An art critic's take on Varvel's racist Thanksgiving cartoon 

click to enlarge Gary Varvel, as seen in a promotional photo for the 2009 film The Board, an "astonishingly good piece of filmmaking and genuine ministry," according to Mike Pence, that was written by Varvel and directed by his son Brett.
  • Gary Varvel, as seen in a promotional photo for the 2009 film The Board, an "astonishingly good piece of filmmaking and genuine ministry," according to Mike Pence, that was written by Varvel and directed by his son Brett.

It's no surprise that an editorial cartoon by The Indianapolis Star's Gary Varvel was removed from the newspaper's website over the weekend. The cartoon portrays an Hispanic family climbing in through the window of the home of a white family celebrating Thanksgiving. The white father, with a plate full of turkey in his hands, wears a glum expression as he says, "Thanks to the president's immigration order, we'll be having extra guests this Thanksgiving."

Considering Varvel's often bigoted opinions on politics and race, I'm surprised this kind of thing hasn't happened before.

The cartoon was published online Friday. After generating criticism for its racist overtones, it was altered to remove the mustache of the Hispanic father. This was done, it seems, to make the home invaders seem less ethnic. On Saturday, the cartoon was removed and the Star's executive editor, Jeff Taylor, issued an apology, saying it never should have been published.

But the damage was done. The cartoon went viral, with everyone from the Talking Points Memo to The Huffington Post to The New York Times weighing in. And, of course, there's been no lack of attention from social media. One frequent comment: Didn't Thanksgiving start as a holiday with pilgrims sharing their food with native peoples?

In my opinion, the most boneheaded thing that the cartoon does is suggest that Thanksgiving is an intrinsically white holiday. But we are a nation of immigrants, as our president takes pains to remind us.

The birther crowd might be unaware that Obama's executive orders shielding undocumented immigrants from deportation have historical precedents. Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush issued similar executive actions in the wake of the last big — bipartisan — overhaul of immigration law in 1986.

And if Varvel had published this editorial cartoon back in the '80s (he's been the Star's editorial cartoonist since 1994 and was chief artist for The Indianapolis News before that), it's likely that nobody would've raised much of a fuss. The Internet and social media have changed everything. But there is also the matter of declining newspaper readership in the face of demographic realities.

The Hoosier Hispanic population is projected to grow by 100 percent from 2005 to 2030, according to incontext, a publication of the Indiana Business Research Center at IU's Kelly School of Business. By that year, the Hispanic population will number 569,500 or 8.1 percent of Indiana's population. And over that same period, the white share of the population is projected to fall by roughly 3 percent.

It's kind of a no-brainer to say that the Star, if it is to survive, will have to consider the needs, desires, and, yes, political leanings of its Hispanic readership.

Let me digress for a moment. As an arts writer for NUVO, I've had the occasion to review Varvel's work when it was on display in graphic novel format at the Harrison Center for the Arts back in January 2011. In one sequence from that work, Varvel celebrates a faith-based nonprofit and a Christian family for the ways in which they've helped a student from a broken home. (If you're familiar with Varvel's work, you will know that he has high praise for faith-based anything — Christian faith-based, that is — and absolutely nothing good to say about governmental assistance to the poor.)

"It's clear," I wrote back then, "that Varvel believes the federal government ought to have little or no role in providing social services or making mandates (witness his January 9, 2011 editorial cartoon in the Star depicting 'Obamacare' as Frankenstein). Varvel also seems to buy into the notion espoused by Marvin Olasky and others that equates a cry for help from a poor person with an opportunity for evangelism."

In writing this review, I was faced with a certain paradox. That is, I didn't doubt Varvel's exceptional representational skills and his knack for getting his point across. But if I don't agree with the point made, isn't it my role as a reviewer to point that out?

Some arts writers will restrict their written commentary to the paint on an artist's palette. In his 1972 book on art, Ways of Seeing, John Berger accuses such writers of engaging in obfuscation. These days, this kind of writing is pretty much restricted to the world of academics. Journalists like myself who write about art are often inclined to use it as a vehicle to write about the wider world.

A particular reporter from the Star's past, the late William Whitworth, is a case in point.

"Indiana is a conservative state, we have been told many times, and we believe it," wrote Whitworth on October 10, 1953. On that day, he was reviewing a show of the Indianapolis Artists' Club, at the old Ayres Auditorium, which he labelled, "an exceptional example of Indiana's outlook."

Whitworth went on to describe the artwork displayed at this venue that seemingly suited his taste: "The people in the portraits look like real persons. The landscapes look like scenes in the country. The flowers look like real flowers, not a Freudian reaction to flowers ... The artists have come to the conclusion, it seems to us, that painting is for the layman as well as the artist and not exclusively for esoteric dabblers."

Of course, you need only take a stroll through Fountain Square's Murphy Building to see that things have changed radically since then. (How can you possibly talk of a divide between abstract and representational art after seeing the collaborative paintings of Murphy-based Mike Graves, to take just one example?) The art that Whitworth venerated back then has been pushed to the margins and the very language used to talk about art has changed.

Even a decade ago, Varvel might have represented the views of a plurality of the Star's readership — just as Whitworth probably did in the 1950s. Not so now. If you're an aging, suburban white evangelical, you can probably relate to the points Varvel is making. But if The Indianapolis Star wants to survive, it will have to do something about Varvel. Pulling this cartoon wasn't about political correctness as his supporters will claim. It was about economics.

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