The debate is raging over this week’s notorious New Yorker cover of Barack and Michelle Obama, but here in Chicago we’ve been there, done that. There’s a world of difference between Barry Blitt’s drawing of the up-and-comers in Islamic and revolutionary regalia and Mirth and Girth, David K. Nelson’s 1988 acrylic painting of Harold Washington in a woman’s undergarments: Blitt’s trying to ridicule Barack Obama’s more rabid opponents, while Nelson was trying to knock the recently deceased mayor’s more rabid glorifiers. 

But their works have this much in common. They’ve made people furious. And each works better as an idea than as an executed picture. As Clarence Page said in the Tribune Wednesday about Blitt’s cover — “When it takes you too long to figure out whether a joke is funny, well, forget about it.” I’ve never been able to persuade myself that Nelson’s painting wasn’t dumb (I’ve tried), and I’m still looking for ways to decide that Blitt’s is witty.

The David K. Nelson controversy was a major chapter in our city’s hysteria-packed history, an episode that began with black aldermen under police escort commandeering a painting from the School of the Art Institute and ended six years later with a withering decision in U.S. Appellate Court and an out-of-court settlement to Nelson. In his 1994 opinion Judge Richard Posner noted that after a day in police custody the painting was released to Nelson, “we assume on its own recognizance.”

Mirth and Girth wasn’t the last time David K. Nelson stirred up trouble in Chicago. In 1991 he made a cartoon for the Reader‘s year-in-review issue that was pretty funny. It showed Alderman Dorothy Tillman as a paper doll in skivvies trying to decide what to wear, a “feminine yet subtly persuasive” outfit accessorized by a revolver or something a little more rugged accessorized by a submachine gun and matching ammo-clip bandolier. (Tillman had reportedly waved a gun at a community meeting.) “Help Dress Dorothy,” we called the cartoon.

To make a long story short, here’s the column I wrote three weeks later, after the chairman of the state Democratic Party had urged his party’s candidates not to advertise in this newspaper. And here’s my column the week after that, meditating on the demonstration against the Reader that I’d watched from an office window.