US satirists have been ‘de-fanged’

Neil Ross reports on an NYC debate on satire apres Charlie.

Neil Ross

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‘There cannot be an iron-clad rule that you cannot go “there”’, said Pulitzer Prize-winning artist and illustrator Art Spiegelman yesterday evening at the French Institute Alliance Francaise in New York City. He was speaking at After Charlie: What’s Next for Art, Satire and Censorship?, co-hosted by the PEN American Center and theNational Coalition Against Censorship.

After navigating through the airport-style security to get into the event (such is the state of fear now associated with anything Charlie Hebdo), the audience was greeted to a striking backdrop to the stage, featuring a rolling montage of classic and contemporary satirical cartoons from old Mad front pages to the now infamous Charlie Hebdo covers.

Spiegelman, best known for Maus and In The Shadow of No Towers, subversively vaped throughout the evening. He was joined on the panel by Molly Crabapple of VICE, Francoise Mouly, art director of the New Yorker, and French cartoonist Emmanuel ‘Manu’ Letouzé. Having a panel of French and American speakers provided some initial discussion on the relative differences in the history and state of satire, particularly in the form of cartoons, between the US and Europe. It was somewhat depressing to hear Spiegelman describe the current situation of satire in the US as one in which cartoonists now largely self-censor. He said cartoonists had been ‘de-fanged’. But one wonders if that is not the direction that Europe is going in now, too? Even after giving a solid defence of the need to understand cartoons and satire in the political and historical context in which they are drawn and presented, Manu almost seemed to be suggesting that censorship of artistic expression when outside of a valid context is okay.

That, unfortunately, became a theme of the evening. At every opportunity for the panel to really stick the knife into those seeking to censor, they stepped back. It is somewhat troubling when, even on a panel of ‘liberal’ satirists, no coherent argument is ventured for the need to support the right to be offensive or to push back against censorship. But then again, this is no longer a surprise. As Mouly herself pointed out, it was the liberal-leaning papers in the US that most shied away from republishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons for fear of causing offence. At a time when a relatively mainstream magazine like the New Yorker can become the focal point for satirical and rebellious artistic expression in the US, then it’s clear that the de-fanging described by Spiegelman is a reality.

Spiegelman seemed most animated and most inspiring when describing the times in his career which have made him most want to push back against any restriction on his artistic expression. He stressed the importance of the medium of art and the cartoon in satire and how it was often born either from youthful rebelliousness or a street graffiti culture in which people were pushing against the status quo. But today, we are more likely to hear about an illiberal right-on mob demanding that a piece of art be banned because it is deemed offensive (such as the protests around The Death of Klinghoffer at the New York Met last year) or about a campus removing a statue to protect the emotional safety of its students.

Spiegelman’s career has undoubtedly run the gamut of provocative subjects. From his 1993 New Yorker cover in response to the NYC Crown Heights riots, to the 2006 cover of Harper’s Magazine in response to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammed cartoons (a cover which meant Spiegelman joined Hitler on the list of authors banned by Canadian bookstore-chain Chapters Indigo), he has a long history of pushing back against the offence-seekers. But for today’s young artists and aspiring satirists, the confidence to draw and comment on the politics and events of the day, no matter how juvenile, puerile or just downright offensive, needs to be reasserted.

When I arrived at this event and saw the backdrop of provocative cartoons and the resumés of the panel, I was excited. It seemed that the stage was set for an impassioned defence of the right to be offensive. Unfortunately, I left feeling cheated. If we are going to stand up for true free speech and complete freedom of expression, now is not the time to mince our words. As we have argued on spiked repeatedly, free speech and the freedom to draw satirical cartoons should come with no ifs or buts. That is the only way to secure a healthy future for art and satire.

Neil Ross is US programme director at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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