Organized by PEN American Center, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and French Institute Alliance Francaise, the panel discussion “After Charlie: What’s Next for Art, Satire and Censorship,” illustrated some of the problems inherent in offering a civilized response to an utterly uncivilized act.
Held at the French Institute Alliance Francaise in Manhattan, the panel featured cartoonists Art Spiegelman, Molly Crabapple, Emmanuel “Manu” Letouze and New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly. Introducing the panel’s moderator WNYC’s Leonard Lopate, PEN American Center executive director Suzanne Nossel addressed the issue of how any conversation, even a passionate one, could address such a heinous attack. She said: "The reaction to terror is the key. Will this attack reshape what we are able to say and publish? Will it reshape who we are, will editors rethink cartoons and more?”
Cartooning is particularly “inflammatory,” said comics artist and illustrator Crabapple, because “it is visceral and irritates authoritarian assholes.” But she also noted that it’s easy for cartooning to be "taken out of context,” stripped of ironic intent and nuance, and used to provoke and offend. Indeed, she suggested, in the age of social media, where images are regularly recontextualized and recirculated, the ability to demonize an image, and its creator, will likely worsen.
New Yorker art director Mouly, French-born wife of Art Spiegelman, tried to give context to the provocative cartooning of Charlie Hebdo. She examined the differences between French and American social sensibility after Lopate pointed to the French bans on Islamic head coverings and yarmulkes, citing them as a French double standard on censorship. In French culture editorial cartoonists, Mouly said, are expected to be incendiary and to offer pictorial challenges to both the state and to religious dogma—“a politician swearing an oath on a bible would be offensive in France.”
At the same time Spiegelman and Crabapple—a radical cartoonist whose work investigates sex and porn, as well as politics—lamented the decline of challenging, political cartooning in the U.S., pointing to the decline of the American newspaper. “American newspapers are afraid to lose any readers,” Spiegelman said. He was particularly disdainful of the New York Times, which did not to re-publish the Charlie Hebdo post-massacre cover. The paper did this, he said, while offering its opinion pages to Marine Le Pen, president of the right wing anti-immigration National Front party in France.
Strangely, other than briefly mentioning his “Underground Comics DNA,” neither Spiegelman nor the other panelists delved into the pioneering Underground Comics of the 1960s. This American comics movement was dedicated to depicting every manner of social, political and personal taboo, and was spearheaded by artists like Spiegelman, R. Crumb and Spain Rodriquez.
Nevertheless, Spiegelman proved a witty and informative panelist. It wasn’t long before the discussion turned into his, and the New Yorker’s, greatest (and most controversial) hits, with the panelists reviewing his long history of provocative, yet thoughtful, illustrations. The panel touched on such New Yorker covers by Spiegelman as the Valentine’s Day one that depicted a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman. Regarding that cover, Spieglman said: “I got people from both communities mad at me for that.” The group also brought up the cover he did that depicted a police officer using silhouettes of a range of "average" New Yorkers for target practice, in a shooting gallery, labeled “41 shoots,” which was printed in the wake of the notorious police shooting of Amadou Diallo.
Mouly said she has intentionally worked to change the covers of the New Yorker from offering “a respite” from the social chaos of urban life, to being a “chronicle of our times.” But she said many of her most controversial covers—one from 1994 offered an early depiction of gay marriage—had become “empty” over time as once-controversial social issues became conventional, and perfectly acceptable.
Perhaps the last question directed to the panel—“Is it even possible to create subversive comics and cartoons in the U.S. today?”—should have been the first one. Yes, said Crabapple. Then she added: “But is it possible to do them, publish them in a prestigious magazine, and get paid for it?”
Correction: A previous version of this article omitted that FIAF was also a co-organizer of the panel.