When art is dangerous (or not)

IN REMEMBRANCE: Pencils representing freedom of expression are seen near candles as thousands in Nantes, France, paid tribute on Saturday to victims of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office.


    Jan 12, 2015

    When art is dangerous (or not)

    THE only time art ever seems to make news here in the West any more is when a Pollock or Warhol sells for a sum commensurate with the budget of a Transformers film. It seems bizarre, then, to find ourselves grappling with international crises in which art is the issue.

    I was bemused by the imbroglio involving the Sony movie The Interview, then horrified by the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The incomprehension, whether bemused or horrified, that we feel towards people who take up arms against the purveyors of cartoons or comedies is a chastening reminder that there are still cultures in which art is not a harmless diversion or commodity, but something real and volatile, a potential threat to be violently suppressed. These attacks are, in a way, a savage, atavistic show of respect.

    I was a cartoonist for The Baltimore City Paper from 1997 to 2009, so I well know what influence a political cartoonist wields in the United States. The last time art had any real-world effect on US politics was about 140 years ago, when Boss Tweed was not only driven from power by Thomas Nast's caricatures of him but ultimately arrested after he had fled to Spain, where he was recognised from those same cartoons.

    Much as I admire Steve Bell's caricatures of George W. Bush as a dung-flinging chimpanzee, it is hard to imagine them landing the former president in The Hague. I have to wonder whether any of my colleagues felt the same queasy mix of emotions I did on hearing about the assassinations in Paris: beneath the outrage, sorrow and solidarity, a small, irrational twinge of shame that we are not doing anything worth shooting us over.

    Kurt Vonnegut Jr likened the cumulative firepower of all the art and literature directed against the Vietnam War to "the explosive force of a very large banana-cream pie - a pie 2m in diameter, 20cm thick and dropped from a height of 10m or more".

    A lot of artists in America tend to be self-deprecating futilitarians, because we have grown up in a culture in which art does not matter except, occasionally, as a high-end investment. When art has been controversial here, it's most often been because it is deemed obscene. (Sex is our tawdry Muhammad, the thing that cannot be depicted.) But it's hard to think of a time in our history when art gave any cause for alarm to anyone in power.

    It is a testament to the brittleness and fragility of ideologies like the thuggish cult of North Korea and the more homicidally literalist sects of Islam that they respond to art most Westerners regard as silly and trivial: dumb comedies, crude cartoons. North Korea saw The Interview as some sort of invidious state-sponsored attack on its revered leader, the cinematic equivalent of a dirty bomb. It was almost endearing; you wanted to explain to them: No, see, in our country, this is stupid art. We were not even going to go see it in theatres until you threatened to bomb them; we would have waited for it on instant streaming. Some part of the international reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was this same kind of condescending incredulity: Wait, this was about cartoons?

    It speaks well of our own relatively flexible system that it can accommodate criticism and dissent without lopping anyone's hands off. But this is also a backhanded testament to our society's successful denaturing of satire, and the impotence of art in our own culture.

    Autocrats from Plato on have advocated control and censorship of the arts to ensure the stability of their states and micromanage their people's inner lives. In the mature democracies of the West, there is no longer any need for purges or fatwas or book-burnings. Why waste bullets shooting artists when you can just not pay them? Why bother banning books when nobody reads anyway, and the national literature is so provincial, insular and narcissistic it poses no troublesome questions?

    The real Machiavellian genius of the First Amendment is that free speech turns out to be mostly harmless - a lot of PC nitpicking, dingbat conspiracy theories, tedious libertarian screeds and name calling. The only "free speech" that has any effect in a stable, well-run plutocracy is the kind protected by Buckley versus Valeo in the form of campaign contributions.

    American capitalism has its own ingenious system for neutralising or absorbing dissent: Any art that challenges its fundamental assumptions, its inevitability and rightness, is either ignored (with the artist eventually forced to tend bar or learn graphic design), or, if it becomes successful, is so lavishly rewarded that it becomes painlessly welcomed into the system it criticised. As systems of oppression go, the latter is definitely the one you want to suffer under. I am relieved to live in a place where the worst thing I have to worry about is being called names on the Internet. Being paid only 20 bucks a week for my political cartoons was kind of insulting, but at least I was not forced to eat them at gunpoint.

    I do not mean to romanticise what happened in Paris: It was obscene and stupid and sad. And yet there is also occasion for pride in it, the kind of sombre pride any soldier is entitled to feel in a comrade's sacrifice. It is a reminder that art is not a frivolous diversion, not just a product or "content". It is still alive and dangerous, and still hated and feared by those most deserving of our contempt and mockery.

    A lot of people are calling the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo "heroes", which is hard to imagine happening while they were still alive. (Would Seth Rogen be one if the North Koreans poisoned him?) But if grown-ups are going to use a word as childish as "hero" at all, then I am afraid we may have to apply it, now and then, not only to those uniformed few who control drones from Langley or Vegas, or bust teenagers selling weed on the street but also to silly, irrelevant people like cartoonists.

    Last week, we quietly added a few more names to the roll call. And tonight, in the real ceremony, my colleagues and I will salute them with the traditional instruments of our trade - glasses raised around tables in the bars and cafes and tea houses of the civilised world. And, after a few, we will do what cartoonists do - make cruel, gleeful fun of the attackers, of Islamic wackos and right-wing bigots, opportunistic politicians and useless cartoonists. No one will be spared.