A few weeks ago, a photograph of a toddler washed ashore became famous world-wide. Not only did the mainstream media receive it with the usual zeal with which sensational news is grabbed and broadcast, it also resonated with social media channels, wherein many people got something simple to express concern about. In a sense, it seemed to many that the ‘world’ had united for a common-cause, something linked to the salvaging if not (we don’t use ‘not just’) of human beings then of humanity for sure. Charlie Hebdo carried caricatures in its next issue that, many say, point to the decadence of European culture. We present below two responses.
Popular Art and photo-journalism are in crises
The questions for the first response are taken from what has been said of these two Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
Charlie Hebdo and their apologists argue that the true intent of these cartoons is to mock the systemic apathy of European culture, based as it is upon consumerism, reckless display of wealth, religious dogma, etc. On the other hand, CH has once more been accused of racism and islamophobia, of deliberate sadism targeting desperate populations. A glimpse of these debates can be seen here[i].
There is a basic problem with this impasse: if we take CH’s (and its defenders’) position – that it uses a kind of dark humour which attacks European culture rather than desperate populations or their ethnicities in cartoons like these – to be true, it still does not spare them from the criticism coming in. Whatever the intention of the artist, they cannot replace the perception of an audience by issuing a clarification. If an artist has to explain what they mean by a cartoon separately, it means not that the readers are “wrong” but that the artist has failed to communicate to a certain section among its readers. To many, it would seem strange that a criticism of a piece of art should be responded to by alluding to its ‘truth’: haven’t we been told, even held to ourselves, that art is a window to open-ended perception and exploration than some vehicle of truth? Therefore, we believe it is necessary to point out a flaw in the argument favoring CH: to dismiss criticism as uninformed or misinterpreted is to dismiss the possibility that CH’s supposed beneficiaries aren’t enjoying the caricatures through which their case is allegedly being made.
It is argued that the situation is more complex than this: CH represents a far-left position in France’s cultural-left, acerbic equally to both the French conservatives as to religious dogmatists, including Islamists. Even when we accept this, we ask ourselves this: is the desperation of Front National members comparable to that of the Franco-Algerian Islamists who conducted the January 2015 shootings? Because one of our implicit arguments when we talk of how non-partisan CH is in its irreverence is that if somebody from Front National does not take arms against it, why should the Islamists? In the words of its assassinated cartoonist ‘Charb’, “We have to carry on until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism.”[ii] We are more concerned about silencing the murderers than about understanding what happened; our question is “how could they kill?” when it should have been “why did they kill?” What we find is that among the 60,000 copies of CH that disseminated before January 2015, and in more than a million after, many fall into hands that it resonates badly with.
But if the CH cartoons failed to amuse the many who saw them, why did photograph of a dead, washed-up toddler receive so much approval world over? Why do we look back at the Vietnamese girl running away from a U.S. air-strike with napalm spread on her body with some amount of pathos, and then celebrate its anniversary years later when similar events are unfolding in a different part of the globe with much ‘better’ weapons this time? It is argued that the difference between the photograph and CH’s cartoon is that the latter makes a serious subject a matter of laughter, it makes the contours of the boy’s body crooked and less human, more trivial, by showing the boy drown with raised legs next to a Jesus Christ walking on water, it infringes on something sacred. But allow us to point out the circumstances in which the original photo was clicked: two strolling barmen first noticed the bodies at 6.30 a.m., then rescued them from the water and placed them on the sand[iii]. It was after this that a photographer for a Turkish news agency arrived upon the scene, and got snaps of the boy with his face part in the water (we can imagine how the boy landed up from the sand to a spot where it looked as if he’d just washed up, how his face was submerged in water as his tiny arms stretched back, how a Turkish gendarme looked on while the photo-shoot was on, only to participate in it soon afterwards). The photographer said, “The only thing I could do was to make his scream heard”[iv]. We are reminded of Kevin Carter, photographer of the Sudanese famine. Among his celebrated pieces is one in which a vulture waits on a toddler almost dead out of starvation. A year after the photo was clicked, it won the Pulitzer; a few months later, Carter poisoned himself with carbon-monoxide, and left behind a note that mentions, among other horrors, that of money and the things people do for it.[v]
Humanitarianism is in crises
One of the most clear paradoxes of the crises that has the world in its throes is that mass-slaughters are less worthy of debating – more defensible – than such individualized deaths that touch our egoes (and not our consciences, as we tend to misinterpret). We are faced with over thousands dead in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and so on over a span of a week, many among them children and women, picture after picture of mutilation fails to evoke a response of the kind we witness in these select cases. It falls outside our imagination – and sadly our attention spans – what it might mean for conditions of life being bombarded beyond repair[vi].
What this overlap of conscience and ego means politically is that we will only be “woken up” by that which will not stop us from going back to sleep soon enough. As privileged denizens of a metropolis, and consumers of its mass-produced culture, the only visions of crises we are permitted are those which leave us without any questions to ask. As soon as it links to the violence that keeps the metropolitan running, it becomes explosive; refugees are interesting and worthy of compassion at the point when they seem like they are begging us for help. The more critical among the consumers will ask “Why don’t you let them in and stop troubling them?” So are we to believe that once they are in, and have become part of the European working class, we have done them a service by easing their access into wage-slavery? Like Marie Antoinette, our cultural managers float visions of cakes amidst equally false images of lack of bread; at the condition that we are blind to the fragility of things.
Because that fragility is the more important aspect of the crises. What is new since the last seven to eight years is that violence from the state and capital is being challenged by militant togetherness of people around the world. When we accept that the drowned refugees are from the same people who threw stones at police and governments, who gathered at town squares time and again, who stopped work at factories, who remind us that the new world-order all of us participated in fucked-up, we take back our sympathy. When we hear of factory strikes and riots in the nations we want to share with immigrants, we are invited to question our feeling of well-being, a dangerous invitation. When people in Greece resoundingly say ‘No’, both by ballot and by physical assault upon the state, and at the same time begin voluntary dispensation of food and health, they poke holes in our pusillanimous self-perceptions. All this suggests that the space to show pity is increasingly compromised by a growing space in which people wrest control from states and capital.
The ‘we’ in the tone of this write-up is motivated by a sense of camaraderie rather than one of accusing. It is not a critique merely of bourgeois media and art, but also of our complicity in it. It is the public-admission that we cannot live our days anymore without being connected to violence and even ignoring it in this or that instance. Therefore, we present here not merely an external critique, but also a few suggestions about practice.
To acknowledge that wars killing thousands daily are taking place, to acknowledge that much more deadlier wars are possible using only the more mediocre weaponry our militaries possess. Hence to acknowledge that selective compassion is actually no compassion. To acknowledge that peace itself is a mix-up of daily exploitation, toxic distraction and suppression of desire and initiative. Hence to acknowledge that peace is fragile. To “perhaps”, in the words of Joe Sacco, “when we tire of holding up our middle finger we can try to think about why the world is the way it is..”[vii] To acknowledge that as much as aesthetics involves personal strife and love of labour, it is not outside of the realm of reaching out and exchanging with others. To acknowledge that states or money have no interests nor capability in safeguarding either our freedoms or in tolerating our building bonds with those it deems undesirable. What it does have an interest in is taking control of our sentiments, our aesthetic efforts, our affinity outside the limits of producing and consuming individually. We suggest that the problem lies not in offending through art, but in a much more real injury that aesthetic forms can add insult to when applied without reflection. To acknowledge that it is vulgar to dress-up like a washed-up child and pretend en masse to have washed-up on the beach, even if in the disguise of compassion towards the dead kid, or any other display of egoism such as this. Especially when this compassion and (non-)exposure of the “truth” is well-fitted into our personal economies, we acknowledge that it is scavenging on our part to create a spectacle out of it. The alternative to this is to refuse to do so. To not click these photos. To refuse all prizes for the same. To shut out the spectacle as much as one can. To refuse to accept accounts of the innocence of dominant institutions and those that are linked with it, even if it is us. To look for forms of art that are enjoyable outside the galleries in our parliaments and TV stations.
The writer does not follow Charlie Hebdo and is fairly familiar with the French language.
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/09/14/charlie-hebdo-reopens-freedom-speech-debate-cartoons-depicting-death-aylan-kurdi-_n_8133118.html ‘Charlie Hebdo reopens freedom of speech debate with cartoons depicting the death of Aylan Kurdi’
[ii] http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/france-even-more-fractured-after-the-charlie-hebdo-rampage-1.2893262 ‘France even more fractured after the Charlie Hebdo rampage’
[iii] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3220992/Their-eyes-open-closed-softly-Turkish-barman-body-toddler-Aylan-Kurdi-beach-relives-horror.html ‘”Their eyes were open. I closed them softly.” Turkish barman who found body of toddler Aylan Kurdi on beach relives the horror.’
[iv] http://www.wsj.com/articles/image-of-syrian-boy-washed-up-on-beach-hits-hard-1441282847 ‘Image of drowned Syrian boy echoes around the world’
[v] http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,981431,00.html ‘The Life and Death of Kevin Carter’
[vi] https://electronicintifada.net/content/israel-destroying-gazas-farmlands/8252 ‘Israel Destroying Gaza’s Farmlands’
by Pratik Ali.