Now Class, What is Satire?

Satire, according to Merriam-Webster, is 1: a literary [or artistic] work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn; and 2: trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly.

This week’s New Yorker cover by Barry Blitt is just that: A satirical commentary on all the slanderous rumors being dumped on Sen. Barack Obama.

Titled “The Politics of Fear,” the cover trenchantly attacks “the use of
scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail
Barack Obama’s campaign,” according to a press release about the current issue.

But the Obama campaign (as well as that of Republican rival John McCain) slammed the cover as offensive:

The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us,
that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen. Obama’s
right-wing critics have tried to create,” Obama spokesman Bill Burton
said in a statement, reported by Politico. “But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree.”

In satire, however, context is everything–a delicate balance, to be sure. It must be pitch perfect, but not everyone need agree on whether it succeeds. Nonetheless, as a cover of The New Yorker, a magazine known for many covers, cartoons, and articles that “expose and discredit vice or folly,” it’s difficult to see this as anything other than what it is. And like the covers below, satire is designed to make readers question social, political, and cultural assumptions.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

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