Stop Those Damn Pictures!

William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt politician who ruled New York’s Tammany Hall during the late 19th Century and diverted hundreds of millions of dollars from the city to his ring’s pockets, was literally brought down by a cartoon. The series of drawings exposing the Tweed ring was produced by political cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly.  So effective were his images in rousing public opinion,  Mr. Tweed, was reported to have said “Let’s stop those damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about me — my constituents can’t read, but damn it, they can see pictures.” Nast’s campaign against Tweed eventually helped put him behind bars.

Cartoons have power. Even today.

Victor Navasky, former editor of the satiric magazine Monocle (the one from the 60s) and editor emeritus of The Nation, wrote in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review about another episode in cartoon history. Recent history, in fact.

. . . earlier this month, when a Molotov cocktail landed in the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — luckily no one was injured — I wanted to know more.  It seems the bomb arrived the day after the publication chose the Prophet Muhammad as its guest editor in chief for that week’s issue, and in a reference to Islamic law, or Shariah, temporarily changed its name to “Charia Hebdo.” The issue also featured a cartoon image of the prophet on its cover and a caption that said “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.”

The Guardian newspaper reported:

After the firebombing, French Muslim groups who had been highly critical of Charlie Hebdo, condemned the destruction of its offices. Dalil Boubakeur head of the Paris Mosque, told journalists: “I am extremely attached to the freedom of the press, even if the press is not always tender with Muslims, Islam or the Paris Mosque”.

The editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier, said at the time: “We thought the lines had moved and maybe there would be more respect for our satirical work, our right to mock. Freedom to have a good laugh is as important as freedom of speech.”

Since then, the magazine’s staff have been given a temporary home in the offices of France’s leading leftwing daily newspaper Libération, which has also been subject to threats from the Turkish hackers who are said to have pirated Charlie Hebdo‘s site.

Luz, the cartoonist, refused to condemn extremists for the attack.

“Let’s be cautious. There’s every reason to believe it’s the work of fundamentalists, but it could just as well be the work of two drunks,” he wrote afterwards.

Navasky’s story, while pegged to the bombing, asks a larger question:

The debate on free speech versus taking into account the religious sensibilities of oppressed minorities (and majorities) is an important one. But nobody is talking about why it is that people become so agitated by cartoons and caricatures — a medium that so many dismiss as silly, trivial and irrelevant. . . .

Arguably, Muslims, with their (ambiguous) prohibition against representations of Muhammad, are a special case, but it’s not only Muslims who get upset about caricatures. And the focus on caricature and cartoonists is nothing new.

Tally up all the cartoonists who have been pilloried or imprisoned for their commentaries. The number is higher than you’d think. Navasky writes about Honoré Daumier, who was incarcerated for his depiction of  King Louis-Philippe as Gargantua.  “And in 1835, when the king re-established censorship, which had been temporarily suspended, it was not for print but rather for caricature (‘censorship of the crayon’) on the ground that whereas ‘a pamphlet is no more than a violation of opinion, a caricature amounts to an act of violence.’” Charles Phillipon, a Daumier contemporary, was also enjoined from making caricatures using “pears,” owing to his effective depiction of Louis-Philippe as a portly fruit, “Le Poir.”

Early 20th century cartoonist Art Young, in The Masses,  was threatened with charges of sedition for anti-war commentaries (the magazine lost its mailing privileges for his and other artists’ “seditious” cartoons). German cartoonist Th Th Heine was jailed for six months for insulting the Kaiser and Dadaist, Georg Grosz was accused of insulting the army, which resulted in a 300 Mark fine and the destruction of the portfolio of prints,  Gott mit uns (“God with us”), his satire on post-World War I German society.

Images have power. And while some are doubtless offensive and trigger atavistic emotions, they are nonetheless only images. Historically, the amount of firepower (legal and physical) used to suppress them is truly confounding.

Incidentally, the image above by Art Young ruffled many feathers. But portraying Jesus Christ as an “anarchist,” while it was condemned by some as sacrilegious, did not result in fire-bombing or other violent reprisals. Rather it raised interesting questions regarding martyrs and myths, icons and symbols, and more.

(Read about the War Against Bugs in the Weekend Daily Heller.)


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3 thoughts on “Stop Those Damn Pictures!

  1. mkf

    Recently I was interviewed (for the umpteenth time) about Dr. Seuss’s World war II political cartoons for PM, and (for the umpteenth time) I suggested that, sincere as they were, timely as they were, product of the Seuss imagination though they were, they really weren’t his best work. Or even, all in all, all that good political cartoons: he had a genius, but this wasn’t it. THAT didn’t suit BBC radio’s thesis, and needless to say, those bits ended on the cutting room floor. Interestingly, Seuss used to wax on to me about those who presumed that they could toss off a kid’s book between other pursuits — “Like practicing brain surgery on Sunday!” He didn’t mention that, as in his case, to do it brilliantly takes not only total commitment, but a certain genius. And like every — EVERY — other discipline on Earth, political cartooning has a lot of earnest, often competent practitioners, and very few geniuses. I look forward eagerly to Mr Navasky’s book: it sounds, unsurprisingly, as if he may be expanding beyond the usual compendia of obscure names and, to us, quaint historical references to give us some thinking on what gives great political cartooning its enormous power (no, I don’t think it’s some sort of atavistic reaction to the magic of images), what separates the scores of agreeable pop song writers from the Beethovens of the genre: Daumier, Gilray, Nast, Low, Herblock… the ones who not only commented on history, but swayed it. It’s said that Hitler’s hit list on the invasion of England was, in order, (1) Winston Churchill, (2) David Low. There was a reason.
    For awhile now, the art form seems to have been at a rather low ebb, pro forma “gags” or rambling commentary along the lines of the late-night-show monologues, scratchy or blotchy drawings in a couple of kind of generic styles. Snark has replaced outrage, the obvious reference that gives a kind of “me-too” validation to the viewer has replaced the thunderbolt of insight that reveals a greater truth. That’s what great political cartooning has always done. And why it’s so very rare.

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