On Charlie Hebdo and the function of art

In the wake of Wednesday’s attack on the office of Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, people appear to be clamouring, seemingly above all else, for an artistic response to the events. Beyond the rolling news, the newspaper front pages, the opinion pieces, it is art that people are turning to, talking about and sharing with one another. On social media and elsewhere there has been a proliferation of artworks – professional and amateur – taking these events as inspiration and as subject matter.

Obviously, due to the circumstances, political/satirical cartoonists in particular feel compelled to react, and already there has been an abundance of artistic efforts to capture the essence of the event, with each one competing to be more poignant, more pertinent, more meme-worthy than the last. The danger here, in giving primacy to artistic responses, is that it is liable to simplify, removing all nuance from its interpretation of reality. This arises from the problematic relationship between the aesthetic qualities of the art work and its semantic content, a tension that lies at the core of all works of art.

The events of yesterday will become many things to many people: for the mainstream press, an apparent attack on free speech; for the dogwhistle racists, supposed evidence of the growing threat the Other poses to Western civilisation; for the outright racists for whom dogwhistling is no longer necessary, fearless and with growing confidence in the fertile ground for the far right that is European liberal democracy, this is an ardent call to arms; for the millions who happen to share a religion or ethnicity (or who are perceived to do so) with the perpetrators of these attacks in France and elsewhere, a sign that their safety, their freedom, more than anyone else’s, will be markedly more at risk than before this happened. The reactions are multifarious, confused, and inarticulate, fermenting a complex situation to which there is not one unified outcome or immediately apparent solution. Yet the majority of the artistic responses thus far override all of these reactions, drawing upon all of them but satiating none of them; articulating for the world what happened, why it happened and what it means with a few mere strokes of a pencil. Through misguidedly attempting to ‘speak’ about this event and articulating its impact on everybody’s behalf, art can only homogenise and simplify any possible response.


Thus in drawing equivalences to the September 11 attacks, for example (above), all nuance and sensitivity is removed from the circumstances in the quest for the spectacular – an instantly recognisable image the effectiveness of its aesthetic composition is immediate and obvious, the signification of its meaning is vague and obscured. None of this matters to the artist, who has prioritised aesthetic sensation over any meaning (i.e. semantic content) contained therein. Who needs subtlety when you can produce something visually striking instead? Who needs introspection, articulation and self-expression when you can retweet? The problem, also epitomised by the “je suis Charlie” slogan, is that:

the flood of hashtags and avatars and social-media posturing proclaiming #JeSuisCharlie overwhelms distinctions and elides the point. “We must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day,” the New Yorker pontificates. What the hell does that mean? In real life, solidarity takes many forms, almost all of them hard. This kind of low-cost, risk-free, E-Z solidarity is only possible in a social-media age, where you can strike a pose and somebody sees it on their timeline for 15 seconds and then they move on and it’s forgotten except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave you. Solidarity is hard because it isn’t about imaginary identifications, it’s about struggling across the canyon of not being someone else: it’s about recognizing, for instance, that somebody died because they were different from you, in what they did or believed or were or wore, not because they were the same. If people who are feeling concrete loss or abstract shock or indignation take comfort in proclaiming a oneness that seems to fill the void, then it serves an emotional end. But these Cartesian credos on Facebook and Twitter — I am Charlie, therefore I am — shouldn’t be mistaken for political acts.[1]

Thus the prime message these works convey is ‘don’t think, just act’, perhaps the defining mantra of modern capitalism. The art here, in expressing on our behalf, performs our engagement for us, meaning we apparently only need artistic expression and performative gestures to give the illusion of being politically engaged when in fact we are not. A major political event is therefore depoliticised, and in the absence of politics only hegemonic ideology remains. As Sam Kriss writes, ‘How do you exercise free speech? You don’t do anything. You hoist up your Je suis Charlie placard, you queue in the cold to see a stupid and ugly Seth Rogen film, because this is your duty to the ideal of liberty and free expression. Freedom means obedience.’[2]

As another example, take the image at the top of this article, created by Lucille Clerc but attributed (as was comically predictable) to Banksy, that great sage of so-called political art. People are particularly enamoured with this work today, but why? What is it actually saying? Should we feel solace in viewing the image? Comfort? Inspiration? The problem with art like this is that it has no inherent meaning yet still functions as if it does, and this falsehood is reciprocated in the observer. This cartoon is particularly ubiquitous on social media right now, yet there is no engagement with its facile ‘message’. All of these cartoons are at pains to say something, mean something, to articulate that which lies beyond them. In this effort the art itself, its aesthetic content, is relegated to decoration: a facade that conveys the work’s ‘message’ while obscuring the fact that the work is actually meaningless – any content is merely signifying a myth, a semantic web that never resolves, a fiction that belies the reality that the artwork is unable to contain.

We have seen in the utilisation of the cartoons the pursuit of an omniscient image: an icon to express something beyond the confusion, an ‘answer’ to all the socio-political problems that such an event shines a light on where none can be found. In our desperation to understand such complex events, we have become reliant on art to articulate their meaning for us. Through false assumptions about art’s purpose, and through overstating art’s ability to convey meaningful content while undervaluing its aesthetic power, we are preventing this meaning from ever being found.

[1] http://paper-bird.net/2015/01/09/why-i-am-not-charlie/

[2] http://samkriss.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/trifles-for-a-massacre/

Further reading

‘Charlie Hebdo and the hypocrisy of pencils’

‘On Charlie Hebdo’

‘The bitter fruits of racism and imperialism’

‘Trifles for a massacre’

‘Why I am not Charlie’