Charlie Hebdo, Danish Cartoons and Visual Rhetoric

Yesterday Islamic jihadists attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing a dozen people. At this writing one of three suspects has turned himself in, and two brothers remain on the run, having been last seen in northern France. I was in transit between St. Louis and New York when the news broke, and–recalling a related episode–I tweeted the following (right). 

Responses to the last go-round with aggressive cartoonists and avenging Islamists did not inspire confidence in liberal values; there was too much talk of needless blasphemy and sophomorism. Way back when I wrote an op-ed column column which I submitted to the opinion pages of the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, concerning the infamous, disastrous episode known as the Danish Cartoon Controversy. By way of brief summary: perhaps you may recall that yesterday's Charlie Hebdo, the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, published a nose-tweaking series of cartoons addressing the subject, as opposed to the person, of the Prophet Mohammed. The images ran in the autumn of 2005, causing friction and a local attempt to secure legal action by the Danish government against the paper's publishers. No such action occurred. Two Danish imams then headed off on a Mideast tour to whip up outrage. They succeeded. Cartoon riots in Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan took the lives of approximately 140 people. 

The weekend of February 11th and 12th, 2006 represented the high-water mark of American comment on the controversy. The Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote a snarky Critic's Notebook item on February 8, which prompted my response, at least in part. But the gray lady declined my offering without comment, and the editorial page of the Post-Dispatch, with which I had enjoyed a working relationship, did not return my call or reply to my email. Fair enough. Obviously, most such submissions do not see print. But at the time it was my general impression that the classically liberal response to these events seemed to have been judged unhelpfully pugnacious by the nation's opinion pages. 

I have decided to repost that column here because it serves the editorial purposes of Graphic Tales, which is to add my voice to a discussion about popular images and their purposes. 

February 9, 2006

I wish the Danish Cartoons were a sports franchise. Because I want to root for them. After the week they’ve had—hysteria, lethal violence, international crisis—yesterday the art critic from The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, pronounced them “callous” and, much worse, “feeble.” Vile is one thing, but lousy is another! 

Certainly nobody expects a serious art critic to linger long in the realm of popular picture-making, where images are asked to do specific work. Unlike philosophically-oriented art, popular images, including editorial art, must inform, entertain, or persuade. So while Mr. Kimmelman ascribes these images to the authority-tweaking traditions of modern art, they come from something older and more grounded in political life—the very beginning of satirical printing in Europe. These roots extend at least as far as James Gillray and the birth of modern political cartooning in Georgian England, and arguably go all the way back to scatological pope-bashing in the Age of Luther. The “oblivion” that Kimmelman judges these Danish cartoons deserve has always been their lot in the culture industry, from the beginning. 

What is a cartoon, anyway? As Steven Heller has reported [in Merz to Émigré and Beyond: Avant-Garde Magazine Design in the 20th Century; Phaidon 2003] the wags at Punch, the British humor magazine, breathed new life into an old term in 1843. An exhibition of preparatory cartoons for a cycle of murals to be installed in Parliament provoked a mocking response, in the form of Punch’s own round of “cartoons.” Today, the word suggests a comic vignette with a caption. 

As a piece of vocabulary, the word “caricature” does more work, coming from the Latin carrus, for wagon, carricare, to load, and caricare, to overload. As surely Richard Nixon could have attested, the caricature relies on strategic exaggeration for emphasis and effect. The greater the exaggeration, the heavier the load. In rhetorical terms, this maneuver is called hyperbole. 

The great Thomas Nast, the 19th century editorial illustrator for Harper’s, was a master of visual rhetoric. He used figures of speech basic to colorful argumentation--metaphor, pun, metonymy, personification--and applied them to visual forms. Boss Tweed morphs into a vulture, A bishop’s mitre becomes a crocodile’s mouth. A politics is compressed into the Tamanny Tiger. The female figure of Columbia embodies America. (Editorial note: the allegorical figure of Columbia predates Nast. June 2014.)

I’d argue that the most potent editorial artworks succeed without much language to attend them. That is to say, they function first as visuals. Like millions of people curious to see the source of all the trouble, I tracked down the Danish cartoons online at Wikipedia. In their original context in Jyllands-Posten they appeared around the perimeter of a single broadsheet page. They are uneven in quality and varied in form. Some are cartoons in the traditional sense: a vignette with a caption below. Others resemble a comic panel: a character with a voice bubble. By far, the strongest of the lot as a piece of visual form as well as a pithy statement is the work of a certain “KW.” This is the image most often referred to in press accounts of the controversy, unsurprisingly, because it looks like what it is: a portrait of sorts, in which the Prophet, rendered in a vaguely orientalist idiom, wears a turban that looks like “a bomb” in the conventional shorthand of such things--a circular form with a squat stem and a flaming wick. The brooding anger of contemporary Islamism is projected onto the historical figure of the Prophet (personification); the ideology of the suicide bomber is imputed to the Prophet by transforming his turban into a bomb (visual pun). The distribution of black shapes, gray passages, and white negative spaces works well; as an image, it coheres very competently. So far as I know, KW has not been identified, probably for his or her own safety. But I find the work neither callous nor feeble.

[Subsequent comment identified KW as a staff artist at Jyllands-Posten. Later he was named as the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. In 2010, after years of moving from safe house to safe house, he, too, was attacked in his home, by a would-be avenger weilding an axe.]

We cannot assign culpability to editors and cartoonists for violence cynically fomented by others. I was annoyed to the point of outrage to hear an American government spokesman describe religious feather-ruffling as “unacceptable.” Count me among the unapologetic liberals in the classical sense of the term who regard the bruised sensitivities of the faithful as a (not terribly) unfortunate aspect of life in an open society. 

The editorial artists who give visual form to cultural argument have added color to our politics. That the thrust of their work is fundamentally rhetorical does not damn it to irrelevance. It may lead some to consider the political cartoon as a kind of visual speech, and thus to recoil from granting the status accorded other forms of visual art. The cultural work taken on by KW et al. is fundamentally different than that assumed by painters and sculptors. Different perspectives will be required to make sense of it in larger cultural terms. But in the meantime, I offer three cheers for the Danish cartoons and the people who draw them. They are the draftspeople of our civilization. Their exaggerations and distortions are only the wild strokes of our own halting sketch of the world we invent as we go.

A  Charlie Hebdo  cover presenting Mohammed as "guest editor" ( 100 lashes if you don't die laughing!  reads the voice bubble). The magazine's offices were firebombed soon after. 2011. 

A Charlie Hebdo cover presenting Mohammed as "guest editor" (100 lashes if you don't die laughing! reads the voice bubble). The magazine's offices were firebombed soon after. 2011. 

Neon signage (no longer illuminated, probably for security reasons) identifying the offices of Jyllands-Posten in Copenhagen. I shot this photograph in 2011. 

Ben Shahn smiles at himself and dour Protestants in Self Portrait Among Churchgoers, 1939.

Visual rhetorician Thomas Nast offers up an anti-Catholic broadside in "American Ganges," published by Harper's Weekly on September 30, 1871 (and reprised with modifications on May 8, 1875). A thorough discussion of the image provided here

Kurt Westergaard, The Prophet, published in Jyllands-Posten, 2005.