Wednesday's murderous attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is a reminder not only of the horrors of tribalist political violence but also the enduring power of images to both inspire and offend. In his thoughtful 2013 book The Art of Controversy, Victor Navasky convincingly argued that political cartoons are a uniquely potent art form because images impact the human mind more quickly than almost any other form of communication.
Images travel at the speed of light, words travel at the speed of sound. As the literary critic Hugh Kenner used to say, to read is to riddle. As you read these sentences, you are taking time to riddle them out, to figure out what I'm saying, a process of decoding that takes time to unfold as your eyes move across the page. But if you flip over to the editorial cartoons in this paper, you'll get the gist almost immediately. If you appreciate fine art, you could, if you choose, spend some time on the drawing, considering the craft behind it and the subtleties the artist put in. But such a deeper reading is optional; the quick view gives you the essence of the cartoon.
Cartooning has further power because it's in a language few of us speak. Almost all of us use words, but few draw. If I called you a "dolt" you'd have words to answer me. But if a talented cartoonist drew a picture showing you to be a gibbering idiot, it's unlikely you could answer in kind with a comparable image. In effect, the cartoonist has a voodoo magic to turn us into pincushion dolls, to be harmed without the power of fighting back.
But aside from the larger power of cartooning, there is a specific French tradition of shocking and scurrilous visual mockery.
Even before the French Revolution, underground prints circulated showing the clergy and nobility performing all sorts of demeaning actions. Pornographic images of Marie Antoinette were particularly popular. The subversive impact of cartoons was a major concern for the authorities. In 1829, the French interior minister François Régis de la Bourdonnaye, comte de la Bretèche, complained, "Engravings or lithographs act immediately upon the imagination of the people, like a book which is read with the speed of light; if it wounds modesty or public decency the damage is rapid and irremediable." The following year, the French government outlawed attacks on "the royal authority" or "inviolability" of the King's person.
In 1832, this law was used to arrest the cartoonist Charles Philipon, who drew a cartoon (now legendary) showing the King's jowly face metamorphosing into a pear ("la poire" is French slang for "fathead"). Facing the court, Philipon asked, "Can I help it if His Majesty's face is like a pear?"
The same year as the trial, Philipon's friend Honoré Daumier, France's greatest cartoonist, drew an image of the King as a Rabelaisian giant, sitting on a toilet and eating the food of the poor as he excretes wealth for the nobility. Daumier was jailed for that cartoon, and an 1835 law specifically targeting caricature was introduced, on the grounds that "whereas a pamphlet is no more than a violation of opinion, a caricature amounts to an act of violence." The law remained in place for decades, leading to at least 15 prosecutions for the crime of cartooning.
There is a strand of French cartoons so over the top they have no North American counterpart, aside from the underground cartoons of Robert Crumb (who now lives in France, not surprisingly).
Part of what's going on here is the clash of two ancient traditions – a subset of fundamentalist Islam with its long-standing iconophobia in battle with France with its long-standing tradition of aggressive cartooning. The power of images is at the heart of this story, yet many newspapers and magazines will be afraid to reprint those very images.
When the violence over the Danish Mohammed cartoons erupted in 2005, many newspapers decided that it was sufficient to merely describe the cartoons and not necessary to reprint them. The New York Times rationalized this position by saying it is "a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words." But this position is based on the idea that words and images are interchangeable. Yet we have every reason to believe that images are not just a proxy for words, but have their own unique potency.