Last week, I — like many, many others — was horrified about the murders in the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Twelve people were killed and more were injured. Among those killed were members of the editorial staff, cartoonists, and a police officer. ABC News has short bios on a few of the victims.
Then I was heartened to see people rise up with Je suis Charlie in Paris and all around the world, on Twitter. It’s profoundly moving seeing tons of people unify like this, in support of the freedom of speech against those who wished to silence it.
There was not only that unity, but another behind another rallying cry: Je suis Ahmed, to respect Ahmed Merabet, the police officer who was murdered in the attack. This unity was to support a Muslim who died in defending Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish their cartoons. As reported on MTV.com, Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah) wrote this powerful tweet:
I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed
Ahmed Merabet wasn’t on the Charlie Hebdo staff, and he still died in support of the freedom of speech.
About Charlie Hebdo and this freedom, I think The Economist described them very well in this writing:
The magazine had the right to publish everything it did, and French law is right to allow it to. There can be no “but” in that sentence. Even when a picture or opinion is imprudent or tasteless, unless it directly incites violence it should not be banned. Charlie Hebdo lampoons all religions, not just Islam—but it would have the right to single out that faith if it wanted to, just as Islamists in Europe are entitled to denounce Western decadence if they so choose.
People have a right to draw tasteless cartoons; paint tasteless paintings; click tasteless photos, produce tasteless movies; write tasteless articles, poems, and books, etc. Others have a right to complain about all of those works. But those who are offended by the works do not have the right to pick up guns and slaughter the creators of those works. That’s not justice. That’s murder.
As I absorbed the events last week — the murders, rallies, and the two enraging hostage incidents — I also thought of books and artwork that created controversy because they were considered offensive. I decided to do some research on these…
Books are banned for a multitude of reasons, and Wikipedia lists them in their page “List of books banned by governments.” Here are some examples (quotes are from the Wiki article):
- Animal Farm by George Orwell. “A play of Animal Farm was banned in Kenya in 1991, because it criticizes corrupt leaders. In 2002, the novel was banned in the schools of the United Arab Emirates, because it contained text or images that goes against Islamic values, most notably the occurrence of an anthropomorphic, talking pig.”
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. “Banned from the U.S. mail under the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act (Comstock Law) of 1873, which banned the sending or receiving of works containing ‘obscene,’ ‘filthy,’ or ‘inappropriate’ material.”
- The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank. “Banned in Lebanon for ‘portray[ing] Jews, Israel or Zionism favorably.'”
- Ulysses by James Joyce. “Banned in UK until the 1930s. Challenged and temporarily banned in the U.S.A for its sexual content.”
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Banned in the Confederate States during the Civil War because of its anti-slavery content. In 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned in Russia under the reign of Nicholas I because of the idea of equality it presented, and for its ‘undermining religious ideals.'”
How many of these books would you consider classics? Ulysses is numero uno of the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.” It’s not the only previously banned book on the list, either. Comparing the list of banned books against the list of “Best Novels” comes up with several overlaps: Animal Farm, Brave New World, Lolita, Catch-22, The Grapes of Wrath (to name just a few).
Has a previously banned book ever changed your life? Did it change how you view the world, perhaps seeing a little through someone else’s eyes?
Now let’s turn to art…
List25.com has a post on 25 Most Offensive Paintings Ever Created. This list opened my eyes about what, during the history of visual images, raised the hackles of people. Actually, “raised the hackles” might be soft here. Outraged might be a better expression.
For example, as List25.com describes, the Catholic Church and public found Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait at 28 to be blasphemous. Why? Because he painted himself in a position traditionally used for depictions of Jesus Christ.
Then we have this lovely lady: Olympia, by Édouard Manet. What’s the big deal, you ask? She’s a naked woman, and art is full of naked women. True, it is. But Victorine Meurent (her name, but nicknamed Olympia by Manet) wasn’t a figure from myth, like the nudes that had been painted before. She’s a prostitute, not an angel or a goddess from myth. On top of that, she’s not ashamed to be lounging naked. All that spurned scandal in the Paris Salon back in 1865. You can read about it on Salon.com, which says, “Manet was perhaps the world’s first shock artist.”
Pablo Picasso pushed art further by depicting nude prostitutes in his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (translated: The Young Ladies of Avignon). Picasso painted the five women with mask-like faces and bodies that are angular planes. A style that’s a far cry from Manet’s sumptuous Olympia. However, Picasso’s painting helped surge forward Modern Art, in moving toward more abstract and two-dimensional representation of figures. The painting was exhibited in 1916, and it — like Olympia — created a scandal in Paris. The History Channel has a good article about this artwork.
There are other artworks not on List25.com that have caused controversy. The Independent has the slideshow “Banned, Censored and ‘Offensive’ Artworks” that doesn’t have any overlap with the List25.com works.
Included in The Independent’s slideshow are Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a “ready-made” public urinal piece that he signed “R. Mutt”; Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, which depicts Mary with oil paint — next to elephant dung and a collage of pornographic images; and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of Christ upon the cross that had been soaked in the artist’s urine.
One last example, as it came to my mind in doing research: Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer whose images of homosexual BDSM created controversy in Washington, DC, before they were exhibited, in 1989. The exhibit was to set the explicit photos in a separate area, restricted by age. Something I completely support, as I warn readers that my erotic ebooks are meant only for those who are 18 years and older.
I wonder what Mapplethorpe would say that next month, 50 Shades of Grey, the best-selling BDSM erotica, is going to hit mainstream theaters?
Let’s Wrap This Up
Cartoons can have powerful ideas. Books and art can have powerful ideas. Not everyone is comfortable with those ideas.
Is part of the power of art to provoke and stimulate? I don’t mean provoking by inciting violence — and I don’t mean stimulating in the sexual sense. I mean, as in the Merriam-Webster definition for provoke: “to cause the occurrence of (a feeling or action).” Also, on that same webpage, I mean stimulating as “suggests a rousing out of lethargy, quiescence, or indifference.”
That is, provoking what was considered standard — as in what Dürer, Manet, and Picasso’s artworks did. Maybe Dürer painted himself in a Christ-like way because he wanted to remark on the artist’s role in creating. Maybe Manet painted Olympia because he wanted to show she was beautiful, even though she wasn’t an angel or goddess. Maybe Picasso painted women’s faces as masks to suggest that this might be a truer portrait of people, given the masks they wear to cover thoughts and emotions they’d rather not share.
Each of these artworks provoked. This resulted in negative reactions from some viewers. But what about in other people? Did the artworks provoke questions? Did the artworks cause the viewers to consider possibilities that they hadn’t thought of before?
To me, that’s a power of provoking, stimulating art. Of learning about someone else’s view point. Of seeing the world in a different way.
I’m not saying every piece of art has to be provoking. The painting below is beautiful. If it was hanging in my house, it would add a loveliness. But it doesn’t cause me to think beyond: “That’s really pretty.”
Some images of the rallies in Paris show people holding up pencils. It’s a powerful show of support for those who were murdered at Charlie Hebdo.
What I’m hoping is that those pencils are also put to paper. Where drawings and writings are sparked.
Because I hope cartoonists keep drawing to lampoon. Go ahead and draw tasteless illustrations. As cartoonist Ted Rall wrote in his opinion piece on LATimes.com about political cartooning: “If it’s in good taste, it ain’t funny.”
I hope authors keep writing books that make me think. Hey, if your book is banned, you’re in good company — and you might even make a “best novels” list.
I hope artists keep painting works that cause me to see the world in different ways. I hope directors keep producing TV shows and movies that I think about for weeks after I see them. I hope comedians keep helping us question our culture while making us laugh.
Because I want to hear about the world through the viewpoints of others. Inspire me to question what I previously took for granted. As David Berreby wrote in his tremendous article, “To Uphold Freedom of Speech, Go Listen to One You Don’t Like” on Huffington Post.
One last thought: Given the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo last week, I think the consequences of publishing a work that could provoke should be considered. Because, as the murders showed, not everyone is willing to just listen.