Words and Pictures

One thing that occurs to me about this cartoon spat…is that I’ve never actually much liked political cartoons, and this underlines why. I suppose, if I’m going to be completely honest (and I suppose I have to be, don’t I, since I’m always yapping about it), I have to admit that in this sense I may be able to see some point in what the “no need to be offensive” crowd are saying. Only some, mind you, and without all their horrible pious drivel about religious beliefs. I like some political cartoons, the kind that rely on extended strips with plenty of words, like Garry Trudeau’s or Jules Feiffer’s or Marjane Satrapi’s. But the one-panel ones that rely heavily on facial caricature? Not so much. I’ve been pondering this a little, and realizing that’s not particularly surprising. It’s like the difference between someone disagreeing with you by making faces and talking in a silly voice and jumping around, and disagreeing with you by discussing the subject at issue in calm, reasoned language. The first is pretty much always a lot more irritating than the second, and for pretty obvious reasons – the first is just about making fun of you, without properly saying why. Just grimacing and saying ‘Nyah nyah, yer mother wears army boots and you smell bad’ isn’t really instructive, whereas the second approach gets to what it is that is at issue. The second approach is explicit, while the first one is not. Cartoons are all about synechdoche, and synechdoche is fine for some purposes, but for substantive disagreement, it probably isn’t. So the people who talk about caricatures of Jews have a point – caricatures aren’t about reasons, they’re just about ‘we hate you you’re ugly’. That’s not an argument.

So…I think Islam ought to be criticised and reasoned with up one side and down the other, without cease, by as many people as possible – but, for preference, in language, not in mocking pictures.

Which means, I’ve realized with some qualms, that I’m sort of arguing that straightforward rational discussion is better for this kind of thing than satire or ‘art’. I sort of hate to say that! And yet…I think it’s true. The trouble with art is that it can’t explain itself, it can’t reply, its consumers can’t reply to it – it’s just there, given. And it usually doesn’t explain itself in the first place – that’s rather the point of its being art as opposed to an article. Art just isn’t particularly good at making argumentative points; that’s not what it does best, or well. The very ambiguity and room for interpretation that make it art make it also bad at being explicit. It’s extremely hard to argue with the non-explicit. Cartoons don’t really have propositional content. The one with the bomb in the turban, for example – that could mean several things.

Make of that what you will.

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