[Marxism] AGITPROP NEWS: Cartoons, Caricatures and the Myth of Artistic Freedom

Mike Alewitz alewitzm at mail.ccsu.edu
Mon Mar 13 20:19:43 MST 2006

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In this issue: 

Cartoons, Caricatures and the Myth of Artistic Freedom

by Mike Alewitz


Most working people understand the inherent power of the cartoon ­ it¹s one
of the ways we can directly respond to injustice and exploitation at the
workplace.  Just fill in the balloon coming out of the boss¹ mouth. Make the
words as stupid as possible ­ its usually not a stretch.  We diminish the
authority of our overseers when we ridicule their arbitrary whims, greed and

Published cartoonists do essentially the same thing, but frequently directed
at the symbols of state power.  Given the stumbling misspeaks of George Bush
and the sleazy deceptions of his spokes-zombies, or their overseas
counterparts, these determined artists face a daunting task.  Yet they
bravely forge ahead ­ attempting to reach and influence a large viewing

But can cartoonists, either here or abroad, mobilize millions of people or
incite the destruction of foreign embassies? Do they wield such awesome

The mainstream media has presented an avalanche of muddled commentary and
deliberate misinformation about the recent cartoon protests.  Artists and
activists need to take a critical look at these ongoing events and ask
themselves: Is this really a confrontation between the
insensitive-but-free-expression-loving artists versus the
injured-but-misguided-conservative Muslims marching in lockstep to religious
fundamentalists? Or, is there more to this than meets the eye?

Something Rotten

³Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."  - William Shakespeare,
(Hamlet - I, iv, 90)

Western commentators were downright indignant at the angry response to the
anti-Islam cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.  For
it¹s part, the paper invoked the mantle of freedom of the press - other
European publications quickly proffered their solidarity by also printing
the images.

All the sanctimonious talk of democratic rights is somewhat difficult to
swallow.  Racism and xenophobia are nothing new to Jyllands-Posten - the
journal was openly supportive of Italian Fascism and ambivalent towards
Nazism.  Their ire is now directed at immigrant workers.

Jyllands-Posten enjoys widespread popularity in Denmark.  The Danish ruling
elite has fostered deep divisions in its society by promoting vicious
anti-immigrant policies.  Recently it became illegal for native-born Danes
to marry ³foreigners² until age 24. There is a growing ultra-rightist
movement led by the Danish People¹s Party.

Artists often perceive European governments as more enlightened than
Washington, but anti-war and pacifist posturing by these countries is just a
mask for their own competing economic interests. Their refined cultures are
based on bloody conquest and exploitation, epitomized by museums bursting
with the plundered art of Asia and Africa.

Despite it¹s patina of civility, Denmark is no different from other
imperialist countries that reap enormous corporate profits from racism and

Behind the Protests

The Boston Tea Party was not about tea, the civil-rights sit-ins were not
about Woolworth¹s hamburgers and the cartoon protests are not about

The underlying causes of this social explosion are foreign occupation of
Arab lands, western support to reactionary Mid-East regimes, lack of
education, social services and healthcare and the degradation of millions of
people.  Protests are fueled by the knowledge that the developed nations of
the world possess enormous wealth ­ vast riches that come, in good part,
from the exploitation of the people and natural resources of Africa and the
Middle East. 

The mass mobilizations are part of a global struggle for human rights. Some
of the largest demonstrations have occurred in Iran and Syria - countries
that face the imminent threat of economic sanctions or US military action.
Syrians and Iranians need only look across their borders to observe the
blessings of democracy: over a million deaths of their Iraqi neighbors and
the destruction of that once prosperous nation.

At the heart of the public outcry is opposition to the US occupation of Iraq
­ a perspective shared by the great majority of the world¹s population,
including the American people.  Anti-war sentiment in the US is greater than
at any time in recent history.  Opposition to the war is so great that a
Zogby International/Le Moyne College poll recently found that only 23 per
cent of US troops believed that the occupation should continue.  72 per cent
said that the US should either pull out immediately or withdraw within 12

The arrogant policies of the US government continue to unite the world¹s
working people as never before ­ there is a deepening global resistance to
the occupation.  The banners may be in different languages, but they all say
the same thing: US Out of Iraq.

Anti-Arab Campaign

In an attempt to bolster the diminishing support for their war, the Bush
administration has consistently promoted anti-Arab sentiment.  Not to be
outdone by Republicans, liberal Democrats like Charles Schumer have led the
opposition to granting port operation contracts to Dubai Port World (DPW) of
the United Arab Emirates (UAE,)  a thinly veiled, racist scare campaign.

And, just when you think that no one could get any lower, there is always a
Clinton that comes along.

Senator Hillary Clinton has moved to the right of Bush in pandering to
backward anti-Arab sentiments.   The UAE had previously donated over a
million dollars of support to Bill Clinton.  The Clintons had returned the
favor by providing their stamp of approval for a regime that keeps the vast
majority of its people in virtual servitude - denied any form of citizenship
or basic human rights.  In her quest for personal advancement and to prove
her loyalty to the oil corporations, Hillary Clinton has turned on her
former UAE friends.  But don¹t worry ­ it will all be forgotten later on.

Along with the politicians, key religious leaders in the US have fueled the
international anti-Muslim campaign. Reverend Franklin Graham ‹ heir to the
mantle of Billy Graham and spiritual advisor to President Bush -- publicly
asserted, ³The God of Islam is not the same God of the Christian or the
Judeo-Christian faith. It is a different God, and I believe a very evil and
a very wicked religion.²  Reverend Jerry Vines, former president of the
Southern Baptist Convention, called Prophet Mohammed "a demon-possessed

These types of remarks have been echoed throughout Europe.  Is it any wonder
that anti-Islamic images are widespread?

The Growth of Religious Fundamentalism

At the heart of the racist campaign is the stereotyping of all Arabs as
religious zealots.  In reality, it is the policies of the US and other
occupying forces, particularly Israel, that are the key factor in fostering
the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.

The recent election victory of Hamas has evoked condemnation from Washington
and other western powers.  But it was Israel, after the 1967 occupation of
Gaza and the West Bank, that initiated and supported Hamas - promoted as an
opposition current to the then secular and militant Palestine Liberation
Organization (PLO.) Israel encouraged the growth of the Islamic right,
fostering political and military confrontations between the religious and
secular tendencies.

Similarly, the US promoted the right-wing Mujahideen in opposition to the
1979 Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.   That support brought
Osama bin Laden and like-minded figures to prominence, and the US turned a
blind eye to the formation of Al Qaeda and similar groups in the late 1980s.

By engaging in consistent attacks on secular, progressive movements and
trade unions, the US and Israel have created a political framework in which
those who wish to oppose the occupations have no choice but to join with
reactionary religious organizations.  Islamic fundamentalism and western
imperialism are united in their opposition to Arab and Palestinian
nationalism and secularism.

While they have occasional squabbles, generally the Bushes, Sharons and bin
Ladens of the world are delighted to do business together and get along
quite well.

Anti-Semitic Caricatures

In the current falling-out, Democratic and Republican politicians have done
a lot of finger pointing about an anti-Semitic component of the protests.
While both Arabs and Jews are Semitic peoples, anti-Semitism is generally
used as a term for anti-Jewish.  This ideology should be opposed in all its
forms - but you don¹t have to travel halfway around the globe to find a much
greater threat to the Jewish people.

The US has a real, if quiescent, history of anti-Semitism.  After all, the
fortunes of such leading families as the Bushes and Kennedy¹s were made in
large part due to their business dealings with the Nazis.  Companies like
IBM provided the machinery to implement the extermination of European Jewry.
The slurs by Richard Nixon, recorded in his White House tapes, reveal the
anti-Jewish sentiment that lies just below the surface of polite society.
Anti-Semitism is an ideology that the ruling powers are quite prepared to
resurrect when it suits their purposes ­ Kissinger or Lieberman not

Anti-Jewish and anti-Arab ideologies go hand in hand, and the mainstream
media has facilitated such doctrine by creating an enormous caricature of
the Arab people.  Artists and entertainers are put to work creating
stereotypes in the media - images of crazed Arab terrorists being gunned
down in their dozens by steroid soaked creeps like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The stereotyped visual portrayals of Arabs are mirror images of the
caricatures of Jews from an earlier time: hook-nosed, stubble bearded,
thick-lipped, shiftless, ugly, dirty and evil.  Anti-Semitism is truly

An accurate portrait of Arabs would reveal a people that made some the
greatest contributions to the development of art, agriculture, literature,
philosophy, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and science in human history.
The creation of the Arab empire provided a huge impetus to world
development. The depiction of Islamic culture as barbaric and inferior to
western enlightenment is a cruel slur that flies in the face of history.

Democratic Rights

One of the more remarkable aspects of the current controversy is the
counter-posing of western democracy to a conservative and religious culture.

Even as Bush and Congress are giving lip-service to free expression, they
are implementing far-reaching attacks on democratic rights through massive
illegal domestic spying operations. It seems particularly obscene for US
politicians to lecture the world about democracy while power is increasingly
concentrated in the hands of an erratically-behaving, imperial,
graft-ridden, fundamentalist executive branch of government.

³Liberty² is an empty phrase in the mouths of those who have promoted the
use of torture at the Abu Ghraib and Guantanimo prisons.  ³Freedom² is a
meaningless term when uttered by supporters of such horrendous regimes as
the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, Papa Doc Duvalier, Saddam Hussein and
many other brutal dictatorships.

Liberal faith in constitutional democracy is belied by the enormous
struggles of the civil rights and women's movements, free-speech fights and
labor battles. Unfortunately, blind belief in the law has led some activists
to mistakenly call for restrictions on right-wing speech.  European
governments have already used the cartoon incident as an excuse to further
erode free expression by attempting to expand bans on so-called hate speech.
In the long run however, these restrictions will be used, not to curtail the
extreme right, but against progressive forces.

Divine intervention or legislative action does not create democratic rights
and free artistic expression.  Free expression, to the extent it exists, is
the product of enormous human struggle.  The right to assemble in public or
organize unions was never granted ­ it was conquered. We can only expand
democratic rights by exercising them ­ an ongoing process that takes place
each day in every country of the world.

The Myth of Artistic Freedom

Workers and artists in the US have waged historic struggles to overcome
censorship and repression.  But a lack of overt censorship is not the same
as free expression.  In this country, artists are muzzled by denying them
access to the media or forcing them into self-censorship. Those who have
fundamental criticisms of society are marginalized and vilified.

Visual artists are free to create work that promotes progressive struggle,
or even revolution ­ as long as it stays safely in the gallery for purchase
by wealthy buyers.  Artists who create work that is actually a weapon in the
hands of workers, however, simply cease to exist.  Like an invisible
force-field, you may approach and stick your finger into the class struggle
­ but cross the line and you disappear ­ removed from art magazines,
galleries and museums.

The smug, self-proclaimed ³radical² radio stations, alternative press and
progressive electronic media are also exclusionary.  And the bureaucratic
jackals that pose as labor leaders are the most craven of all ­ denying
union members access to any art that expresses their aspirations for a
democratic, militant workers movement.

Occasionally, a cartoonist like Tom Tomorrow is allowed ­ in order to
provide evidence of a free society.  But don¹t be expecting Gary Huck and
Mike Konopaki to be replacing Heathcliff any time soon. For every Michael
Moore, there are thousands of  talented artists who are prevented from
practicing their craft.

Far from being free, artists are forced into producing an ever more
mind-numbing mass culture of cop shows, amusement-park theater and formulaic
music.  The huge art and entertainment business is structured to prevent
challenging and penetrating work from emerging.  Film artists must degrade
themselves by prancing down red carpets like trained monkeys.  Visual
artists must hang vacuous art on the walls of galleries and fawn over their
wealthy patrons.  Cartoon art is epitomized by Charley Brown.

The majority of artists who are lucky enough to be employed are used to
create advertising that sells drugs, wars, racism and blind obedience to

There have been, and currently are, serious threats directed against
artists.  Federal authorities pose the greatest danger, as the frame-up of
Steve Kurz and the Critical Art Ensemble has indicated.  Religious zealots
have threatened other artists, like Salmon Rushdie and Christoffer Zieler,
the racist cartoonist.  Such threats, regardless of their source or target,
must be exposed, protested and defeated.  Artistic expression and free
speech must be defended absolutely and without qualification - there is
nothing to fear from images or words.

International Solidarity

The demonstrations taking place throughout the Muslim world do not lend
themselves to simplistic analysis.  There are conflicting currents to be
sure: repressive Arab regimes attempting to deflect anger away from
themselves, right-wing fundamentalists seeking to expand their influence,
and competing capitalist governments with their own separate economic
agendas.  But a key element in these mobilizations is the attempt by
millions of Muslims to capitalize on a small political opening to advance
their struggle for social and economic justice.

In most countries of the Middle East, public demonstrations are rarely
allowed.  Officially sanctioned protests against the Danish cartoons allow
the working people of these countries to take advantage of a political
opportunity that rarely exists.  Massive street actions open the possibility
to expand the political space and democratic rights of working people ­ a
concrete advance for free expression.

Most importantly of all ­ these demonstrations provide an opportunity to
build the international movement in opposition to the occupation of Iraq ­
the central political question that faces the working class.  Millions of
people, previously disenfranchised, can join in demanding an end to the war.
Such unity could help to save the lives of our brothers and sisters in
uniform, as well as countless Iraqi civilians.  An end to the occupation of
Iraq will be an enormous victory for world peace and justice.

There is a daily battle for artists to develop genuine meaning in our work.
We can use our creative talents to expose and educate about the
divide­and-conquer campaigns of the imperial powers and to support the
struggle to extend artistic and working-class freedom of expression - in
whatever form it may take.

We must not let the attempt to caricature a people go unanswered.  We need
to reject the racism (and mediocrity) of Christoffer Zieler and
Jyllands-Posten, even as we defend their, and our, civil liberties.

Cartoonists have frequently played an important role in the struggle for
artistic freedom, since many of them view their mission as being critical of
existing political and social conditions.  While this posture is generally
frowned upon by the authorities, it is an example that many other visual
artists should consider following.

Over a billion Muslims in the world are struggling for basic human rights.
These mobilizations provide an opening to organize a secular and democratic
opposition to the imperial powers.  Artists and activists have nothing to
fear, and much to gain, by extending solidarity to such initiatives.

Mike Alewitz
Artistic Director


Reply to alewitzm at ccsu.edu

c/o Department of Art
Central Connecticut State University
1615 Stanley Street
New Britain, Connecticut 06050

Phone: 860.832.2359

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