A Right to Insult?
What do American cartoon artists make of the worldwide protests ignited by the Muhammad cartoons published by the Danish paper? The Nation's Sam Graham-Felsen posed a few questions by phone to two whose work we hold in great esteem: Joe Sacco, a Maltese-American, the author of Palestine and War's End, and Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers.
The Nation: What was your initial reaction to the controversy?
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.
To me the bigger context is that there are segments of the Muslim population around the world that have been pummeled with other images, like Abu Ghraib, that are also offensive. And you also have to see this in the context of how some Muslims around the world are viewing the actions of the U.S. or allies of the U.S., for example Israel. You add all these things into the mix, and it's just another thing, another part of this ridiculous war that is being forced on people, that is supposed to be about a "clash of civilizations."
Spiegelman: I have spent a lot of time soul-searching and still come out on the same side of the equation. If there's a right to make cartoons, there has to be a right to insult, and if there's no right to make cartoons, well, I'm in big trouble. And I think America might be too.
The Nation: Now that the images are out there, do the media have a responsibility to reprint them, or is it enough to describe them?
Sacco: Well, frankly, I'd say it's enough to just describe them. Putting the cartoon itself out -- what's the value of it? An editor, working in the real world, has to balance a number of things. There is a value in showing people what the fuss is all about, but the impact might be violent, and an editor does have to think about those things. I think most American editors have handled it pretty well.
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, and it's as big a divide as the secular-religious divide -- the picture-word divide.
The public has been infantilized by the press. It's escalated to the point where it's moot whether one should reprint these pictures or not because now to do it puts you firmly on the side of the libeler, the defamer. And yet, it seems to me that to write about this without access to the pictures is an absurdity. 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.
If The Nation and the New York Times had simply said, "We're scared shitless," I could take that. I'm not only a cartoonist, I'm a physical coward.
The Nation: What is it about images, as opposed to words, that seems to spark so much offense?
Sacco: :It's a very pointed medium. In a split second you get it like a sledgehammer. That is the power of an editorial cartoon. I do not work in editorial cartoons; I do comic books. But in editorial cartoons, the idea is that one picture is going to give you the whole story -- or not the whole story, actually, but reduce it down to some sort of essence, leaving aside context. It just gets to the heart of it, gets to a punch line. And I think there is an inherent power in the immediacy of an image.
Spiegelman: Cartoons have a kind of acidic potency for clarifying a situation because they're reductive. It also seems to me that cartoons are defamatory by nature. One can mitigate the defamation by trying to indicate subtleties, you know, and often that ends up making it very difficult to make a cartoon at all. If anything, I think the cartoons have gotten too damn polite in America over the last decades. The cartoons have to be gag cartoons instead of emblematizations and essentializations of situations, which is what they used to be. When one manages to do that, it usually gets someone upset.
The Nation: Will this controversy cause cartoonists and graphic artists to self-censor their work more frequently?
Sacco: No. I think maybe the idiot cartoonist should feel a need to be a little more self-censoring, when it comes down to it, but a thinking cartoonist weighs what he or she is doing. Frankly, I don't give a damn about these Danish cartoons. In the end, yes, there is a principle about the freedom of expression that concerns me, but I'm always sorry to have to rush to the defense of idiots.
The Nation: Should this controversy really be framed as an issue of freedom of speech?
Sacco: All societies have their taboos. Are these editorial cartoonists going to rush to the defense of anti-Semitic cartoons? I doubt it, frankly. There are countries in the so-called West -- Germany, Austria -- where depiction of Nazi imagery is against the law, and even doing a Hitler salute -- you could be imprisoned for something like that. It's a hot time on this planet, and tempers are going to flare, and people are going to get hurt with these sorts of things. Freedom of the press, or the idea that you can depict anything -- we simply don't subscribe to that when it comes down to it. I mean, child porn is not allowed. There are certain barriers or borders we all sort of agree, or most of us agree, where you are taking things too far. I personally don't necessarily think that attacking a religion is taking it too far, or even working within the imagery of religion to attack it. But you have to judge each instance and what it means.
Spiegelman: There has to be a right to insult. You can't always have polite discourse. 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.
In 1897 politicians in New York State tried to make it a major offense to publish unflattering caricatures of politicians. They were part of a Tweed-like machine who didn't like insulting drawings published of themselves, so they spent months trying to get a bill passed and to make it punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison.
The Nation: What happened?
Spiegelman: It got killed. We have this thing called the First Amendment that was in better shape, maybe, then than now.