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January 14, 2016

Charlie Hebdo Hammered For Alan Kurdi Cartoon

CNN has a decent, general wrap-up of fresh anger aimed at the cartoon-heavy Charlie Hebdo magazine, which published a cartoon from acting editor Laurent Sourisseau aka "Riss" portraying the dead Syrian refugee child Alan Kurdi as one of the people that participated in the mass groping in Cologne. Everything that everyone feels about this is going to come from a place of privilege and remove and I'm at superhuman level of both here so please bear with me.

I think it's fitting for people to have a negative reaction to the cartoon. I did, too. I would not have run it. I think it's a bad cartoon. It doesn't score a clear point worth making for its employment of its strong, upsetting imagery, and thus it feels more like one of those cartoons where the use of strong imagery becomes justified because it's protected, not for its value to communicate a point. That's almost always a deeply problematic place from which to make art. In cases where a good cartoon is involved in an uproar, you can immediately pivot to at least the skeleton of the work's meaning. It's hard here. You have to figure it out. You have to make a supposition: commentary of fickleness of press, commentary on how we humanize certain images and not others, perhaps even deploring the lack of continuity in policy. If you don't make clear a meaning, you forfeit some control over what meaning is chosen on your behalf. It's a form of hubris that gets you to racism, to sexism, to classism, to all sorts of ugly places whether you intended to visit or not.

At the same time, I'm not of the mind to read a lot into a shitty cartoon other than it being a shitty cartoon. I'll keep in mind that every reading isn't my own. More generally, as I can't imagine the cartoonist made the cartoon to kick the shit out of the memory of a dead child, this makes me suspect the cartoon is better judged a failure than a purposeful affront. I think this matters. I'm not a humor expert, I don't have thousands of examples to rattle off, but I suspect the intent via its subject was similar to Eddie Murphy's Buckwheat routine from the early '80s: a commentary on context rather than a savaging of its vehicle. I also don't see this as an a-ha moment for revealing the Charlie Hebdo gang as being turdballs and that this has an effect on whatever argument from last year. A joke like this seems entirely within their established purview, although maybe a little less so than the strong current of humor explained by the French preoccupation with anti-clerical blasphemy. Still, you give me three guesses where that cartoon appeared, and I wouldn't have needed the second or the third.

I prefer that bad art exist. I find valuable and deplorable art that missteps as well as art that is ugly to its core. It's more common than you think. Heck, I've worked in an industry whose market leaders have been suggesting violence as a luridly attractive conflict resolution system directly to children for decades and decades now. And just as these four graphs might be thundered against as undeniable displays of two different, equally untenable positions or as a milquetoast dance around the whole shebang, the only solution I can suggest in any case is confrontation, criticism, analysis and context. And then, as we move on: memory.
posted 9:55 pm PST | Permalink

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