Je suis Charlie? Oui, even here

Art and politics collide in a terrorist atrocity in Paris, and the effects are felt around the globe

Also read Brett Campbell’s “The Charlie Hebdo murders: what I told my journalism students” on ArtsWatch.


“Je Suis Charlie” has swept the nation in the past few days, along with a few “I am NOT Charlie”s filed by people who agree that the murderous attacks on the offices of the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were criminal and repugnant, but reject the slogan for a variety of reasons: because most of us don’t put ourselves in danger the way that war correspondents and the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists do, for instance; or because the newspaper’s caricatures were often offensively anti-Muslim. (Many critics have been calling them racist, although the issue seems to be religion, not race, and the publication seems to be committed to offending pretty much everyone pretty much equally.)

Much of the world has risen in indignation and resolve against the Charlie Hebdo murders and the apparently linked slayings shortly after in a Parisian kosher supermarket. Well more than a million people gathered in Paris in solidarity against terrorism on Sunday, including more than 40 presidents and prime ministers. Encouragingly, that list included both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Controversially, neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden attended.

Mockery in art carries a long tradition. Here, Charlie Chaplin skewers Hitler in 1940's "The Great Dictator."

Mockery in art carries a long tradition. Here, Charlie Chaplin skewers Hitler in 1940’s “The Great Dictator.”

Here at Oregon ArtsWatch, Charlie Hebdo seems both somewhat distant and urgently close. We don’t deal in the sort of savage satire that is Charlie’s baguette and brie. We trade in opinion, and reporting, but within relatively narrow bounds: we write about art. Someone might be offended by something we write, even angry enough to want to punch us in the nose, but no one ever has. The likelihood of artists or readers coming after us with assault weapons is remote to the point of seeming absurd. Within the context of international politics and the struggles between cultures, the world of art, surely, is safe.

Except, of course, when it isn’t. Art can comfort, art can provoke. Art can celebrate the small and private, or amplify the large and tendentious. It can be rude, and challenging, and stick out its tongue. In its gut it’s open, and openness is a threat to terrorism and totalitarianism alike. Even the relatively open governance of the United States is wracked by obsessive spying on citizens, and state secret-keeping on such matters as the use of torture for political ends. In opposition to such things, or simply making end-runs around them, the likes of Banksy, Ai Weiwei, Piss Christ artist Andres Serrano, Madonna-and-elephant-dung artist Chris Ofili, and the makers of a dumb movie comedy about assassinating a North Korean despot are in the same cricket match. If I think Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator by all odds must be a vastly superior artistic response to totalitarian thuggery than Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview (which I haven’t seen, and don’t intend to), the urge to mock is the same. And mockery comes with risk. Wherever ideas occur – good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones – danger follows.

CharliehebdoYou’ve no doubt read plenty of opinions elsewhere about Charlie Hebdo and the terrorists. A few of the more interesting commentaries I’ve seen: Adam Gopnik’s take in The New Yorker; onetime Oregonian political cartoonist Jack Ohman’s insider view for his current newspaper, the Sacramento Bee; underground comix legend R. Crumb’s view from France, where he’s lived for 25 years, in the New York Observer; columnist David Brooks’s demurring view in the New York Times; the outstanding cartoonist/journalist Joe Sacco’s graphic response in The Guardian; the English actor and writer Stephen Fry‘s musings on mockery. In case you haven’t looked at the cartoons that prompted the terrorist revenge, you can see them here, reprinted by the Huffington Post: most American publications declined to reproduce the offending drawings. (The photo insert above, from Wikimedia Commons, shows the cover of the newspaper’s November 3, 2011 issue, one of the lighter Muslim-themed drawings, with a speech bubble that translates, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”)

Well, there’s nothing to laugh about now. And certainly nothing to die about, although 17 people did in the newspaper and supermarket assaults. Until last week’s terrorist shootings I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo. Scanning what I’ve been able to see, I discern an obvious cultural disconnection between Charlie and me. I love Jonathan Swift; I re-read Gulliver’s Travels every few years. I sup at the aesthetic table of Daumier and Rowlandson and the harsher, angrier Goya in his Los Caprichos and Disasters of War mode. Much of what I see at Charlie Hebdo seems crude and sophomoric in comparison. Yet if Charlie unnerves me, and certainly offends many others, that’s the point. There’s an anarchic fervor to the thing, a relentless desire to call into question everything. And that’s what totalitarians can’t stand. Charlie is an emblem in the dangerous and often vicious struggle between freedom of expression and the drive to control thought.

Journalism and art are not the same thing, but they’re closely related in their drives to engage attention and reveal truths. Sometimes, as with the Saccos and Ohmans and Crumbs and George Orwells and Charlie Hebdos, they overlap. And often they have the same enemies. Repressive regimes, and “freedom” fighters acting in the hope of establishing repressive regimes, always want to control what’s written, spoken, and drawn. Art is a crucial player in that struggle, especially when it speaks truths that power doesn’t want to hear. The playwright Vaclav Havel became a symbol of Eastern Europe’s emergence from the Soviet bloc. Ai Weiwei is treated as a criminal in China, and something of a liberator to millions. The Third Reich outlawed “degenerate” modernist art.

It’s comforting to think the United States doesn’t act that way, except we do. Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t wish to draw a parallel between the French terrorists and the practitioners of thought suppression in America, because the gap is as wide as the gap between dirty tricks and murder: they are not the same thing. I’m aware of the long historical roots of mistrust between the West and the Muslim world; I’m aware that the terrorists don’t represent most Muslims. I’m also aware that murder is murder, and nattering is not. Even the most scurrilous of American agitators – the traveling circus known as the Westboro Baptist Church, for instance, which was in town a few days ago to castigate the Portland Trail Blazers, of all groups, for some sort of alleged crime of depravity – don’t put people in fear of their lives. And in the U.S., political blowhards are pretty much just political blowhards: we don’t expect them to come at us with AK-47s.

Few artists have been as brutal in their social commentary as Goya in his "Disasters of War" series, of which this print is No. 37. Titled "This Is Worse," it depicts the mutilated bodies of civilians skewered on trees in the aftermath of battle. Wikimedia Commons

Few artists have been as brutal in their social commentary as Goya in his “Disasters of War” series, of which this print is No. 37. Titled “This Is Worse,” it depicts the mutilated bodies of civilians skewered on trees in the aftermath of battle. Wikimedia Commons.

But the war on information and expression is real, even here. After 9/11 the Bush administration, remembering the power of images to sway public opinion during the Vietnam War, banned photographs of caskets and body bags returning home from the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration has done nothing to lift that restriction. In the 1980s the political and artistic worlds erupted in a “culture war” in which shrewd politicians such as Jesse Helms castigated artists over perceived depravities in an attempt to swing public opinion toward a harsher, more restrictive view of civil liberties. Artists and entertainers and arts funders and bureaucrats responded in varying degrees of outrage and caution, but one upshot was that “official” art – that art that is supported by tax dollars – became meeker; or more precisely, that the available money flowed more readily to uncontroversial projects.

In the end, one thing seems clear: civil society is designed to guarantee its citizens safety in both body and mind. It’s a guarantee that has been hard fought for, and is sometimes unreliable, but it is the goal and it is the standard. It’s not meant to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. On the contrary, it can be harsh and divisive and uncomfortable – just like some art. And the culture’s agreement to make decisions based on a code of civil laws is its chief protection from the passions of unbridled belief and extremism.

Freedom of expression is freedom of choice. Hell, freedom of expression is freedom, and that’s crucial to a civil society, even – maybe especially – when it makes us uncomfortable. Yes, we are Charlie. Whether we actually like Charlie Hebdo or not.


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One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    This is terrific and I’m struck by the use of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, a film Frank West used frequently when he taught his film and history course on World War II. And to put my own oar into these waters, I found Crumb’s interview, in which he delineated the differences between American and French humor very much to the point, and right in line with my own experiences in the French lycee, in NY, where students were cruel to each other for the sake of the bon (or mal)mot, rather than the cruelty itself. I might add that Bob’s distinction between racism and religion, or anti-religionism, is very important indeed. Thank you for this, Mr. Hicks.

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