Much Ado About Art, Satire and Terrorism

Art Spieigleman, by Art Spiegleman

As the debate rages over Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons, Art Spiegelman offers sage advice on cartoons and free speech.

Just Lines?

What is it about cartoons that lend them such power? Spiegelman addressed this in an interview with CBC earlier on the day of his talk. “Cartoons are built of very simple size, they go very deep, and they’re born of graffiti.”

"If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face." – George Orwell
He elaborated on this, with the help of visual aids, during his talk in Toronto that evening. Cartoons, he said, are “little abstract symbols that take on meaning because you invest them with meaning.” Yet they have a potent power, he said, because they’re visual. They speak at a very primeval level to something in our lizard brain, he said. Words require elaborate processing, but visual symbols produce a direct affect almost instantaneously, and before our brain is able to filter the visual symbol through other interpretive frameworks we might have learned. “It gets in your brain before you have a chance to fight it.”

This lends the comic artist a great deal of power. And responsibility. “The nature of the comic artist’s role is to make things clarified… to make it so once you’ve seen it, you can never not see it.” He quotes Robert Crumb’s famous comment that “It’s only lines on paper, folks!” “No!” he counters. “These are dangerous! Those things have an effect.”

Honouring Charlie Hebdo’s Legacy

Spiegelman was deeply affected by the Charlie Hebdo murders. He had met some of the artists, visited their office in Paris and even sat in on an editorial meeting with them some years earlier. He recounted the dynamic and creative spirit he’d felt in their presence. One of the great contributions Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly have made to comics has been their efforts to put European and American comics artists into dialogue with each other. RAW Comics often did that, as have other subsequent projects.

“Political cartoons have lost their sting in America in a way they haven’t in other countries,” he laments. When asked by a member of the audience why this might be, and whether it had to do with fear of the government, he shook his head. “No,” he replied. “It’s economic fear. You have to take a chance people won’t like it.”

During his talk, Spiegelman—like the National Post, when it defended its reprinting of the controversial comics—walked the audience through the history of Charlie Hebdo, and of French political satire more broadly. He traced the influence of turn-of-the-century 1900s French satirical magazine L’Assiette au Beurre, which also shocked and scandalized with its powerful, non-partisan art in the broad spirit of social reform, and then the rise of French satirical magazine Hara-Kiri which appeared in 1960. Periodically targeted by the French government for its fiercely critical satire, it was finally banned in 1970 after making satirical commentary about the death of former French President Charles de Gaulle. It promptly popped up under a new (and deliberately ironic) name: Charlie Hebdo.

Why do defenders of Charlie Hebdo always invoke this lengthy lineage? Perhaps it’s intended to confer legitimacy by demonstrating that it’s not simply a one-off magazine trying to be outrageous, but in fact is part of a deeply rooted cultural and literary tradition of satirical dialogue that stretches back over a century. Satire, this argument seems to say, assumes the form of a particular conversation, and needs to be considered within its particular cultural and historical context.

Reviewing its broader legacy, Charlie Hebdo does indeed choose its targets widely—it includes all religions, all political affiliations, all identities. The message seems to be: nothing is sacred, and it’s important that nothing be considered sacred. “They make fun of everybody,” Spiegelman explained. And why? “Because: no gods, no masters.”

From Paris to New York

Spiegelman’s wife shares credit for their joint accomplishments such as the acclaimed comics magazine RAW. Moulym is currently art editor for the New Yorker, and responsible for some of the profound and provocative covers that magazine has featured in recent years. Her commitment to the power and diversity of visual interpretation, which she shares with Spiegelman, is apparent in this work.

Spiegelman produced a famous 1993 Valentine’s Day cover for the New Yorker (before Mouly was hired by the magazine) featuring a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman. He discussed the cover at his talk in Toronto, noting that as much as the visual depiction of racial stereotypes is criticized, reliance on the ability to clearly and visually represent something is what a cover like that relied upon.

Even so, not all readers got the message Spiegelman intended. He recounted one letter from a reader congratulating him on honouring Lincoln’s birthday with a picture of Abraham Lincoln kissing a slave. The reader had obviously misread the visual cues, but importantly it demonstrates that when it comes to politically potent messages – satirical or otherwise – we often choose to see what we want to see. The bias, in such cases, is on our part, not that of the artist.

Precisely what different cultures and countries find offensive can sometimes be strangely unpredictable. Spiegelman recounted the story of the June 2006 issue of Harper’s magazine. At the time, it was Danish cartoonists who were under fire for their cartoons of the Prophet. Harper’s chose to reprint the Danish cartoons, and Spiegelman provided both an interpretive essay as well as a cover featuring various controversial images, including that of the Prophet.

The one the magazine had an issue with, however, was not the Prophet, nor blackface, nor Native American, but rather the image of a naked woman, because they’d been warned that would be banned in Canada. The solution was the use of two black bars to cover parts of the woman’s body. Even so, the Chapters Indigo book chain in Canada banned the issue from its shelves. Spiegelman noted wryly that this put him in a narrow category with Adolf Hitler, whose book, Mein Kampf, is also banned by the chain. ("The Art of Outrage", Harper's, 8 January 2015, and "Indigo pulls controversial Harper's off the shelves", by James Adams, Globe and Mail, 27 May 2006)

Book: In Love with Art: Françoise Mouly's Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman

Author: Jeet Heer

Publisher: Coach House

Publication date: 2013-08

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/c/clearlycanadian-inlovewithart-heer-cvr-200.jpgIn Jeet Heer’s excellent study of Mouly’s life and work, In Love With Art, he discusses the famous and infamous New Yorker ‘fist bump’ cover (21 July 2008) depicting Barack Obama and his wife just prior to Obama’s election as president. The cover, by artist Barry Blitt, also provoked controversy, displaying as it did Obama and his wife caricatured in a way that expressed all the conspiratorial slurs opponents had made against them. Obama was attired in Islamic dress, his wife as a Black Panther. A portrait of Osama bin Laden hung on a wall, and an American flag burned in a corner.

Other stereotypes were also featured. Yet the point was pure satire; demonstrating the ridiculousness of the accusations the Obamas had faced. As Heer explains, “Mouly maintains that its power came from the fact that it invented no new calumny but rather gave visible form to widely circulated innuendo—which became absurd in the very act of being depicted… The vilification of the Obamas that Blitt visually articulated already existed in the broader culture, but putting it on the cover of the New Yorker made it inescapably tangible, and the onus fell on the viewer to figure out that the lies were being presented as risible and not truthful.” ("http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics-july-dec08-obamacover_07-14/", by Gwen Ifill, PBS New Hour, 14 July 2008)

Afflicting the Afflicted?

Much of the Charlie Hebdo critique, of course, comes from the fact that Muslims in France (and other western countries), unlike these countries’ white majorities, are often disempowered, marginalized, stigmatized and discriminated against in many ways. It’s one thing to satirize somebody in power. But why satirize a group that’s already disenfranchised?

Spiegelman doesn’t disagree with the general sentiment. As one would guess from his own cartoons, he doesn’t like anti-Semitic work. Nor does he consider it praiseworthy to target other disempowered groups. But he draws a distinction between his own taste in these matters, and what should be permitted in public discourse. “It’s classier—more elegant—to speak truth to power, than to afflict the afflicted,” he said. “But there’s no right not to be insulted. There can’t be… You have to allow insults as well. Otherwise you’re cutting off too much thought. The only alternative is to be smothered out of existence.”

He rejects the idea that there is or even should be absolute freedom of speech. “There’s no such thing,” he says. But, he says, “The thing is to push it as far as you can. As long as it stays in the realm of thought and ideas, that’s the laboratory that will produce better ideas.” His argument echoes the classic free speech formulations of Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, who argued that no matter how ignorant, immature or disagreeable somebody’s speech might be, it must still be permitted, for that is the only way that intelligent people will be able to determine what ideas and views are best from among all those on offer.

Spiegelman presented this perspective more fully in a recent interview on Democracy Now!, where he also railed against the tendency of American media to not print the controversial comics. He rejected the rationale that although media has the right to publish comics of that nature, they should self-censor themselves. ("'Cartoonist Lives Matter': Art Spiegelman Responds to Charlie Hebdo Attack, Power of Cartoons" (Democracy Now! 8 January 2015) “The imperative of ‘we must be mature adults’ and therefore we have the right to do it but we mustn’t do it is a dangerous one. I believe the best response to stupid speech is more speech until you find your way through this. Hopefully without machine guns entering the picture…”

Spiegelman was incensed about what he felt was a double-standard – “an abomination”, as he described it during his Toronto talk—by the New York Times, which refused to print the Charlie Hebdo comics, yet published a full op-ed by Marine Le Pen. Le Pen is head of the Front National, a far-right anti-immigrant political party in France. In an interview Spiegelman gave to CBC earlier on the day of his Toronto talk, he also criticized this decision.

“To give her that big a forum where she was able to say ‘foreigners out!’ but in a much more sophisticated French accent than you might expect, and without you being warned this is the National Front that’s speaking here, you know? This was an absolute insult of a much bigger kind than anything Charlie Hebdo did about the Prophet.” ("Acclaimed cartoonist Art Spiegelman on keeping comics daring", CBC Radio, 26 January 2015)

He repeated the critique for his audience that evening in Toronto, noting with a sense of tragic irony that Le Pen--whose National Front was as much a target for the anti-fascist Charlie Hebdo as organized religion ever was—is now poised to benefit from the murders, and the ensuing wave of nationalism that has swept the country. Giving her electoral campaign prominent coverage, he pointed out, will do far more damage to Muslims in France than a few cartoons ever did.

The talk clearly demonstrated there are no easy answers. But Spiegelman’s determined advocacy for expansive free speech rights as the best way to counter oppressive political forces, and his faith in the power of comics and comics artists to change the way we perceive the world around us, left a sense of hope lingering in the air. His message was that cartoonists’ lives matter. But the raging debate Charlie Hebdo’s work has produced—a legacy now writ larger than ever before, in spite of the murderous and futile efforts of those who sought to silence them—demonstrates that their work does matter. And whether right or wrong, the impact and power of their lines-on-paper is undeniable.

As Spiegelman concluded: “You have to have the right to get it all wrong. Otherwise you’ll never get it right.”

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