US satirists have been ‘de-fanged’
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 the National 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 defense 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.