art: kitsch that preaches.