Caricature Has Always Meant to Provoke, and Been Targeted for It

By Nicola Smith, Valley News Staff Writer

January 22, 2015, Valley News

(Published in print: Thursday, January 22, 2015)


Which of the caricatures described below are Charlie Hebdo cartoons?

A. An avaricious-looking Catholic monk with mouth agape and a suggestive shadow at the crotch of his robe lifts a spoon to his mouth while two other grotesque monks look on.

B. A French leader sits on a commode while his minions pass money to him up a ramp. The money, extorted from the working classes, goes into his mouth and is defecated out the other end as political favors and bribes.

C. A politician is depicted as a mushroom growing out of a dung heap. The politician’s neck turns into tentacles that burrow deeply into the pile of excrement .

D. An invading army of what appear to be alligators swimming ashore are, on closer inspection, Catholic bishops, whose mitres have been transformed into alligator heads, with snapping jaws.

The answer is: None of the above.

The artists in question are:

A. The 18th century Spanish painter Francisco Goya in his set of prints, Los Caprichos . The corruption of the Catholic church was a favorite target of Goya, and he was threatened by the Inquisition as a result.

B. The 19th century French caricaturist Honoré Daumier working for the satirical magazine La Caricature , which was a forerunner, in its way, of Charlie Hebdo . The man excreting is the French monarch Louis Philippe, shown as Rabelais’ Gargantua, the giant with an insatiable appetite and a scatalogical wit. Daumier was imprisoned for six months for this caricature.

C. The 18th century English caricaturist James Gillray, who took on the monarchy, the church, the upper classes, the politicians and anything and everything. One of his favorite targets was William Pitt the Younger, who is shown as the toadstool and who became prime minister. Although Gillray’s work wasn’t threatened with suppression, Pitt eventually found a way to deal with the thorn in his side: he bought him off by bestowing a pension on him.

D. The 19th century German-born, American caricaturist Thomas Nast who launched broadsides in Harper’s Weekly against the corrupt New York political machine of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. In his caricature showing bishops as alligators, he did express, for the period, fairly typical prejudice against immigrant Irish Catholics. Because of that, a member of the New Jersey legislature asked in 2012 that Nast’s name be stripped from a list of state notables because, the legislator maintained, his drawings were anti-Irish and anti-Catholic.

All of these works were intended to provoke, and they have elicited indignation and outrage, as well as knowing laughter. That is the nature of caricature. Artists point to the disjuncture between what people and institutions espouse, and what they actually do . These artists were often threatened with imprisonment, and occasionally they toned it down out of self-protection, but none of them were killed because of what they’d drawn.

So I’ve been dismayed by some reactions to the assassination of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris two weeks ago. The cartoonists, and their drawings, have been judged by some writers to be virulently anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic because they have lampooned, with relish, Orthodox Jews, the Pope and the nihilists who claim the teachings of Islam are the impetus for violence and murder against those who disagree with them.

The implication, I fear, is that the magazine, and the cartoonists, were partially to blame for the attacks. If only they’d desisted! If only they’d been more respectful and less inflammatory! Why deliberately mock religion! Why throw fuel on the fire? Can’t we all just talk about something more pleasant?

The writers of some of these commentaries, published in such mainstream journals as Slate , Th e New Yorker and Vox have condemned the murders, but then go on to question whether the Hebdo cartoons are really worthy of defending in the name of free speech because they are crudely drawn and tinged with malice and hostility.

Yes, the argument continues, we support free speech, but not if it is unnecessarily mocking or hurts the feelings of others or if it seems to rely on racial, gender or ethnic stereotypes.

As the old adage goes, it depends on whose ox is being gored.

No one, including the Hebdo cartoonists, I think, would claim that their often puerile drawings were as sophisticated or accomplished as those of Goya, Daumier, Gillray or Nast. But the caricatures of Goya, Daumier, Gillray and Nast were as lacerating, as filled with spleen and bile toward religion and politics, as the Hebdo cartoons that some have gone out of their way to condemn.

Would the same writers who frown on Charlie Hebdo’s take-no-prisoners satire suggest that Goya or Daumier should have softened their caricatures?

Would they argue that Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, purveyor of smut, should not have satirized the Christian evangelical Jerry Falwell — publishing a mock interview with Falwell in which he talked about his “first time” in an outhouse, and with his mother, to boot — because it was undoubtedly offensive to numerous Christians?

Falwell sued Hustler , the case went to the Supreme Court and in 1988 the eight justices ruled unanimously in favor of Larry Flynt and the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

In the 1910s and 1920s , an influential American Socialist magazine called The Masses , which attracted such talents as Sherwood Anderson and John Reed, and artists George Bellows and John Sloan, published scathing caricatures of capitalist robber barons and the Army.

The closer the U.S. drew to entering World War I, the more heated the magazine’s anti-war caricatures became. When the magazine published a drawing of a skeleton examining a young draftee to see whether he was fit for service, the government brought the magazine to court under the Espionage Act on the charge of treason.

Caricature and satire are not supposed to be timid, and historically, they haven’t been. They’re rooted in irony, cynicism, exaggeration, hyperbole and, often, rude or scatalogical imagery and language meant to jostle the conscience and push and probe at the boundaries of taste. They make us cringe, squirm, roll our eyes, smile, laugh, walk away or draw closer.

You can argue whether caricatures make their point succinctly or wittily, or clumsily. But you have to examine the context in which the images are made, and the intention of the artists.

Thomas Nast drew likenesses of Chinese immigrants and African-Americans, some of which we would now consider racial stereotypes. In fact, Nast was arguing against the 19th century Chinese exclusion laws, and for the guarantee of full voting rights to the freemen. Should we shun Nast’s work because he is biased in some instances, but not in others?

The same commenters who call the Charlie Hebdo caricatures racist might have studied some of the magazine’s covers that criticized the French police’s tactics of “stop ping and frisking” minority populations, or showed the nationalist, xenophobic politician Marine Le Pen happily posing for the couturier John Galliano, after he was fired from his post at Christian Dior for being caught on video in a drunken anti-Semitic rant.

Freedom of speech and the press are the cornerstones of our admittedly imperfect Western democracies, where they have been sometimes more observed in theory than in practice. But unless we robustly uphold a writer or artist’s right to caricature those ideas or images that we hold most sacred, then we’re on a very slippery slope of defending only the speech with which we agree.