On Monday, the 2020 Pulitzer for political cartooning was awarded to Barry Blitt for work that includes “several magazine covers and an array of cartoons published exclusively online,” The New Yorker reported. “For nearly three decades in the pages of The New Yorker and, more recently, in a regular series on the magazine’s website, Blitt’s political cartoons have parodied, delighted and informed.”
The Pulitzer judges recognized Blitt “for work that skewers the personalities and policies emanating from the Trump White House with deceptively sweet watercolor style and seemingly gentle caricatures.” I had the honor of writing an essay for the cartoonist’s most recent monograph titled Blitt (Riverhead Books, 2017). Below is an adaptation of the essay “Blittskreig.”
During World War II, German lightning air strikes, or Blitzkrieg, set Europe ablaze. On a lesser scale of devastation, “Blittskrieg” is satiric artist Barry Blitt’s explosive graphic wit triggered by the fission of subcritical masses of intelligent absurdity, fervent skepticism and memorable comic imagery. The results are graphically charged detonations in the battles against power brokers, politicians, influence peddlers and a raging hoard of illiberal aggressors that frighten, repress and besiege us with their false patriotism and greedy corruption.
Blitt is best known for a string of famous and (some) infamous New Yorker magazine covers, notably the ones targeting the last three U.S. presidential electoral campaigns. Deploying his disarmingly modest graphic style, he has brilliantly attacked the folly and hypocrisy that all too frequently prevails throughout the hallowed halls and private boardrooms of America’s powerful. But that is only one part of his collected body of work.
The fact is, wherever his drawings appear, there is strength through humor, which is a kind of liberation, if only for a moment, from the oppressive news cycles and their perpetual touting of political idiots and ideological idiocy. Blitt’s comically incendiary drawings are weapons of mass instruction that have been so effective at piercing with laser-like precision the thin skin of the powerful that he has garnered accolades from allies and scorn from the opposition. There can be no dispute that Blitt has earned a vaulted place in the pantheon of 21st century political satire, along with Edward Sorel, Ralph Steadman, Robert Osborn, Jules Feiffer, Robert Grossman and more, through output that covertly or overtly defames the unscrupulous and defangs the infamous.
Despite appearances, Blitt is not subversive; he is an all-around image-maker; an illustrator, cartoonist and caricaturist who wields his wit for both critique or commentary always to trigger a visceral reaction.
“I would hope my work is more observational,” he once told me. “What could be more boring than partisan satire? I really don’t think it makes a difference what my politics are—I’m probably to the left of center on most issues—but in my work I’m looking for ridiculousness and hypocrisy wherever I can find it.” So, to be known only as a political artist and provocateur is much too limiting. In an era drowning in digital noise and visual static, it may be more accurate to say that Blitt’s virtue is cutting through the incomprehensible, conceiving pictures that engage his audience with whatever theme he tackles and wherever they are ultimately published.
Looking back through his early work, it appears that Blitt was not born with a taste for satiric blood. It developed as he realized that his drawings mattered to others. I’ve known him for over two decades, long enough to recall when his fledgling work was much more on the light, sketchy side and his conceptual self-confidence was more tentative than it is today. In answer to a statement I had written that he was one of the most strident illustrators of the early 2000s, he responded with typical cheekiness: “As a small child I drew pictures in my room, dreaming of becoming one of the more comically strident illustrators of the 2000s.” He added more seriously, however, that in truth “I am still very tentative, work-wise and everything-wise.” While getting published in major magazines throughout the country had to have emboldened him, “I still have to force myself with every drawing and every sketch to not hold back, to not be too timid on the page.”
Blitt does not “hold back,” nor does he overplay his cards, either. As biting as it may be, his work is more sublime and soothing—unthreatening might be apt—than rabid and raucous. When looking at some of his interpretive observations I see a curiously original coupling of the fantastical Edward Lear and the trenchant Georg Grosz—the lyricism of one and the expressionism of the other. It is this well-balanced co-mix of elegance and power that attracts the viewer to his distinct brand of nuanced irony.
Once, in a conversation we had, Blitt implied that much of his best work was the result of accidents that somehow succeeded. I don’t believe that for a minute. A visual satirist is incapable of hitting as many bull’s-eyes as he has done throughout this volume without being disciplined. While accidents obviously happen, discipline is knowing when and how to capitalize on them—it takes mastery to use opportunity. What looks ad hoc cannot really be ad hoc. Arguably, line for line, brush stroke for brush stroke, for years Blitt has hit his moving targets as much or more than comparable name-brand artists—and his hit rate does not rely entirely on the comic drawing virtues of his pictures alone.
Blitt’s effectiveness as a topical commentator is his virtuosity with words and pictures. Both components must be in sync, regardless of how simple the words. Take “All I Want For Christmas: Young Elites and Their Holiday Wishes,” created during the Bush era. What could be funnier or, for that matter, more disarming than reading “Billy O’Reilly’s or L’il Hilary Clinton’s” wishes while seei
ng the beguiling images together. Blitt’s wit comes through simply in the title of “Rejected New Nicknames for Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs—how can that be ignored? And when it comes to absurd-reality, the off-the-wall comedy of “Cellular Phones of the Future,” notably the “Talk ‘n’ Shoot” cellphone and pistol combo, is spot-on hilarity.
Blittskrieg is not as lethal as was the original Blitzkrieg. Yet Blitt’s keen sense of what is opportune for satire and how best to attack an issue or personality can both devastate the target and leave the rest of us smiling.
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