Friday, May 21, 2010


"May Allah give the ignorant understanding." - Shahid

So a Seattle cartoonist, Molly Norris, drew a gag that, after other folks picked up on it, mushroomed into an event far beyond her control and original intent. Drawn in reaction to Comedy Central's recent censorship of an episode of South Park following intimidation from Muslim extremists, Norris consequently backpedaled away from the whole fiasco, disowning and discouraging any further participation and escalation of what had started out as a joke. Not the first time the "hey - I was just joking" syndrome has bit a cartoonist in the ass - some days it hurts to sit down at the drawing table. 
 In the meantime, seventeen Pulitzer-prize-winning cartoonists have publicly voiced their opposition to FOX's capitulation, and May 20th's "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" went viral. Many well-known cartoonists joined the fracas by participating, and the controversial Facebook page (which has since been no longer available to public searches for viewing: cached site here) garnered over 106k fans and hosting over ten thousand images (135k + joining the "Against" counter-group).
I wrote this post thinking about how this sequence of current events can be juxtaposed against yet another uprising in an earlier, more controversial Muhammed cartoon fiasco (more below after the jump).
"I hope that this whole thing can be a catalyst for positive communication and further understanding of one another." - Molly Norris

In a related article, Washington Post writer Kathleen Parker (hat-tip Daily Cartoonist) puts it most succinctly:
"Americans also love humor and the irreverence that underpins the joke. [...] Cartoons get under our skin in special ways, driving past our defenses and aiming right for the heart of our self-importance. That's why we respond so emotionally.
Barring the occasional offensive punch line, humor is a mostly pleasant test of our allegiance to founding principles. Think of it this way: The degree to which one can tolerate ribbing about one's most deeply held convictions is the degree to which a society can remain free. We honor that notion through our laws and our sense of humor."
That oughta be required reading for editorial cartoonists. In fact, now it will be, at least in my class.

As covered here before the original 2005 Danish cartoon controversy resulted in 139 deaths, numerous protests, boycotts, burned buildings, riots and death threats, including rewards of $11 million for the head of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard.
Swedish artist Lars Vilks' 2007 depictions of the Prophet were drawn after the above outbreak of protests for a separate exhibition, and since then he's become the de facto poster-child for the cause. Irish police recently arrested seven people plotting to assassinate Vilks in apparent retaliation, also his house was just targeted in an arson attempt, and in an event widely dispersed across the media, he was assaulted while giving a speech (ironically on free speech). Presumably because the works in question weren't in full-color, the Swedish artist Lars Vilks is only worth a comparatively paltry $100k bounty - unless "slaughtered like a lamb" - then add in another 50%. 

Contrary to what everybody seems to parrot, Lars Vilks isn’t exactly whom I'd term a "cartoonist": he’s an art historian, a theoretician who creates works of what can be called art only because that’s what he designates them as such (in line with the circular reasoning behind the institutional theory of art).
Also, as is obvious from the cartoons, he can't draw worth a shit - these look exactly like pornographic scribbles one sees in the bathroom stalls of some sleazy dive, with the same level of intellectual subtlety as well. While the series of images aren’t racist per say, just blasphemous, with insult to injury by depicting Muhammad as an unclean dog (this is akin to my depiction of god in the panel posted above: it got some complaints not necessarily because of the literal portrayal as the archetypal fat, old white guy in the clouds, but because he was smoking). But events have spiraled out of control to the point where, as is obvious skimming the Facebook site, it is being used to give cover for some truly racist sentiment, somewhat reminiscent of the Tea Party and Birther movements' unpleasant undertones.
The power and potential that editorial cartoons have to influence society often calls into question peripheral issues besides their respective subject matter: namely the precarious and at times very messy boundaries of freedom of expression, political correctness, self-censorship, to name a few. Once again, Tom Spurgeon's sage opinion on the whole mess pretty much sums it all up:
"Today is Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, a free-expression stunt and collective statement of support for beleaguered cartoon artists who have pissed off a subset of stridently political activists with their own portraits of the Prophet. It's a tricky thing from my vantage point. People have the right to draw whatever they want, and that's indeed something to celebrate, but one of the more noxious things about the original Danish Cartoons Controversy is that it was an unnecessary stunt by a business that enjoyed, like it or not, a role as a civic institution. That role might not supersede the requirements of journalism when it comes to informing one's readership -- a test nearly every journalistic entity in the world got an F-minus on in early 2006 -- but it can be argued that it trumps the paucity of wisdom required to engage in touchy political points outside of that journalistic role. I would argue that, anyway. So I think there's some nuance there." - The Comics Reporter
There's a distinction between supporting “rights” (even those, as in this case, who disregard the accompanying responsibilities) versus promoting the work of a xenophobic, racist bigot who gets off on deliberately provoking controversy. That’s unfortunately co-opted what I see as the real issues here and evolved into an uncomfortable distraction.
The violent acts against Vilks cannot be excused on the grounds that someone is just offended by the drawing – it’s a cartoon. And that statement in itself definitely reveals the bias and assumptions I hold as a product of Western secular society (which itself at times doesn’t seem to have much respect for anything). It’s arguably also a professional disposition of irreverence and disrespect for any and all authoritative figures and institutions - kinda goes with the territory. That's further complicated by a personal opinion on the matter of religion, and finding particular delight in pointing up the absurdities and hypocrisies which abound. Western secular society has
to a large extent anesthetized itself against cultural criticism, at least we don't lock up or execute folks who publicly denounce or mock their political targets. America in particular has effectively worn off the rough edges of its dominant Christianity through constant abrasion, something that hasn't yet had a chance to nullify the oppressive dogma that controls much of the Muslim world. And therein lies the rub, behind the over-hyped "clash of civilizations."

There's no small irony in that it offends me to see the appropriation of an American icon (above) by a prominent conservative apparel merchandiser to sell what is arguably much more of a provocative and hateful statement: anybody who gets off on the theoretical slaughter of millions of innocents via nuclear war is as fucked-up in the head as any zealot.
Which brings me again to motivation and context: Vilks' cartoons are being used as a cover for such sentiments, and not unlike wrapping oneself in the flag to promote patriotism, it becomes an abusing and disgusting exercise of said freedoms. This is what it's like defending the right of, say, the KKK to march - an additional irony in that in the U.S.A. the very same far-right groups that cheer the freedom of such expressions simultaneously hate the American Civil Liberties Union. 

It remains within the perview of sociological issues, not to be confused with any theological debate (not that there isn't any unavoidable overlap), and as such can be liberated from the context of religious dogma and be discussed within an objective, academic perspective. This often helps separate the chaff, for which even the indomitable Ted Rall, no stranger to inciting controversy, has a sane perspective based on his experience:
"What rubs me the wrong way about EDM Day+1 is the idea of pissing off Muslims simply for the fun of it. Don’t get me wrong–my inner Situationist/Malcolm MacLaren/teenager loves the idea of poking sticks into the eyes of any and all belief systems. But as an adult and supposed professional cartoonist, the standard is higher." - Daily Cartoonist

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