Why the Killing of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Cartoonists Will Make Art Stronger

It’s time for a new kind of political art.

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Photo: via Instagram, @banksy.
'Ducks always fly higher than guns.'
Photo: Boulet via Twitter, @Bouletcorp.
Photo: Satish Acharya via Twitter, @satishacharya.
Photo: Noreena Hertz via Twitter, @noreenahertz.
'This is not a religion.'
Photo: Stephen Stardom via Twitter @stephen_strydom.
Photo: Jonathan Guyer via Twitter, @mideastxmidwest.
'No freedom without freedom of speech.'
Photo: Tomi Ungerer via Twitter, @tomiungerer.
Photo: Seth Fiegerman via Twitter, @sfiegerman.
Photo: De Standaard via Twitter, @destandaard.
Photo: Philippe Henchoz via Twitter, @philippe_VLG.
'Freedom of expression!'
Photo: ygreck via Twitter, @ygreck.
Photo: Nate Beeler via Twitter, @natebeeler.
Photo: Middle East Monitor via Twitter (@MiddleEastMnt)
'I am Charlie.'
Photo: Jean Julien via Twitter, @jean_julien.
Rob Tornoe, cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer tweeted this image.
Dutch political cartoonist Ruben L. Oppenheimer tweeted this image.

Last night, a popular Banksy Instagram account posted the image of a pencil which, broken today, turns into two sharper pencils tomorrow. The image has since then been branded a fake. Whether or not it is by the British street artist himself is beside the point, although I can’t help wishing it was. Today, France has declared a national day of mourning, and artists are urgently needed.

Since the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris yesterday (see “12 Killed at Magazine Previously Attacked for Satirical Cartoons“), cartoonists of all stripes have rushed to their brushes and embraced the magazine’s mordant humor, showing terrorists that they will not succumb to intimidation, however brutal. They made clear that for every Charb, Cabu, Wolinksi, Honoré, or Tignous killed, many more will rise.

Amid the deluge of tributes that has flooded social media since the attack, two images particularly stand out. Hours after the event, the French cartoonist Boulet tweeted,“Les canards voleront toujours neplus haut que les fusils” or “Ducks [French slang for newspapers] will always reach higher than guns.” The cartoon depicts a masked gunman, seething as a copy of Charlie Hebdo takes off for the skies. The Guardian’s cartoonist Steve Bell pictures the assailants clad in skeleton onesies, complete with Mickey Mouse ears and clown shoes, baffled that the world is still laughing at them. Of the tributes, Bell’s is perhaps the one that best distilled the Charlie Hebdo attitude: barbarity can’t just be fought, it also has to be ridiculed.

If indeed he was behind the pencil drawing, Banksy would be—as far as I’m aware—the first “fine artist” to publicly show his solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Hopefully many others will follow. While ego-as-art seems to have become a commercially viable artistic proposition (see “The Ego-Centric Art World is Killing Art“), and while the absurd amount of money that has engulfed the art world dominated the headlines in 2014 (and yes, that includes our own), last year also yielded another trend.

From the post-Ferguson die-ins, to Hong Kong’s umbrellas, to drawings in the smoke of Gaza’s bombing, artistic forms—be they performance, installation, or more traditional methods of image-making—have come to the fore as a way of answering violence, challenging the official routes of art distribution. Spurred by the contagious energy of these memes, some professional artists joined in too, struggling like the rest of us to comprehend the enormity of the events unfolding in front of their eyes.

But we need more, because as the assassination of the Charlie Hebdo staff once again proved, art, humor, irony, and culture aren’t just intellectual flourishes, they are genuine threats to extremisms of all kinds. Indian cartoonist Satish Acharya nailed it with his image of the two terrorists after the bloodbath, looking, puzzled, at a pen. The caption reads: “What’s this little weapon which hurts us so much?”

We need more art tackling politics not because artists are better people—or better equipped than all of us citizens to deal with situations that resists comprehension—but because, if they are any good, they will touch others, and for a long time to come. Guernica remains the textbook example. Picasso’s painting brought home some of the horror of Franco’s fascism. It still does.

Some will rush forward in defense of dandyist Art for Art’s sake. Only last spring, in the run-up to the controversial Manifesta in Saint Petersburg, the director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, invoked “things that are more important than politics” (see “Controversial Manifesta 10 Organizers Condemn Artists Boycotts“). Some saw it as a convenient position to adopt when Manifesta was criticized for tacitly endorsing the Russian government, and, by extension, its annexation of the Crimea and ban on “gay propaganda.” What is more important than politics? What is more important than the many systems, however flawed, that allow humanity to live together in some sort of vaguely coherent whole?

And politics is never really far from great art, however remote that art may seem from the geopolitical realities of its time. Take, say, Mark Rothko’s series of “Seagram Murals,” an invitation to lose oneself in color and attain a chromatic kind of meditative state. Far from detached, it is the pure product of its era. Like many Abstract Expressionists, Rothko attempted to construct common human ground in the aftermath of WWII—something U.S. Cold War strategists understood full well as they flaunted the New York School as a symbol of American freedom.

What about now? Yes, there’s a great deal of abstraction going around these days, but most of it is as shallow as the art flippers who capitalize on it (see “Have Art Fairs Destroyed Art? Zombie Abstraction and Dumb Painting Ruled in Miami“). Let’s leave those canvases, shiny baubles, and faux-intellectual postures to the crassly moneyed crowds that want them so bad. Too often it feels like these people have hijacked art: let’s claim it back.

The world stood united last night. Vigils organized themselves not only in France’s cities, but across the globe, in London, Berlin, Lima, New York, Montreal, and Tokyo. I sincerely hope that artists will continue to join the ranks. I hope they’ll enrich the fraught discussions to come with their own perspectives on the world, which, on a day like this, so many of us crave.

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