Thursday, February 09, 2006

Lost in translation: Cartoons, cultures, and the language of art

There has been a lot of excellent commentary on the whole cartoon fiasco in recent days, but I'd like to single out two:

1) Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post: In "A Cartoon's Portrait of America," Applebaum, in her characteristically moderate way, examines the reaction to the cartoon controversy in the U.S., focusing specifically on a) Schadenfreude; b) the hypocrisy of the cultural left; and c) the hypocrisy of the right-wing blogosphere.

All on the mark, and it ends, rather pessimistically, like this: "Gradually, the Islamic world is learning that we don't respect religion in the same manner they do. Slowly, we are learning that they feel differently about the printed word, and the printed picture, from us. And somehow, I've got a feeling that this new knowledge will be not the beginning of understanding but the inspiration for more violence."

2) Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times: In "A Startling New Lesson in the Power of Imagery," Kimmelman examines the cartoons from the perspective of modern art and the culture wars. A few key passages:

-- "They're callous and feeble cartoons, cooked up as a provocation by a conservative newspaper exploiting the general Muslim prohibition on images of the Prophet Muhammad to score cheap points about freedom of expression."

-- "The newspaper was banking on the fact that unlike the West — where Max Ernst's painting of Mary spanking the infant Jesus didn't raise an eyebrow when recently shown at the Metropolitan Museum — the Muslim world has no tradition of, or tolerance for, religious irony in its art."

-- "Educated secular Westerners reared on modernism, with its inclination toward abstraction, its gamesmanship and its knee-jerk baiting of traditional authority, can miss the real force behind certain visual images, particularly religious ones. Trained to see pictures formally, as designs or concepts, we can often overlook the way images may not just symbolize but actually 'partake of what they represent,' as the art historian David Freedberg has put it."


That last point is important. This may not rise to the level of some hyperbolic clash of civilizations, but we and they are speaking almost completely different languages in terms of our appreciation of visual art. Generally speaking and allowing for diversity where there appears to be unity, what is free political speech to us is blasphemy to them. We emphasize the primacy of individual expression, they emphasize the primacy of religious obedience. We allow for irony and sarcasm and for complex, multi-layered meaning, they tend to view art literally, fundamentally. We have fallen into postmodern detachment, they remain engaged in a struggle that we, ever eyeing the end of history in The Motley Cow of our material contentment, would like to think we've put behind us for good.

The Danish cartoons reflect insensitivity and ignorance, but the violent reaction in certain parts of the Muslim world -- which, of course, should not taint the Muslim world as a whole -- has been entirely predictable.

As I've said before, that violent reaction should not and must not be condoned. And, indeed, it has no doubt in part been stirred up by extremist demagogues who are all too happy to deepen the fissures that separate the Muslim world from the secular West. I wonder how many of the protesters even know what they're protesting against, how many understand the concept of free political speech and the ironic detachment of the Western secularists they so loathe.

But I wonder, too, whether we have any clue ourselves. We and they seem to be speaking radically different languages, but shouldn't we at least make a greater effort to understand theirs? We may demand the same of them, of course, but it seems to me that we must assume the burden of bringing freedom to the unfree and of explaining our way of life to those who simply don't understand it, let alone admire or long for it.

A provocative cartoon depiction of Muhammad isn't the best place to start.

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  • Very well done, despite the imams that have made this more of a controversy, despite the French newspaper that decided to republish the cartoons to help their loss of readership thru controversy...underneath there is the very cultural divide that this post points out.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12:24 PM  

  • Excellent post, Michael. Last year, I blogged about the head-scarf assembly vote in France.

    M. A. Muqtedar Khan, visiting fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington and director of international studies at Adrian College in Michigan, wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR in which he said:

    "The radical secular fundamentalism of France will, in my opinion, enhance rather than diminish the prospects of a clash of civilizations. Secular, Westernized Muslims have little influence in the Muslim world. Islam has become the dominant idiom of the Muslim world and the West must find a way to cooperate and coexist with moderate/liberal Islamists who believe in democracy, tolerance and pluralism, but within the Islamic rubric. French-style secularism is neither welcome in the Muslim world, nor in the US, nor by a majority of French Muslims who now constitute about one-fifth of the French population."

    I wrote in a Spring 2004 post:

    What do you think about this assembly vote? I am not at all comfortable with it. When a government attempts to wipe away all outward signs of the spirit, it would seem to be only for the promotion of a non-spiritual, 'religion-void' society. Is this not what the most infamous authoritarians of the past have attempted to do?

    The people in various Middle EAstern nations who are violently protesting do not understand us. Many have not cared to try to understand us. Some have been sheltered by an abhorrently restrained media. So when they look to the West, do we really think a cartoon mocking the thing they hold dear and sacred is some sort of triumph and marvel of the great braintrust of journalism? Mocking their great Prophet is surely not going to help ANYTHING.

    My take is here. I included a link to your post.

    Like any complicated situation, there is no black or white. These are times when I thank my own chosen God of choice that I am a moderate as well as an admitted person of deep faith.

    Journalists have a social responsibility that they are neglecting to admit and the radical left is preying upon those of a vastly different culture by mocking their God and their religion. I have little faith in or respect for secularism when it makes no room for our common values - and many of those values are derived from our deep faith.

    France is headed down the wrong path.

    The journalists who are up and leaving their positions because they cannot reprint these little monstrosities can keep walking as far as I'm concerned. I don't want to read any journal whose writers would seek to worsen a bad situation for the sake of their freedom tantrums. (This is my SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY tantrum.)

    Provocation of violence can be the only result of printing yet more of these cartoons - it's forcing a clash of cultures.

    Is it wise, just because you are free to do anything you please, to play with matches around a can of gasoline? The news editors know they're setting the streets of the Middle East ablaze by taunting another culture and over a billion Muslims around the world.

    How are they any different than those in Iran who would put forward their ignorant and irresponsible Holocaust cartoons? What good are any of these doing our respective cultures?

    A vast chunk of our beautiful young generation (Muslim, Christian, Jew, atheist, agnostic) will surely be wasted in war instead of building global bridges and economies.

    That's a shame to beat all shames.

    By Blogger Jude Nagurney Camwell, at 3:34 PM  

  • My reaction to your post is one of admiration for how well you lay out the most cogent points of the whole controversy. I liked it so much that I gave it one of my 4 awards for today.
    My "topical post" today at South by Southwest is about good writing. And I have linked to your post.

    By Blogger Carol Gee, at 6:39 PM  

  • You raise a good point regarding the different language and cultures between our world and theirs, however I do think this issue has, in general, been made out by the media to be more complicated than it really is.

    The cartoon is offensive not so much because of some clause of what can and cannot be represented on paper in Islam, but by the fact that the cartoon equates Islam with terrorism.

    Imagine somebody drawing a cartoon of Jesus having sex with boys, to depict the priest-boy problems in the Catholic church. That we all know is offensive, I know it is, and I'm not Catholic.

    A newspaper editor given the Jesus cartoon above would exercise some editorial judgment and not post the cartoon.

    The lack of editorial judgment with regard to the prophet Mohamed cartoon is the real issue here.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:47 PM  

  • Jyllands-Posten is actually now in another spot of trouble, after it was revealed that they rejected some cartoons featuring Jesus, because they deemed them to be too offensive.

    However, the illustrator who drew them said, "I showed them to a few pastors and they thought they were funny."

    It's not shocking that many in Muslim communities see this as a double standard.

    By Blogger Grace, at 11:05 PM  

  • Thanks for your analysis, Michael. I found it quite insightful.

    Another article you may want to check out, which I found to have a refreshing take on the issue:

    Personally, I agree with what lk said. While others may disagree with me, my take on the issue is that what most Muslims, including myself, found insulting was not simply the fact that images of the Prophet were depicted, but that he was vilified in the images. So it isn't that the fundamental issue at hand is the freedom of expression vs. adherence to religious rulings, but simply the fact that the cartoons were distasteful and derogatory, and some even racist (if you can use that term), serving no other purpose but the promotion of a hateful stereotype of the Prophet as a terrorist and by extension, all Muslims. And sadly, the violent protests do no good in helping to dissuade that assumption.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:35 AM  

  • Thank you all for your comments and kind words. This is a tough issue, but I've tried to deal with it in a balanced, considerate way.

    And thank you to Grace for getting it all started with her fine post that prompted so many comments.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 5:35 PM  

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