I’m sitting next to a pile of hilariously impractical issues of Raw, the greatest comics anthology ever produced, as mad as a hornet and scanning tables of contents for creators whose names now attract movie deals and MacArthur “genius” grants and Pulitzer prizes and sundry other accolades. The magazines are mostly of a gigantic trim size, as big as The New York Review of Books, and they have odd things bound into them, like little ashcan insert chapters of Maus and a packet of trading cards illustrated by Mark Beyer with broken chunks of glass-hard pink bubble gum floating around inside the still-unopened packet. One issue has a long strip by the late French cartoonist Pascal Doury with a big two-page spread that goes through the center of the magazine, practically daring you to unpick the staples and tease out the page and tape it to your wall. My apartment, because of these magazines, is actually one of the few places you can find Doury’s work.
I’m just furious.
The great Art Spiegelman was censored by the editorial board of The New Statesman this past week, which I call a crime against art about on a level with, to pick a salient example, Isis blowing up archaeological treasures in Nineveh. The reason they decided to do this stupid thing was that Spiegelman had asked them to run a little one-page op-ed comic talking about how much he hated censorship, and of course in that op-ed comic is a smiley face wearing a turban with an arrow pointing to him and text under the arrow reading “MOHAMMED.”
No explanation has been given thus far by the NS save that the guest editors who selected Spiegelman for the cover and agreed to run his comic, Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer, have written a long joint post on Gaiman’s website. Their hands were tied, they said; NS refused to run the comic in any form, online or in the magazine. So that’s a pretty poor way to treat your guest editors, too, especially when one editor has spent his whole career speaking out against censorship and publicly supporting organizations like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and attended the PEN Awards honoring Charlie Hebdo in kevlar because his pregnant wife (the other editor) begged him to, and when the ostensible subject of the entire issue of the magazine he’s guest editing is censorship.
We stand at a crossroads not as a thinking class, not as a civilization, but as a species. Much is made of the tendency toward censorship or at least censure on the left that has suddenly become en vogue among shallow thinkers who think using artists’ economic precarity against them is somehow a statement in favor of liberal values. I’ve written about this and it pisses me off, but it sure isn’t the same as shooting somebody because they draw a picture of someone your religion holds sacred. Censoring something because you honestly believe you might hurt feelings or retraumatize someone is not the same as censoring something out of fear.
And disguising the latter as the former is utterly cowardly, and far, far worse than just admitting you’re afraid.
What bothers me most about the capitulation across all sorts of cultural borders to people with guns is that it’s never honest, these days–the stated reason is always that it would be so terrible to give offense, to blaspheme unnecessarily, to make people upset. Times editor Dean Baquet, bless his little blue nose, said in his own newspaper that “We do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities,” which is an odd statement, to say the least, from the newspaper that is more than happy to publish pictures of controversial art. “Many Muslims consider publishing images of their prophet innately offensive and we have refrained from doing so.”
This is such a halfhearted lie that aggrieved conservatives from several other belief systems have begun carping about how they want everyone in publishing to act as though they were all practicing members of their religions, too, and perhaps it’s here that the Daily Callers and the Pamela Gellers of the world can, through no fault of their own, teach us a valuable lesson: if you give prudes and scold an inch, they will take a mile.
But we already knew that, and we will do our best not to care any more about those people tomorrow than we did yesterday, much to their annoyance, because this is not about controversial art, this is about publishing, and people who run in and murder everybody in the 9 a.m. edit meeting.
No one comes out and says, “We don’t want to publish images of Mohammed because we don’t think they’re worth risking our lives for.” Which would actually be a completely reasonable thing to say–I like my life! I assume Dean Baquet and the editors of the New Statesman enjoy their lives, too! They could have the common decency to admit it and move on!
But the refrain among these extremely dishonest people is that there is no need to offend people unnecessarily, to which I would humbly submit a counterpoint: oh yes there fucking, fucking, fucking is.
Humor is the surprise reflex. It’s the thing that makes us laugh. Offense is perhaps unpleasant (although not always) but it is the only way to get at laughter. Anyone who’s seen a comedian die on stage with a sexist one-liner knows that he won’t make that joke again any time soon; he has to go home and come up with a better one, and if he’s any kind of a writer, he’ll stick to the same subject matter, because he knows there’s something funny there.
Moreover, shock is the only thing that makes narrative fiction worth reading; why would we keep going if we knew what was going to happen, in the plot or in the writer’s style or in the evolution of a character? If we had perfect recall, we’d never look at anything twice.
Wait, offense is the very basis of whole schools of art–didn’t Roy Lichtenstein glory in Time Magazine’s designation of him as The Worst Artist in America? Isn’t Fauvism just a middle finger to the impressionists? Actually, aren’t artistic movements for hundreds of years at a stretch complicated objections to other artistic movements? Isn’t a truly huge amount of great art born of simple spite?
To a lot of people, Art Spiegelman is simply the creator of a truly great Holocaust memoir called Maus, and I guess that’s fine for those people, but they’re missing out, because he’s responsible for a lot more than one superlative body of work. In fact he’s responsible for great art by more people than just himself. Comics are a form that has exploded in a nova of creativity over the course of Spiegelman’s career and I am here to tell you that this is not coincidence. Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Ben Katchor – all of these guys cut their teeth in Raw and everybody who was any kind of a cartoonist wanted to be in it. He is not just a great artist, he is the father of great artists, and if he has something to say, I would suggest that everybody including the editors of the New Statesman could stand to listen.
I am very proud of my newspaper. We published the Charlie Hebdo cover, and we did not do it lightly. I think–I hope–we would have published Spiegelman’s clever cartoon.
Art is a thing that separates us from animals. A cat does not enjoy being shocked or upset; a dog does not like surprises. Human beings have the capacity to glory in the new, the weird, the uncanny, the surprising. Next to me, on my cluttered desk, there is a stack of new, surprising, clever work, stuff that’s still unusual and yes, offensive in places, by people who are trying to figure out how to talk about today, not yesterday. It is completely unnecessary, this kind of offense: it doesn’t help us get food or get laid or find a safe place to sleep. It’s just there for its own smirking, irritating, unpredictable sake.
And yet it is also wholly necessary, because only when we see something we’ve never seen before can we judge what we already know. Is a smiley face with a turban an image of the prophet Mohammed? Is the word “Mohammed” a representation, like the tetragrammaton in the Bible? If I make a little emoticon of Mohammed with my keyboard, like this: @:-), is that blasphemy? Or is it only blasphemy when I turn my laptop on its side? Perhaps I should redact one of the symbols, to be respectful: @-). Is that better? Who is offended? Will those people talk with me and try to change my mind?
Will they try to surprise me with words and images, or will they just shoot me one day when I’m walking down the street?
I don’t know. I think it will probably be the former. I have more faith in people–in Muslims, in fact–than that.
Perhaps I will be surprised.