On January 7, 2015, two gunmen entered the Paris office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed twelve members of the staff. Further attacks on police and civilians ensued. Quickly branded in the US as France’s equivalent to 9/11, the incident incited debate over a wide range of issues: religious extremism, cultural conflict, political policies fostering either assimilation and/or alienation, and much more. Two people associated with our BYU Humanities Center have written thoughtful responses to this turn of events, exploring different aspects of the freedom of expression. Last week, Phoebe Cook, our intern, wrote on the balance between free speech and respect for what others hold sacred. This week, Kerry Soper, one of our faculty fellows writes on the place of media (old and new) in public discourse. – Matthew Wickman
One of the most vivid images from the days following the Charlie Hebdo tragedy was the shot of a slain cartoonist’s coffin covered with cartoons drawn by family and friends. This struck me first of all as a fitting tribute to this particular artist—Bernard (Tignous) Verlhac—a man who consistently used his talent to advocate for peace and progressive politics around the globe. Like the iconic image of a cartoonist’s pen confronting the tip of an automatic rifle, his coffin effectively symbolized the power of individual creativity and satire in the face of terrorism and tyranny.
At the same time, nevertheless, those images made me think about the complicated power, and always-shifting cultural status, of caricatures and cartoon art. In earlier centuries opinion was sharply divided over this art form’s cultural worth. On the one hand, there were the highbrow critics who saw the genre as a degraded form of artistic expression; according to their view, the caricaturist told lies through distortion and exaggeration, and, like a parasite, often preyed upon more powerful and important cultural figures. On the other hand, there were advocates who celebrated satiric cartoonists as trenchant truth-tellers who used “truthful misrepresentation” to mock powerful (and often corrupt) political figures and cultural celebrities. The low-brow status and easy reproducibility of static, black and white cartoons made them an effective vehicle in democratic societies for championing the underdog and taking down otherwise unassailable cultural Goliaths.
In the last half century the art form’s cultural importance has been in sharp decline. The principal carriers of satiric cartoons—newspapers and magazines—are in financial collapse; more dynamic mediums such as animation and video gaming art seem to dominate the digital age; and editors across the country are choosing to fire political cartoonists rather than deal with the hassle of complaints about satire from easily offended (or readily confused) readers.
Satiric cartoonists have fared better in European countries like France—cultures where public intellectuals and artists have more clout and the craft of cartooning is held in greater respect. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, nevertheless, were not especially famous or culturally important before these attacks. The magazine was considered low brow even by French standards, and its circulation of approximately 60,000 ranked it well below the status of a mainstream publication. Moreover, many educated readers found its satire to be unhelpfully polemical and juvenile: too much scatological humor; too many cover page cartoons that mocked sacred symbols from various religious traditions; and too many irreverent caricatures of both individuals and groups that carelessly tapped into the complicated racial and cultural divides of postcolonial Europe.
As a student of this medium, my own feelings about the praise and attention now being directed at the magazine, its cartoonists, and perhaps the art form itself (by extension), are mixed. On the one hand, I worry about a lot of the complexities that get lost behind the “Je Suis Charlie” rallying cry. (Do cheeky caricatures of sacred religious symbols effectively promote a secularist division of church and state, and challenge dangerous forms of orthodoxy and fanaticism? Or can they simply deepen existing cultural divides and accidentally achieve their opposite objectives: potentially radicalizing disenfranchised Muslim youth or adding fuel to racial and religious fires created by right wing nationalists? The fact that satire is so easily misunderstood—or misused when taken out of its framing context—underscores the danger of this second possibility.)
On the other hand, in an age dominated by hyperreal entertainment, CGI-generated filmic spectacles, committee-produced entertainment, and frenetic advertising imagery, it seems worthwhile to celebrate the power of such a simple art form. In contrast to most of the slick imagery that bombards us these days, the static, black and white scrawls created by satiric cartoonists are refreshingly distilled and direct. Created by a single hand, and relatively unmediated, they can still challenge the trumped up claims of deceptive advertising and corrupt corporate or political propaganda. Given that potential—and making allowances for the blindspots and overzealous missteps of the Charlie Hebdo staff—one is ultimately compelled to join the chorus of “I am Charlie” and hope that this art form maintains some of its newly rediscovered cultural power.
 Bevis Hillier, Cartoons and Caricatures (London: Studio Vista, 1970): 7.
 William Murrel, A History of Ameican Graphic Humor, (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1967): 5.