Posts Tagged ‘Charlie Hebdo’

Lost in Translation

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

The cartoonist group Charlie Hebdo provoked outrage last week by publishing a cartoon that shockingly resurrects a dead child refugee as an adult sexual predator.  Journalists responded: “Disgustingly racist.” “Unforgivable.”

How do we interpret this cartoon? Is it aggressive satire that mocks European xenophobia? Or do we take it at face value, as racist propaganda? Which interpretation is easier to believe? Do we expect the worst of our cartoonists, just as natives expect the worst of immigrants?

Steve Brodner, an illustration faculty member, agreed to share some insights. Along with practicing some of today’s most pointed political cartooning, Steve has spoken publicly about Charlie Hebdo with fellow artist Liniers  and SVA colleagues. On January 22, he will participate in Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said. If there’s an illustrator whose own work and teaching experience who can illuminate the Charlie Hebdo debate, it has to be Steve.

Charlie Hebdo's Aylan Kurdi cartoon

Charlie Hebdo’s Aylan Kurdi cartoon

Steve writes:

“Here is the latest cartoon from the Charlie Hebdo controversy factory to whip across the news this week. It implies that the famous baby, Aylan Kurdi, who horrendously perished in one of the recent waves of Syrian migration (which are ongoing, so please contribute to UNHCR or others), would grow up to become a drooling rapist marauding across the streets of Cologne.

What are we to make of it? Are we to assume that the cartoonist and editor, both in league with the racist right of Europe and the United States, believe that the behavior of these particular people on New Year’s Eve should be seen as an accurate characterization of Muslim men in general? Or is this a broader commentary, via irony, on the way we so quickly revert to black and white thinking when we see such a story?

I knew one of the Hebdo artists murdered in January 2015. There is an undoubted level of sophistication that they share. And I believe that this sophistication is cleverly woven via irony into the Charlie ‘toons.

It should be said that it is the hard fought-for goal of all illustration to be, on some level, understood by the viewer. What we do is fine-tuned for communication. That is my training and what I teach at SVA. But how to judge a project where ambiguity is the goal?

Could it then just be about raising hell? And it does raise hell. So shall we talk about that instead? That this all is rewarded in the coin of the realm: attention. Great attention will be paid to this cartoon. And not incidentally to…Charlie Hebdo.

Here in the US we have, for the first time, a European-style hate campaign looking very much like it will take over a major political party. It would seem now that poor, muddled satire needs to be put away.  Mass communication is about driving that out. If the statement as written here, that Aylan would have grown up to be a sexual abuser, is to be taken at face value, it would be just another racist tract. And a pretty tasteless one.

I believe the statement intended is mocking of racists in France and in the West. But whichever it is, it is impossible to discern, and is therefore a failure. Which we are all entitled to have from time to time.  But don’t pretend that syntax and usage are not important in visual communication. They are everything.”