May 26, 2006

Art Spiegelman on the Muhammad -- and other -- cartoons.

I want to write something about Art Spiegelman's piece in the June issue Harper's Magazine, and it's frustrating not to be able to link to it. I hate to think I've reached the point where I feel that it's not worth reading things I can't link to. Remember that Kevin Kelly piece from a couple week's ago about how, in the future, everything would need to be on line to matter? I feel myself falling into that future. If Art Spiegelman wrote an article in Harper's that I can't link to, is that like Art Spiegelman thinking his own private thoughts or muttering to himself when he's walking alone on a deserted beach?

But I did go over to Borders and pick up a paper copy of the magazine, which was worth doing not so much because it reprints the notorious Muhammad cartoons from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, but because of the luscious reprints of some cartoons from the 19th and early 20th centuries. These old cartoons are brilliantly drawn and politically vicious. What is the point of beginning the article with these images? Spiegelman writes:
Cartoon language is mostly limited to deploying a handful of recognizable visual symbols and clichés. It makes use of the discredited pseudoscientific principles of physiognomy to portray character through a few physical attributes and facial expressions. It takes skill to use such clichés in ways that expand or subvert this impoverished vocabulary. Cartoonists like Honoré Daumier, Art Young, and George Grosz were masters of insult and were rewarded for their transgressions: Daumier was imprisoned for ridiculing Louis-Phillippe; Art Young, the Socialist editor of The Masses, was tried for treason as a result of his anti-World War I cartoons; and George Grosz was tried variously for slander, blasphemy, and obscenity before fleeing Germany as the Nazis rose to power.
Spiegelman goes on to criticize the Muhammad cartoons: most of them are not well drawn, they lack a discernable message, and -- in his view -- they fail to "speak truth to power." Cartoons are important: why aren't they better? Quite aside from the issue of stirring up religious fundamentalists by depicting Muhammad, there's the problem of decline in cartooning, an argument you pick up almost instantly upon looking at the old cartoons Spiegelman has chosen.
Hard-hitting cartoons have mostly been replaced by topical laffs in gag-cartoon format or by decorative "Op-Ed" style illustrations whose meanings are often drowned in ambiguous surrealism.
"Rancorous visual satire" is in short supply these days. Spiegelman wants more of it. I agree.

15 comments:

Wurly said...

Couldn't the problem just be a function of volume of both cartoonists and their individual output? There are a enormous number of cartoonists, and only a few in any generation will be true talents. The pressure to do daily cartoons will also limit the quality of even a talented individual's efforts.

David said...

In this politically correct climate, I would not get my hopes up for vicious satire. Might hurt someone's feelings. Boo Hoo!

I remember reading a metaphor about humor as sword cutting both ways. I remember wit was the edge of the sword.

Vicious satire is delicious!

Bissage said...

Gonna hafta get me a Harper's.

Ann Althouse said...

Bissage: Hurry up. The Harper's website is picturing the July issue as the current one. You've got to get the June.

amba said...

This website has had some pretty good cartoons satirizing the Muhammad-cartoon dust-up. (example: a fountain pen flying straight at twin mosque towers). I don't think the ones on the front page right now are particularly funny, but it's worth scrolling back through the archives -- you will find some good images.

Jacques Cuze said...

I gather that Spiegelman is upset by slander. Too bad we all aren't.

Pogo said...

Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus : A Survivor's Tale, a comic book (er, illustrated story) about his family's survival in the concentration camps and life beyond was just beautiful.

His follow-up piece about 9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers, was reprehensible, narcissistic crap. Good lord, could it be true that the man learned nothing at all from the story he wrote himself about an evil ideology and its effects on his own parents?

As such, I cannot any longer listen to him. He said,
"As a secular Jewish cartoonist living in New York City, I start out with four strikes against me, but I really don't want any irate Muslims declaring holy war on me," Spiegelman wrote in his commentary.
"It's not intended to add fuel to any fire," Spiegelman told Reuters, describing himself as "a devout coward."
"The Jyllands-Posten — a newspaper with a history of anti-immigrant bias — seemed somewhat disingenuous when it wrapped itself in the mantle of free speech to invite cartoonists to throw pies at the face of Muhammad,"
Spiegelman wrote.

He added, Spiegelman noted that the cartoons appear "banal and inoffensive" to secular eyes, revealing a gulf in understanding.

"To my secular eyes it seems like the real insult has been things like Abu Ghraib," he said, referring to abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers in Iraq.


He described one cartoon thus:
He said it had "no redeeming features" and in terms of craftsmanship it "might almost be worth a fatwa." (emphasis mine)

"I don't really even quite understand what it's a cartoon of, except 'We don't like Muslims,'" he told Reuters.


See? They were asking for it. (That was his 9/11 theory, too.) What drivel. Does he not realize that the primary target of their hatred is people like him? Indeed, he is similar to the Jews who looked away from all the signs before them, each day before Kristallnacht. The fascists of today are no different than in the 1930s, being quite explicit about their goals. What an idiot he is not to see; no, to refuse to see.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

Ann wrote: "I've reached the point where I feel that it's not worth reading things I can't link to. Remember that Kevin Kelly piece [...] about how, in the future, everything would need to be on line to matter? "

Reminds me of all the conversations in the movie Network about how things only matter if they are on TV.

The internet may be "better" than TV, but I reckon not by much. Or, as much as it is 'better' it is also much MUCH 'worse'.

It's always a shame and a problem when people, en masse, make a single medium their entire universe.

Slocum said...

But this is absolutely the golden age of vicious satire in cartoon form--it's just that it's delivered on Comedy Central rather than in the newspaper.

(BTW, anybody else getting to the point where they have a hard time hearing the term 'speaking truth to power' without gagging?)

Joe said...

So Spiegelman doesn't think the Mohammed cartoons speak (gag) "truth to power?" Then the term is meaningless. Spiegelman is an asshole, but at least honest enough to admit he is a coward.

Hey said...

You haven't gotten it: "Speaking truth to power" is only for people insulting rich white men. If people of color are attacking another person of color, they are only speaking truth to power if he is currently supported by the US or is anti-communist (preferably both). White people, especially white men, can never "speak truth to power" when it involves a person of color (or a supposed person of color, since many people in the middle east barely qualify as swarthy, never mind non-white).

This is what you get when your ideology is all about criticising your neighbours and rebelling against your parents (or grandparents) no matter how old you are.

WhidbeyIslander said...

Let me recommend David Horsey who draws for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/horsey/

I am often infuriated by his lazy-left attitudes, but he's a fair draughtsman.

WhidbeyIslander said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Craig Ranapia said...

"Not speaking truth to power"? Well, not for the first time, I think a comment like like says a lot more about the cultural & political self-absorption of Spiegelman than the subject under discussion. Then again, this is man who contributed a four page rumination to the New Yorker expressing his despair and disgust over the GOP Convention destorying his city...

Jacques Cuze said...

Wow, there were 8 million stories in the Naked City, and then the GOP came in and destoryed it.

Typical Conservatard Rethuglican censorship.