[Marxism] Cartoons, Caricatures and the Myth of Artistic Freedom By Mike Alewitz
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Tue Mar 14 14:04:37 MST 2006
Cartoons, Caricatures and the
Myth of Artistic Freedom
By Mike Alewitz
Most working people understand the inherent power of the cartoon it's one
of the ways we can directly respond to injustice and exploitation at the
workplace. Just fill in the balloon coming out of the boss' 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 is rotten in the state of Denmark."William Shakespeare,
(HamletI, iv, 90)
Western commentators were downright indignant at the angry response to the
anti-Islam cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. For
its part, the paper invoked the mantle of freedom of the pressother
European publications quickly proffered their solidarity by also printing
All the sanctimonious talk of democratic rights is somewhat difficult to
swallow. Racism and xenophobia are nothing new to Jyllands-Postenthe
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 "foreigners" until age 24. There is a growing ultra-rightist movement
led by the Danish People's 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 it's 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 Woolworth's 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
The mass mobilizations are part of a global struggle for human rights. Some
of the largest demonstrations have occurred in Iran and Syriacountries that
face the imminent threat of economic sanctions or U.S. 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 the opposition to the U.S. occupation
of Iraqa perspective shared by the great majority of the world's
population, including the American people. Antiwar sentiment in the U.S. 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 percent of U.S. troops believed that the occupation should continue.
72 per cent said that the U.S. should either pull out immediately or
withdraw within 12 months.
The arrogant policies of the U.S. government continue to unite the world's
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: U.S. Out of Iraq.
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 servitudedenied 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 don't worry it will all be forgotten later on.
Along with the politicians, key religious leaders in the U.S. have fueled
the international anti-Muslim campaign. Reverend Franklin Grahamheir to the
mantle of Billy Graham and spiritual advisor to President Bush -- publicly
asserted, "The 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." 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.
turned a blind eye to the formation of Al Qaeda and similar groups in the
By engaging in consistent attacks on secular, progressive movements and
trade unions, the U.S. 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
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
formsbut you don't have to travel halfway around the globe to find a much
greater threat to the Jewish people.
The U.S. has a real, if quiescent, history of anti-Semitism. After all,
the fortunes of such leading families as the Bushes and Kennedy's 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 mediaimages 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.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the current controversy is the
counter- posing of western democracy to a conservative and religious
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 U.S.
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.
"Liberty" is an empty phrase in the mouths of those who have promoted the
use of torture at the Abu Ghraib and Guantanimo prisons. "Freedom" 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 U.S. 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 "radical" 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 don't 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 qualificationthere is nothing to
fear from images or words.
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 expressionin whatever form it
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 LaBOR aRT & MuRAL PRoJECT
Reply to alewitzm at ccsu.edu
LaBOR aRT & MuRAL PRoJECT c/o Department of Art Central Connecticut State
University 1615 Stanley Street New Britain, Connecticut 06050
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