Friday, March 17, 2006

Joe Sacco: anti-cartoon cartoonist?

From the Nation's dialogue with cartoonists Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco:
SACCO: My initial reaction was, "What a bunch of idiots those Danes were for printing those things." Did they not think that there was going to be some sort of backlash? Cartoons like that are simply meant as a provocation... frankly, I'd say it's enough to just describe them. Putting the cartoon itself out--what's the value of it?
Are these editorial cartoonists going to rush to the defense of anti-Semitic cartoons? I doubt it, frankly.

SPIEGELMAN: This notion that the images can just be described leaves me firmly on the side of showing images. The banal quality of the cartoons that gave insult is hard to believe until they are seen. We live in a culture where images rule ...

The public has been infantilized by the press... The answer to speech, in my religion, is more speech, a lot of yakking--and a lot of drawing. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, very often it requires 2,000 words more to talk about the picture, but you can't replace that thousand words with another thousand words.
Where I've had to do my soul-searching is articulating how I feel about the anti-Semitic cartoons that keep coming out of government-supported newspapers in Syria and beyond. And, basically, I am insulted. But so what? These visual insults are the symptom of the problem rather than the cause.

I couldn't agree with Spiegelman more. Several of the Danish cartoons, far from being patently offensive, make fun not of Muhammad, but of the tough situation the artist is in. One has the author sheepishly holding a stick figure drawn on a piece of paper, an image that asks if even this minimal gesture will earn opprobrium--which, astonishingly, it has, to the level of death threats and a fatwa. Another depicts an artist nervously and fearfully hunched over his drafting board, sketching out a picture but looking over his shoulder. If these aren't legitimate intellectual statements, I don't know what is.

Images of Muhammad have not been consistently forbidden across the Islamic world, and
in the past it has been far from clear that images of Muhammad are offensive for there mere existence, rather than forbidden for Muslims as an issue of correct focus of worship (as graven images are for Jews). There are numerous examples of images of Muhammad in Muslim art over the last millenium. Muhammad standing in the desert leading a camel, as depicted in one of the Danish drawings, might not have drawn ire at all if the image had been presented in a different context.

If legitimate commentary is an issue of life and death, then bringing this fact to light, at personal risk is at least in part a noble action--whether or not it's smart or kind on balance. Sacco should know this better than most. He's been called "provocative", in the positive sense, in more than one location (1, 2), but I imagine there are plenty of Zionists who would dismiss Sacco's excellent graphic novel Palestine by arguing the equivalent of "cartoons like that are simply meant as a provocation." Provocation is part of the value of the Danish cartoons, just like it's part of the value of Palestine.

And by the way, it's high time the European Union got rid of all these ridiculous anti-Nazi laws. A neo-Nazi must feel far more important meeting in a secret location with his cell than he would marching in the street with old ladies spitting at him.

Anonymous kate on Tue Mar 21, 11:47:00 AM:
How about the cartoon which shows Muhammad reading a statement from a piece of paper: "Easy my friends, when it comes to the point, it is only a statement made by a non-believing Dane." I mean, that's the long and short of it, no? But people looking to pick a fight don't need a valid reason.

But let's provide a little balance, because I don't think free speech is the only issue here. In the cartoon I just mentioned, Muhammad is reading this statement to a calm down a bunch of blood-thirsty, sword-wielding followers. And there's the one of Muhammad with his head as a bomb, and, uh, yeah, that's the whole cartoon. That is, I think, a pretty shitty thing to run, when you remember that it's a drawing of the messiah of the 99.9999% of Muslims who are god-fearing and not blowing shit up. And this racist, inflamitory image is in service of WHAT valuable point exactly?

Some of the cartoons were good, as in poignant, or else funny, albeit in a kinda fucked up way (suicide bombers getting to heaven, but stopped at the gate because "there aren't any virgins left!" ...ummm not exactly haha funny...but maybe that's just me). But, really, some of them were bad, as in shallow and in very poor taste. Some of them did little else besides strengthen the already very strong association in the West between Islam and terrorism. Just because free speech is valuable--integral--to our press, doesn't mean an editor should run every inflamatory, not funny, not politically poignant cartoon just because he or she has the free right to run it. I'm not defending censorship, but I am defending quality, and not all of those cartoons had it. How'd you like it if one of the U.S.'s fancy papers started running a bunch of cartoons where the only point was: black men are violent? Jews are greedy? They have a right to run it, but if there's no other message than the reinforcement of ugly stereotypes, why do it? Just because you can?
Blogger Ben on Tue Mar 21, 05:12:00 PM:
What about a cartoon of Jesus, the voice of peace and love, dressed up as a Jesus-praising, immigrant-hating Texas militiaman? Or Solomon, the wise judge, saying of a Palestinian home, "Let's cut it in half with a separation wall and see who cries louder"? Or Moses the shepherd drafted at 18 and decked out in IDF gear, staring at a burning Palestinian home to see it it is being consumed?

These would all be as offensive as the Muhammad-with-a-bomb-in-his-turban cartoon, but they would have value by pointing to the tragic irony of the modern connection. Or at least that's how I'd read them. I read the turban cartoon as a simple pointing out of the connection in the public eye between Islam's essence and terrorist violence, something that can be responded to with opprobrium, lament, sarcasm, anger, or glee. The eye of much of this stuff is in the beholder.

The issue of quality is difficult because it is so vague, but I think one proxy for it can be the question, is the cartoonist being cheap? That is, is he being exploitative of incorrect assumptions or inconsequential facts, or is he dealing with something essentially real? Could someone have a new thought of some value from reading the cartoon? Do they put things in a new light?

I thought that the "no virgins left" comic, which brought great indemnity on its illustrator, was awful and valueless when I first read it. I hadn't heard of the virgins-in-heaven thing, and it seemed like an obscenely racist thing to say that Islamic fundamentalists would believe such medieval bunk.

A little googling later, I learned that the virgins were not at all the invention of racist white Americans. The comic was focusing on an absurd and sick tenet of radical Islamism--one that seems to be believed literally by a significant number of Muslims, not just a tiny minority, to the huge detriment of the human race--and mocking it. Is that so valueless?