La Trahison des Images

On the 8th of January 2015, a dozen people were murdered at their work. It is believed that the murderers killed these people because they were artists who drew pictures the murderers didn’t like. When all the context of religion, blasphemy, culture and freedom of expression is stripped away, all that is left is people who were killed because of artwork. Some might consider this a frivolous and pitiful excuse for such violent and irrevocable retaliation. “They were killed over a bunch of cartoons!?!“It seems ludicrous, a loss of life over so small a thing.

To me, it simply proves the power and importance of art.

On those rare occasions where I go out into the blinding light of public with my art, I have a sort of “theme” about my stall around the phenomena of pareidolia, the curious mental mechanism by which images are transformed into meaning. It presents, in a tongue-in-cheek way, how easy it is to view art as a mysterious sort of magic. I still sometimes catch myself thinking about just how amazing it is.

Lili Smiles

The above image is from promotional material for the 1953 film Lili. Look at the first face. It’s a circle, a curved line, and two dots. Yet within this abstract is an encapsulation of an entire human emotion – happiness. Ask any child what that is a picture of, and they’ll likely say it is a smiling face. Not “a circle, curved line, and two dots” – a face. A person’s face, at that. Art can, and has, gone into much greater detail in its depictions of emotions, be it grief as in Repin’s remarkable Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16th, or the rage in Caravaggio’s Testa de Medusa. Yet there is something to be said for the more abstract and cartoonish approach:


We humans are a self-centered race. We see ourselves in everything. We assign identities and emotions where none exist. And we make the world over in our image. Think of your face as a mask… Seen by everyone you meet but never by you… When two people interact, they usually look directly at one another, seeing their partner’s features in vivid detail. Each one also sustains a constant awareness of his or her own face, but this mind-picture is not nearly so vivid; just a sketchy arrangement… a sense of shape… a sense of general placement. Something as simple and as basic – as a cartoon. Thus, when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face – you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon – you see yourself. We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it! – Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

It is from this space that cartoons exert their power – not despite, but because of their very nature. This almost supernatural ability to touch and affect people’s emotions is all the more potent when dealing with a touchy and emotive subject. Politics, religion, sexuality, kinship, culture – subjects which are even now called taboo, after the Tongan word for that which is inviolable or sacrosanct. So many things in human life, even in a secular age, harken to a spiritual and superstitious past. Is it any wonder that pareidolia such as cartoons can evoke such strong reactions when combined with these subjects?

Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler's art was deemed "degenerate" and officially banned by Nazi Germany.

Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler’s art was deemed “degenerate” and officially banned by Nazi Germany.

Most would link this to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad controversy, the previous attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, Lars Vilks, and The Satanic Verses. This outrageous reaction to art is certainly not restricted to Islam, or even religion.  The Romantic painter Constantin Daniel Rosenthal was arrested and tortured to death for his “imprudent political statements” – not least the fact most of his best-known subjects were Romanian nationalist icons such as Maria Rosetti and Nicolae Golescu. Ramón Acín, Luis Ortiz Rosales and Domingo López Torres were murdered by Bando nacional forces in the Spanish Civil War. Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler’s art was deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis, and she was murdered under Action T4’s “euthanasia” program. Stefan Filipkiewicz, Julius Klinger, and countless more artists and writers were also victims of the Nazis – because of their nationality as well as their subversive politics.

Art Spiegelman's 1999 cartoon for the New Yorker on the death of Amadou Diallo echoes even modern anxieties about police in the United States.

Art Spiegelman’s 1999 cartoon for the New Yorker on the death of Amadou Diallo wouldn’t be out of place in modern anxieties about police in the United States and other western countries.

This is just scratching the surface of the power of cartoons. It has the power to distil and concentrate human emotions in a potent and persuasive – and dangerous – manner. English satirical cartoonist James Gillray is frequently cited as having done “more than all the armies in Europe” to bring down Napoleon, and Adolf Hitler was particularly sensitive to cartoon mockery. Honore Daumier was imprisoned in 1832 for “arousing hatred of and contempt of the King’s government, and for offending the King’s person” – in the form of a caricature of the king in question. Art Young and Robert Minor were charged in 1917 with “conspiracy to obstruct conscription” after publishing a cartoon which depicted Jesus Christ as wanted for “sedition, criminal anarchy, vagrancy, and conspiring to overthrow the established government.”

To his credit, Dr. Seuss was deeply apologetic for his anti-Japanese cartoons, and even dedicated Horton Hears A Who to his "Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan."

To his credit, Dr. Seuss was deeply apologetic for his anti-Japanese cartoons, and even dedicated Horton Hears A Who to his “Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan.”

Yet it can be easy to think satire and cartoons are inherently on the side of right and good – unfortunately, as with any art, it can be perverted and manipulated for evil. Just as political cartoons could be used to skewer corrupt regimes and fanatical dictators, they can – and have – been employed to demonise and marginalise minorities. Superhero comics were used to propagate and perpetuate appalling anti-Japanese stereotypes, which contributed to the normalisation of Japanese internment in peacetime United States – thoroughly inverting the ideal of superheroes as champions of the powerless and oppressed in the cruellest way. I don’t even have to elaborate on what the Nazis got up to – suffice to say, even Nazis suffered the consequences of their art. Indeed, the Charlie Hebdo artists had been accused of drawing sexist, racist and xenophobic stereotypes in addition to their iconoclasm, which has made some commentators distinctly uncomfortable in adopting the Je Suis Charlie slogan.

I cannot comment on that aspect of this story, save to say that it is yet another facet of the power of art – even if it’s considered bad art, as some have said of The Interview and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, it has power by the simple virtue that it is art. Art is art is art. This is the ultimate Treachery of Images – they are not inherently good or evil, but they have the power to do good or evil. It is their purpose, their meaning, which determines their value. A political cartoon can be used to challenge or reinforce prejudice; to attack or support a law or regime or politician; to champion or demonise a minority or culture or class. We must never forget that, and ensure that whatever the fallout from this tragedy, the power of these cartoons can be used for good. Every artist friend I know has said the same, posted their thoughts of solidarity with the people of France, and of peaceful Muslims who bear as much responsibility for this crime as I do for the Inquisition. We have to turn this into something productive, something helpful, something good.

I wish I knew how to do that. But I will say this: I’ve never been prouder to call myself an artist.

The Artist Will Return

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