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."

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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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