Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More Cartoons Matter

Some follow-ups to my previous post, from The Times of London.

Reaction from cartoonist Lars Vilks:

Mr Vilks arrived back in Sweden from Germany yesterday and made light of the assassination call. “I suppose that this makes my art project a bit more serious. It is also good to know how much one is worth,” he said.

“We must not give in. I’m starting to grow old. I could die at any time — it’s not a catastrophe.”
From the same article:

A leading Swedish daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, yesterday republished the cartoon in an act of solidarity with the local paper that first printed it.

Thorbjörn Larsson, the editor, said in an opinion piece: “We live in a country where freedom of expression is not dictated by fundamentalists, nor by governments. To me, publishing it was the obvious thing to do.”

The daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet urged Swedes to defend their right to free speech in the face of religious fanaticism. It said: “Freedom of expression is not a privilege for the media companies and journalists but a guarantee that citizens can have different impressions, numerous sources of information and inspiration, as well as the possibility of drawing their own conclusions.”

Go Sweden.

UPDATE: Just found this by Oliver Kamm, writing in the magazine Index on Censorship:

The notion that free speech, while important, needs to be held in balance with the avoidance of offence is question-begging, because it assumes that offence is something to be avoided. Free speech does indeed cause hurt – but there is nothing wrong in this. Knowledge advances through the destruction of bad ideas. Mockery and derision are among the most powerful tools in that process. Consider Voltaire’s Candide, or H L Mencken’s reports – saturated in contempt for religious obscurantists who opposed the teaching of evolution in schools – on the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial.

It is inevitable that those who find their deepest convictions mocked will be offended, and it is possible (though not mandatory, and is incidentally not felt by me) to extend sympathy and compassion to them. But they are not entitled to protection, still less restitution, in the public sphere, even for crass and gross sentiments. A free society does not legislate in the realm of beliefs; by extension, it must not concern itself either with the state of its citizens’ sensibilities. If it did, there would in principle be no limit to the powers of the state, even into the private realm of thought and feeling.

The debate has not been aided – it has indeed been severely clouded – by an imprecise use of the term ‘respect’. If this is merely a metaphor for the free exercise of religious and political liberty, then it is an unexceptionable principle, but also an unclear and redundant usage. Respect for ideas and those who hold them is a different matter altogether. Ideas have no claim on our respect; they earn respect to the extent that they are able to withstand criticism.


ronnie said...

Vilks has now gone into hiding after the police told him he was unsafe at his home and they couldn't guarantee his protection. A sad situation indeed.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

If an infrequent commenter (tho frequent reader) may weigh in -- and respond to stuff in 2 posts which may not be completely kosher -- I spent a decade+ as a public librarian and the censorship issue was a biggie. We were drilled in the differences between selection--which is inevitable with limited budgets and space--and censorship.

I'm pretty much an absolutist too, at one level. Artists have to have the fullest possible freedom to create, and to create for any reason. Freedom of motive is part of freedom of expression.

But I'm anything but an absolutist when it comes to an alleged right to be published. The Oliver Kamm piece says good stuff, but doesn't deal with merit. In this context it can sound like he's saying the only reason to not publish something offensive is censorship. That's not true. There's poor quality.

But publish something offensive and bad, and it will get censored not for being bad but for being offensive. Then it gets the same defense that a good offensive piece of work gets. This has to be the case once it's out there, but better selection before the fact would keep crap from having to be defended by better minds and talents --like yours-- after the fact.

(Do I need to say that death or injury is out of bounds as a response to even the lousiest work of art? In case I do, it is, no question.)

Publishers, editors, exhibit coordinators (...librarians...) do have a lot of power to prevent something from getting an audience, but that layer of sorting needs to be there, just not misused. Selecting, or de-selecting, can maximize the public's access to ideas, not restrict it. Controversial ones, groundbreaking ones, stuff that forces people outside their comfort zone, stuff that outright offends and outrages, but stuff with merit.

So when you say in a comment on the original post:

I see no difference in principle between the artistry of Van Gogh and the insults of Vilks.

...that actually (to me) could be an appropriate response for a fellow creative artist, at least in supporting another's published work after the fact. But it would be very INappropriate for an editor. Or a librarian, or an exhibit coordinator. Their job is to evaluate.

Vilks did a bad job. His cartoon isn't innovative or insightful. Offensiveness is its only property. It may have succeeded at fulfilling Vilks' intention, but how did it fulfill the paper's mission? I'd say the paper had a higher calling, not to piss people off for the sake of pissing people off, but to do it to breach boundaries that can only be breached by mind-expanding work. If the Swedish editor wanted his share of the hot publicity the Danes got, he could have gone with a really good offensive cartoon. Settling for this one was just editorial laziness.

(You shoulda seen the 1st 3 drafts.)

Anonymous said...

Muslims Against Sharia praise the courage of Lars Vilks, Ulf Johansson, Thorbjorn Larsson and the staff of Nerikes Allehanda and Dagens Nyheter and condemn threats issued by Abu Omar Al Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq. Muslims Against Sharia will provide a payment of 100,000kr (about $15,000) for the information leading to capture or neutralization of Abu Omar Al Baghdadi.

Muslimer mot Sharia berömmer Lars Vilks, Ulf Johansson, Torbjörn Larsson och övriga anställda på Nerikes Allehanda och Dagens Nyheter för deras tapperhet och fördömer hotet från Abu Omar Al Baghdadi och Islamistiska Iraq. Muslimer mot Sharia betalar 100 000 SEK (ca 15 000$) för information som leder till gripande eller oskadligörande av Abu Omar Al Baghdadi.

Muslims Against Sharia

Brian Fies said...

Ronnie, thanks for the update. I'm not surprised.

Ruth, I very much appreciate your thoughtful comment and the time you took to compose it. Though I haven't entirely digested it, I think I agree with everything you wrote.

I appreciate the issue of selection vs. censorship. Every library must field complaints (I hear them locally) that the local branch censored a book because it decided not to stock it, without any appreciation of how many books are published each year and the impossibility of keeping pace. Still, it's a fine line: can a library "choose not to select" Huck Finn because of the N-word? Not select Ann Coulter, Al Franken, or Christopher Hitchens because they find them abhorrent? There's a lot of integrity and responsibility involved in selecting books for libraries, especially when the books repulse you.

One of my irritations (I seem to have many) in this realm is frustrated writers, artists, journalists or performers who complain they're being censored because no one will publish or broadcast their work. It's pretty common and completely wrong-headed. Your right to buy a printing press, video camera, or podcasting equipment doesn't obligate anyone else to let you use their equipment or distribute your work. You're not being censored; for whatever reason--and some reasons are better than others--you just didn't get the gig. Find another outlet or shut up.

I also agree that the cartoon in question is a poor one on its merits and if Vilks's editor had been doing his job it probably wouldn't have been printed. (Interesting, though, that in reading further I see that the drawing wasn't an editorial cartoon, but Vilks's contribution to an art exhibit on the subject of "The Dog in Art." That puts it in a different light for me, though I'm not sure it should. My knee-jerk sense is that art hanging on a wall in a gallery ought to be able to get away with more than a drawing printed in a newspaper, though I'm not sure I can defend that opinion. In any case, one might argue that the cartoon is an ineffective statement about The Prophet but an interesting and valid commentary on the exalted state of dogs.)

Interesting to extrapolate your thoughts to the Web and "new journalism," which often lacks the editorial filter, and proudly so. A few months ago I got into a heated online argument with a woman trying to create a Web-based network of "citizen journalists and editorial cartoonists" who would attend newsworthy events and instantly report on them. My argument: Who are these people? What is their training? Who double-checks their work? What are the safeguards against libel? What keeps them from just flat out lying? I never got very satisfactory answers and, after trying to warn her of the risks and responsibilities (probably sounding a lot like my journalist friend Mike Peterson in the process), wished her luck. What frustrated me most was what I perceived to be her complete nonchalance about why any kind of editorial process would even be necessary. What could possibly be better than people delivering news to each other without all those nasty corporate bureaucrats in the way? It was one of those conversations where we talked completely past each other. Yet I absolutely support her right to post her stories and wished her tremendous luck in her many future court appearances.

Anyway, now that the deed is done, I don't see how right-thinking people everywhere (that is, those who think like me) can do less than vigorously defend the cartoon's publication despite misgivings about its quality or provenance. As a wise man once said, you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want.

Thanks again.