An all- star panel of cartoonists and journalists gathered at the French Institute Alliance Francaise’s Florence Gould Hall to discuss the lines between censorship and free speech, satire and insult, and the power of cartoons in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The consensus? No one know seems to know exactly where the lines are, except of course, the people who draw their own.
The panel, which included Molly Crabapple, Art Spiegelman, Francoise Mouly and Emmanuel “Manu” Letouze seemed to ask: Where is your line? What does someone have to say or show you that will turn your calm exterior into a nice shade of indignant-rage-red? If news outlets and the storm of social media that is Twitter are to be believed, it does not seem to take that much. For two Islamist militants, it took a cartoon of their prophet, Muhammad, on the cover of Charlie Hebdo, a French satire magazine with a circulation of about 60,000 worldwide. Their indignant rage turned to bloody horror as they raided the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris with machine guns, killing 12 people. For the panel, such intolerance to satire has a direct effect on their livelihoods. As such, they spoke at length about the power of cartoons and the visual medium but also addressed lack of substance in American cartoons.
Even though I am more opinionated than a sewing circle, I like to think I am a hard person to truly insult, especially when it comes to people I don’t know and publications from magazines and newspapers. If news outlets and the Twitterverse are to be believed, I seem to be in a minority, along with the panel of visionaries I shared some oxygen with tonight.
“There is a fear of the cartoonist, being not quite, house-trained” said Francoise Mouly, former art editor of the New Yorker.
“It’s one of the ironies of being a political cartoonist in America, especially in more recent years when the last thing a Western newspaper wants to do is lose their readers,” Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Art Spiegelman added. “Cartoonists in America have effectively been defanged.”
Cartoonists in America were not always so toothless. The New Yorker, in particular, was known for its controversial cover art.
The above art was featured on the cover of The New Yorker shortly after the death of an unarmed, 22- year-old immigrant, Amadou Diallo on Feb 2,1999. He was an unarmed shot 41 times by police officers, who were later charged with second-degree murder. According to Spiegelman, the cartoon is significant because defense attorneys for the police officers cited it as evidence for the impossibility of attaining an unbiased jury in New York City. The trial was subsequently moved to Albany and the officers were acquitted of all charges.
Those days seem to be past us, as even in the short time I have been old enough to have a well- reasoned opinion of my own, the stakes involved with being politically correct seem to have drastically increased. Public shaming in response to even the slightest of off-color remarks is commonplace on Twitter and Facebook. Simply having an opinion and sharing it publicly could be enough to lose a job or even worse, provoke violence. This is where people draw their own lines, or as artist and Vice columnist, Molly Crabapple says, lines are drawn for them.
“I think a lot of people see free speech as two poles: Theres the law that bans what you can’t say and then everything else is absolutely amazing,” Crabapple said, when asked if there is a line that she won’t cross.”But when you say that things are either illegal or great, you’re essentially outsourcing your ethics to the state.”
“I wouldn’t fuck with people who are already oppressed in my art,” Crabapple continued. “And it’s not because I feel I am self censoring. Why do that, why use your work to punch down?”
Like Crabapple, the crowd seemed to be largely made up of journalists, who have to deal with these issues on a daily basis. For many, Crabapple, who has drawn and reported on the likes of Guantanamo Bay, ISIS and personal encounters with Donald Trump, was the star of the night for many in attendance.
“I came to see Molly,” said Ali Glembocki, a Fordham University journalism student. “She was the only one talking about not kicking down with your art and that is important.”
“Its really easy to pick and choose what to get upset about,” said Jonathan Rodie, a Fordham University Art major. “Especially if you just look at what is going viral.”
Some have no qualms with creating visual art for the soul purpose of insult and discord. Charlie Hebdo, which has been published since 1970, and has continued to publish in the wake of the massacre, has been accused numerous times of doing just that, but Emmanuel “Manu” Letouze, a successful cartoonist in his own right, believes that context is everything.
“For it to be a political cartoon, there needs to be a meaning, there needs to be a point that can be explained and discussed,” said Letouze. “Most, if not all, of the cartoons at Charlie Hebdo had a point and a context and if you understand then it becomes a political cartoon and not an insult… If not, then there is no point.”
So why draw the Prophet, Muhammad in the first place? What is the point?
“I would have no interest in drawing the Prophet until it was said that I could not,” said Spiegelman. “That’s the basic cartoon instinct.”