- Art Spiegelman
renowned American cartoonist, editor and comics advocate best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus. He was co-editor of the comics magazines Arcade and Raw as well as a contributing artist for The New Yorker. In 2006, he wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine titled “Drawing Blood: Outrageous Cartoons and the Art of Courage.”
Art Spiegelman is renowned American cartoonist, editor and comics advocate. In 1992 he won a Pulitzer Prize for “Maus,” considered one of the most important graphic novels ever published and one of the most influential works on the Nazi Holocaust. Spiegelman also founded the comics magazine RAW. In 2005, he was named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine. After today’s broadcast on the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, we continued our discussion with Spiegelman about his life’s work and the power of cartoons. Watch the first part of this interview, Comics Legend Art Spiegelman & Scholar Tariq Ramadan on Charlie Hebdo & the Power Dynamic of Satire.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re joined now by Art Spiegelman, the renowned American cartoonist, editor and comics advocate. In 1992, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, considered one of the most important graphic novels ever published and one of the most influential works on the Holocaust. Spiegelman also founded the comics magazine Raw. In 2005, he was named one of the hundred most influential people by Time magazine.
AMY GOODMAN: We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Art. In part two of our conversation, the power of cartoons, of graphic novels, often in illustration—something you know well—able to express things you can’t in words. Your reaction to what’s taken place in France, and what’s happening with cartoons in the United States? I mean, is there a level of self-censorship in the United States where you wouldn’t—where, for example, after the downing of the World Trade Center, after it was taken down, people were skewered if in any way there was any parody. It was just felt that this horrific moment—yes, and then we had your book, In the Shadow of No Towers.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, cartooning has been very effectively and thoroughly defanged in America. It’s part of the general flow of newsprint and newspapers out of existence, but precedes that, in that the last thing a newspaper wants to do is offend. You might lose an advertiser, you might lose enough readers for it to matter, because there is an economic impulse in all this, as Mr. Ramadan was very clearly pointing out. And the result is, now most political cartoons tend to be, insofar as they exist—I think there are less political cartoonists than there are professional ballplayers in America anymore, because there’s no place for them to function.
But the result has been, over a period of time, that the political cartoon has become a variant of the gag cartoon, The New Yorker one-liner cartoon underneath, in which certain targets are present as tropes, but just to make a kind of amusing gag, certainly not to take a position that could offend, outrage or provoke thought. It’s the opposite. It’s like, “Har, har, isn’t Obama a Spock-like egghead?” or “Isn’t it amusing that Congress cant’ get anything done?” And it stays at the level of amusement without enough charge to unpack it. Like at this point I think that Jon Stewart and, until recently, Colbert have taken up the slack of what political cartooning used to be and should do.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, at its best, what do you think political cartooning should be and do? And how did you get into cartooning yourself?
ART SPIEGELMAN: OK, it should make a mess, by God. The cartoonist’s job is that—it’s why I was at a demonstration last night at Union Square in support of what happened—of Charlie Hebdo, with mostly French Americans, a few hundred of them, shouting. I felt really like in a minority, not because I’m a secular Jew, but because I’m an American in this demonstration that was mostly the French, feeling this very viscerally. And so, among all of the shouts of “Nous sommes Charlie Hebdo! Nous sommes Charlie Hebdo!” I’m there going, “Cartoonists’ lives matter! Cartoonists’ lives matter!” And this had to do specifically with that mandate to say the unsayable. It’s an important thing in order to be able to focus you on what needs to be said, if you want to be talking about the primacy of language, of verbal language.
I got into cartoons by being introduced to Mad comics in Mad magazine at a moment where it imprinted on me very, very deeply—before I could read even. And Mad, I was getting the parody versions of things way before I ever discovered what the original being parodied was. So, I just entered with a rather skewed lens to look at everything. But the main thing that Mad was doing in its earliest years especially was saying, “Look, the adult world is lying to you, and we here at Mad are adults. Don’t trust anything anybody says.” And I think it’s what allowed for an antiwar movement in America. I don’t think it’s just an interesting proximity. I think Mad asks one to analyze what information one gets from the media and respond to it, as opposed to nod to it, that in the ’50s that Norman Rockwell vision of America held primacy, and—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What was that vision?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Oh, you know, Mom’s apple pie and the harmonious small-town life in America and the four freedoms of giving thanks for Thanksgiving and so on. And ultimately, it needed a corrective, so that Mad, for example, had a parody of this in the form of a parody beer advertisement in which the family is sitting around drinking beer in the living room, with the dog drinking beer out of a dish where his water should be, Grandpa, with Junior on his knee, feeding him a big keg of beer, with the goldfish bowl filled with beer. Basically, the way we got through the ’50s was, as you know from Mad Men, if nothing else, was by anesthetizing oneself through as much alcohol as you needed to stay calm.
AMY GOODMAN: From Mad to The New Yorker, talk about the cartoons.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, well, like—
AMY GOODMAN: And what you can do and what you can’t do.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, you know, I found my—I was invited into Mad at—I wish. No, I had been. But let me strike that. I was invited into The New Yorker.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, what happened with Mad?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Oh, well, Mad, I had been invited in, but way after it would be an interesting thing to do. Mad had devolved enough for it not to be that great. And in terms of economic imperatives, I wanted the rights to my work, and so did Mad, so anything they ran became a subset of them. At The New Yorker, I had some more rights with my pictures when I started.
But I was invited in, not knowing that much about The New Yorker, knowing a lot more about Mad. I was asked to do covers under Tina Brown. And very quickly, I found myself channeling the Mad impulses into The New Yorker's impulse. And it's a tradition that Françoise, who’s my wife, who’s the art editor of The New Yorker, has continued, I think with great magisterial presence, including the Obama cartoon that made everybody on our side of the political spectrum so freaked out when it happened—the fist bump cover with Michelle looking like Angela Davis and the Constitution being burned inside a fireplace and the fist bump between them and him wearing a head—
AMY GOODMAN: A turban.
ART SPIEGELMAN: A Muslim turban. And I think that cartoon was so important. That’s—maybe we should focus there, because it grew out of the DNA of the kind of cartoons I was doing at The New Yorker, my first cover being the Hasidic kiss of a Jew and a black—a Hasidic Jew and a black woman kissing right in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots.
AMY GOODMAN: Extremely controversial.
ART SPIEGELMAN: At that time, it was as controversial as something could be without Twitter, you know, like it really traveled the planet. Now, with the Obama fist bump in the age of the Internet, that went viral in eight seconds and got an incredible amount of indignation.
But my take on what happened with that Obama fist bump cover was it was essential. It helped Obama get elected, damn it, in that all that was going around all the media, not just Fox, but all the media, was madrassa schooling, this man is an other, its most caricatured—speaking of caricatured—forms was in deciding he wasn’t an American, you know? But this was actually in the air, and nobody on the left was willing to say, “You know, the dude’s black, man, at least partially black. He’s considered black. He grew up with that feeling of otherness that comes with blackness.” It wasn’t allowed to be said, you know, because if you did, you’d be undermining his credibility from his white mom.
And all of this, the intensity of that drawing, of—this is everything that has been libelously applied to Obama in one drawing. And when you look at it head-on, it’s absurd, and it’s, “Wait, wait, none of that’s true,” you know? And if anything, I was more radical than what was allowed to happen on the cover when I was asked for my advice about the cover, because I did feel like at least an honorary godfather to that image by Barry Blitt, was, “Well, you know, what is missing is we have to have a Hitler collector’s plate on the tabletop,” you know? This was before the mustached Hitler was—mustache was on posters of Obama, rather absurdly. So, at that time, it was the one that wasn’t on the checklist. He wasn’t accused of being a Nazi. And putting that in there would have taken it over the top in a way that was amusing, but it also was a way that the editors were uncomfortable with, and that certainly wasn’t going to be part of the picture. But when it was in a rough sketch version of the picture, people laughed. When it was taken out, people were just going through the checklist, saying, “Oh, yes, madrassa schooling. Oh, yes, black African-American nationalist,” and that whole checklist.
AMY GOODMAN: And who was angriest about it?
ART SPIEGELMAN: The left.
AMY GOODMAN: What sectors of society?
ART SPIEGELMAN: The Huffington Post comment board, the liberal Americans who thought this was an outrage. And they, of course, were sophisticated enough to actually understand the cartoon. But what a horrible thing to put out for the Fox News-Rush Limbaugh dittoheads. And—
AMY GOODMAN: And you thought it was important because?
ART SPIEGELMAN: I thought it was important because one can look at the aftermath. There were no right-wing T-shirts reprinting The New Yorker cover. It was too overtly and obviously stupid. By visualizing the stupidity in that particular cover, one called it out, and therefore made it less toxic. It was like, “But of course he’s an American. Of course he wouldn’t burn the Constitution,” was the response. And the liberal-left caricature of the flyover country of America was “They can’t understand this. They’re yahoos. They’re dopes.” And that didn’t give people the credit to be able to understand an image. And we do understand images, more than we’d like to confess.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve also had the experience, though, of having some of your cartoons turned down, for reasons of controversy.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Absolutely, yeah, like—well, one of the ways that censorship works in America is, A, there’s the economic censorship that I was describing before of newspapers aren’t going to want controversy, thank you, even though Thomas Nast did a good job of stirring things up, and we pay lip service to him with his Tweed Ring cartoon in history books. But one doesn’t point to his anti-Catholic cartoons that were also part of his mix at the time and were quite virulent. But the economic imperative is one thing, and the imperative of “We must be mature adults, and therefore we have the right to do it, but we mustn’t do it” is a dangerous one. It’s important. I believe that the best response to stupid speech is more speech until you find your way through this, hopefully without machine guns entering the picture, but until you actually sift it enough to understand what the picture is unearthed, because we’re dealing with things that are deep in our brain.
If I can take a slight parenthesis here, cartoons use a kind of symbolic language. If you don’t understand the symbol, you don’t understand what you’re looking at. So you have to come with it with your lizard brain intact. All of those things that you’re not supposed to say are in there, or you wouldn’t understand them. The best example of that was, going back to the Hasidic cartoon that I was mentioning, the Hasidic kiss, a fantastic letter came into the magazine of a woman saying she thought it was really sweet that on Lincoln’s birthday, because that was when it was appearing, around that time of year, there was a sweet picture of Lincoln kissing a slave. So, she was living somewhere outside the Hasidic zone of America, didn’t have a clue as to what this image was actually referring to, even though that image of the Hasid made him look like a refugee from a Chagall painting, not like the Der Stürmer Nazi-era caricature of the Jew.
But that picture had enough different ways of being looked at and understood that it really was functioning as a Rorschach test, which is how cartoons have to function. Here, as soon as the Rorschach test brings any kind of danger zone, it’s suppressed. And it’s often suppressed by the cartoonists themselves, I think. Looking over Françoise’s shoulder at what comes into The New Yorker, what she begs for artists to do is: “Don’t censor yourself. Let me do it.” And the result was a lot of much more provocative and interesting images come through that particular philosophy than the one of training the cartoonist to suppress the thoughts that are unsayable.
AMY GOODMAN: In part one, we talked about your graphic novel, Maus. Talk about In the Shadow of No Towers.
ART SPIEGELMAN: OK. September 11th, Françoise and I are going out to vote in a Democratic primary. We see a plane going up into the towers right as we’re walking out the door of our Lower Manhattan building. And as a result, September 11th just lasted for me for about two years, you know, like September 12th came a lot later. And the result was, I couldn’t get off it. It led to a cover that Françoise and I made together of the black-on-black towers. That was a very important cover for the magazine and for a lot of people who saw it, because at first you just see a blank black cover, and when the light hits it, literally, when you look at it in a different light, you see the shadow, the phantom limb of the towers that had just been brought down—towers I never admired while they were up, but I—as I said, I’m not that fond of my nose, but I don’t want anybody putting a fist into it, you know?
So, there were the towers going down, and as a result, I was stuck with that as a subject. And in The New Yorker, an entire issue was devoted to the 9/11, came out a few days after the event with that black-on-black cover. And then, afterwards, the ramifications and aftermath were dealt with in the magazine, but it couldn’t allow for the room for what I needed to do, which was relive my September 11th in a way that would make some sense of it. And what I was starting when I first was working on those pages were just trying to understand my moments in Lower Manhattan and how they differed from the media stuff that I began to be inundated by as soon as I reported back to my computer and television set, after the morning of getting our daughter out of Stuyvesant and outrunning the ash that was following us as we went back uptown. It was almost immediately supplanted by the media reality.
And very soon after, as soon as the first rains fell, we were at war with what? Iraq? That was insane. And to say that’s insane was not permissible at the time, because it would be seen as unpatriotic. So I was stuck wanting to do this and knowing I couldn’t pass the editorial sophistication test of The New Yorker. And there was no reason for The New Yorker to give me an ongoing weekly forum, although that’s what I needed. And a friend who’s at that—
AMY GOODMAN: Say again what happened after September 11th with The New Yorker.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, the September 11th issue happened. Fortunately, a couple weeks later, there was a map of New York divided up into hilarious alien-sounding names like—I don’t remember the image in front of me right—don’t have it in front of me right now, but Rego Parkistan or something, you know, like turning us into a map of the fraught world that most Americans had no clue of and imposing it on New York. That allowed America to laugh and move on.
But that moving on involved a lot of things that mustn’t be said. And it had to do with, not just at The New Yorker, all over the media, a fear of being perceived as unpatriotic when everybody was rallying under the flag. And I couldn’t rally under this flag. The more I saw what had been done to what seemed like a very personal attack to me, because my neighborhood was the one affected, had me stuck with this is something I needed to work through, and instead the whole damn thing had just been turned into a war-recruiting poster, and not even, if there is such a thing as a right war, the right war. And that seemed clear to me immediately. And so, although I had—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You felt that way about the war in Afghanistan?
ART SPIEGELMAN: No, I felt—that came way later. We were at war with Iraq.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: First it was Afghanistan, and then it was Iraq.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, but the Afghanistan War was not where, like, the energy and focus went. It was specifically on fixing Iraq. And there was a kind of lack of commitment to the Afghanistan front of that war, that even allowed bin Laden to wander through the mountains unimpeded. But to just focus on the part that was important to me was, it had been turned into a war-recruiting poster. This was not an occasion to bring the world together as a civilization policeman trying to bring criminals to justice. It was—it became a war on Islam, which is something that came about clearly in the conversation that you had on your show.
AMY GOODMAN: I think about what Susan Sontag said, right, September 24th in The New Yorker, 2001, which was what? Like less than two weeks after the attacks, and how she was skewered when she asked, “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”
ART SPIEGELMAN: Absolutely. And when she said it, because she was in Europe at the time, she had forgotten the frame of American discourse and how unsayable that was, probably. It was harder to say it when you were inside a “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” moment.
And it left me feeling kind of homeless, so I ended up having to focus on trying to deal with what became an ongoing political commentary in my sketchbook. And I was offered a no-editor clause from my friend Michael Naumann, who had Die Zeit in Germany. I could have a full broadsheet page any time I wanted it. And I was just working out these series of In the Shadow of No Towers pages, with a no-editors clause, to be able to just go where I needed to go, and soon found myself with a coalition of the willing of a weekly magazine in France, a magazine in Italy, in I think Argentina. The only place willing to publish me in America, the only place for that material, was The Forward, who politically I often didn’t agree with, but I got the right of return, because “You’re Jewish. Whatever you want, we’ll give you the back page.” And so, I was appearing there with these pages, as well. And while they were appearing, they were really saying stuff that just wasn’t visible in most of the media.
It changed around 2004, which is when I thought, “Oh, well, maybe this can be gathered together at least in some weird form of a book, even though there weren’t many pages in it.” But up until that point, there was a blanket of fear. And that blanket of fear is the fear that we can call self-censorship. It’s effective in all of the media at this point. When I was even talking here, I was realizing, “Oh, if we talk about this, I’m going to have to not say that word, because that will get the FCC on your case, or this or that,” that we’re trained to figure out what is polite political discourse. And the reason I admired, and do admire, Charlie Hebdo is it didn’t take to the training well.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s so interesting you talk about publishing this in 2004, when it was a bit safer to do this. You’re talking about three years after 2001. And when you can’t have that kind of criticism, what happened in that three-year period: the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Mm-hmm, absolutely. It was turned into a war-recruiting poster 10 seconds after it happened. And I have friends who believe, you know, 9/11 was a Reichstag fire, you know, like that this was just a planned event. I’m willing to be slightly more “sane,” in quotes, and think, “Oh, no, this was instrumentalized 10 seconds after it happened,” but I don’t necessarily believe that the American government bombed the World Trade Center. There are truthers who do. But I figured, in that direction lies madness; we just have to look at the results. And the result was, this event was immediately turned into something that didn’t involve dealing with the core issues that had given rise to it, that included—who was it that was bringing up the Saudis? Was that Mr.—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Gilbert Achcar.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, I mean, his right to bring it up. You know, like 10 minutes after the event, all planes are downed except all of a sudden bin Laden’s—
AMY GOODMAN: In the United States.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, and bin Laden’s family is being air-escorted back home, where it will be safer for them. This doesn’t make any sense when you look at it. And it wasn’t something that was made into the—put into the front pages of the newspapers to deal with our complicity with the Saudi regime. It wasn’t part of the agenda for dealing with Iraq, for whole other sets of issues.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go forward to 2006. The Canadian chain of booksellers, Indigo, refuses to sell the issue of Harper’s with your article on the Danish cartoons.
ART SPIEGELMAN: I was being given, for once in my life, really good editing by the person that brought me into that Harper’s Magazine issue, because I was being asked if I would do some kind of comic story for them. I said, “I can’t. I’m behind on all my deadlines, because I’ve fallen down the Danish cartoon rabbit hole.” Nothing about this is really available in the media; it’s only on the web somewhere. So if you would start using whatever it was—Google Translate or Babel Fish, whatever I was using as my translation device—I was able to get the Danish blogs and news about what these things were, and you could see the cartoons on the Internet, but nowhere in print, except from a couple of right-wing magazines that were interested in fanning the flames of Muslim otherness, you know. And so, I was so obsessed with trying to find out more about these cartoons that I couldn’t even focus on the work I already had on my plate. The editor at the time, Roger Hodge, was saying, “Why don’t you do something about the Danish cartoons for us?” And that at least gave reason for what looked like procrastinating to me, for days and days on end of just diving into the madness of the Internet to find out what had gone down.
And I found that these cartoons that The New York Times was saying, “There’s no reason to show them; they’re just silly cartoons, you know,” and when you looked at the actual cartoons that were done, some of them were exactly what they looked like—Islamophobic cartoons. Some of them were about being afraid to make cartoons of any kind because of the situation, so about the self-censorship. And some of them were just taking this right-wing newspaper to task for needless provocation, and therefore were making fun of the editors of the magazine rather than the “Muhammad,” in quotes, and were saying, “Here’s Muhammad. He’s a student at this particular school in a banlieue of Copenhagen,” and it was a cartoon about him, not about the Prophet Muhammad, but just to point out that this was really all about, the phrase that came up before, afflicting the afflicted, you know? So the range of cartoons was more interesting than the quality of the draftsmanship or the acuity of most of the cartoons.
So what I did in Harper’s, with the magazine’s encouragement, was showed the cartoons, at a time where it still felt somewhat dangerous to do it—I actually had to gulp and go, “OK, we’ll do this”—but showing them and giving them a rating of between one and, I think, five fatwa bombs, based not on their insult and provocation, but on their clarity. Some of the cartoons were making no point that one could discern through analysis; they were just bad cartoons. And so, that got from a cartoonist five fatwa bombs, because it’s not clear, it’s not coherent. And the nature of doing it that way, like keeping the various levels of insult intact while showing the cartoons and showing what each one was, I think, clarified the actual underlying situations.
And then, tying that back into previous cartoon controversies, going back to Louis Philippe and Daumier, and taking it on through, allowed me to point out that one of the cartoons I admire most in the history of cartoons is Art Young, a great socialist cartoonist from the days of The Masses magazine back at the turn of the century, when there was a socialist left that wasn’t dogmatically communist like The New Masses became after The Masses was stopped. But The Masses was stopped because of its antiwar cartoons during World War I saying that this is a capitalist war, it doesn’t have anything to do with anything else, there’s no reason for us to be in it. The result was that the editors, including Max Eastman, and this wonderful cartoonist, Art Young, were put on trial for sedition. And as I think it was Eastman that pointed out—John Reed didn’t even show up at the trial; he was busy in Russia. But the point being made by Eastman was, if we hadn’t been good Christian Americans from monied families, we would have been executed like Sacco and Vanzetti ended up being, right? you know, that this was not sayable at the time. The result was that Art Young was on trial for his life in American courts for his antiwar cartoons. And he has a great cartoon in his autobiography of him dozing off in the witness stand, and it just says, “Art Young on trial for his life.”
AMY GOODMAN: And you have people like Emma Goldman who was being deported.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Absolutely. You know, this was not like a country that has been consistently championing free speech at all, you know? And when we talk about free speech, I actually put a lot of what’s been going down now with—
AMY GOODMAN: Snowden.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ed Snowden.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Hmm?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Edward Snowden.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Snowden, yeah, of course, sorry. You know, that the Snowden issue really is a free speech issue, ultimately, like this was useful speech, if anything. And now here he’s being basically under American fatwa. And that, to me, is not disconnected in terms of where we draw these nice mature lines of what can be said, what can’t be said. I think we’ve drawn them in a place where we’re not leaving people free to make the lines that can make a difference, which are drawn ones.
AMY GOODMAN: But what about this issue of afflicting the afflicted and how often cartoons are used to keep people down, whether we’re talking about the caricatures of African Americans or black Americans during the times of lynching or Jews made out to look like shysters, or, of course, Muslims in what so infuriates—
ART SPIEGELMAN: It was a—yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —-them in cartoons with—-you know, with Muhammad with a bomb as his turban, what keeps people down?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, and that’s, unfortunately, a visualization of where the power structures and media are. It’s something that, in his own maybe wrong-headed, to me, way, your first guest, Mr. Ramadan, was trying to—
AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ramadan, one of the leading Islamic scholars in the world.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, but him trying to draw the lines there about how this was done for economic gain, I don’t think that’s true of Charlie Hebdo, but I will say that economic gain and the realpolitik forces behind it do lead to the anti-black cartoons that were predominant in American media for a century or more. And the anti-Semitic cartoons that allowed for the mass deaths in Germany were preceded by the dehumanizing of whole groups through caricature. It’s why it’s important to keep the dialogue so open, and that involves leaving it open for Jews to make their own cartoons, for blacks to make their own cartoons, for people who don’t have the same monolithic point of view as the rest of the culture—
AMY GOODMAN: Right, but so often—
ART SPIEGELMAN: —to engage.
AMY GOODMAN: But they so often don’t have that mass—
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, but—
AMY GOODMAN: —platform to release their caricatures.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, exactly, and that’s—the problem lies there, not in the anti-Semitic or the black caricatures, but the impossibility of people in certain class and societal situations to not be able to make themselves felt. So let’s focus on that problem rather than on the insult that comes with the rest of it, because maybe I’m just a cockeyed optimist, but I believe that if you get enough thought out there, eventually it actually does sift into what makes more sense. And to have that happen involves saying some things that don’t make sense. And the things that don’t make sense that are built on these unpleasant race caricatures only work because we recognize them. They’re not built, in that sense, like—wait, I have three places I can go at the same time here, but—
AMY GOODMAN: Take your time. You can travel all three roads.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Phew! I mean, I would say that it’s really urgent to allow all of these deviant thoughts to happen, because they’re in there somewhere, and it’s important to lance these boils. It allows for some nastiness along the way, like I’ve inherited a lot of anti-Semitic caricature in my own sense of self, like I don’t identify with the Aryan superman, but with the Jewish superman, who’s circumcised and came from another planet called Krypton. And I don’t know. To me, it seems that it’s important to allow that spectrum, if you’re going to even mouth the words “free speech.” And, of course, like freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one, which Rupert Murdoch has proved over and over for us in the recent past, but that’s where the problem lies, not with the underlying thoughts. And that lizard brain image has to be poked at.
Like one of the places I was going to go that’s going to be an odd parenthesis has to do with what happened recently with Bill Cosby that I heard being discussed a minute ago. Do you remember back when Obama’s election was being attributed to something called the “Cosby effect”? It was over and over and over again being presented in the press, that, oh, most people don’t know anybody black intimately, but they know Bill Cosby, and he’s trustworthy. Now, these rumors about Cosby have been present for years and years and years without making it into the mainstream media. Why is it happening now? Is it because Bill Cosby is a bigger rat now than he was in 2009 or whenever? No, it’s happening because the Cosby effect is not a deep enough effect to make things really work. And now, I think that basically Cosby is suffering from the Obama effect. He’s being outed because at this point Obama is not seen as the great white hope, if you’ll pardon an unfortunate metaphor that came from my lizard brain, but he’s instead vulnerable and seen as having an untrustworthy core, both by the left and the right. And that allows for Obama to be suffering from the new Cosby effect. There is an unconscious link that’s still allowed to be made because of the horrors of that mask, the race caricature. So, I’m not saying these things are benign. It takes a lot of intelligence to use them well. But our obligation to use them well is one that I think civilization is well served by.
If I can bring up another New Yorker cartoon that became very controversial, that also touches on our current mayor’s problems with the police, at a certain moment I did a cover right in the wake of the Amadou Diallo killing, the guy who was reaching for his wallet and his ID, and was shot as if he was reaching for a gun 41 times by the cops that were surrounding him in this project—horrifying story, that was mostly, after the first minute of the news cycle, only horrifying to the black community. It was just forgotten. It was being muttered about. I, in the wake of that, ended up doing a cover. The cover I did, drawn very, very quickly, was evoking the nice picture of the beat cop from old Archie comics and things like that. And he’s in Coney Island looking apple-cheeked and like having fun, and he’s at a shooting gallery, and he’s shooting at silhouettes with targets on them of people walking by with cellphones, with backward baseball hats that were popular at that moment, underneath an arcade sign that says, “41 shots, 10 cents.” Now, this was using the cartoon of the friendly beat cop as somehow acting in a way that seemed not so friendly, and there was something in the cartoon that was very effective, which is those silhouettes of the little figures with the targets on them are silhouettes, meaning they’re black, but they’re black in a way that doesn’t associate with negritude, it associates with a silhouette. It’s all citizens are potential targets of the police, and widened the conversation in ways that weren’t the first thing you noticed in the cartoon, but you feel the impact. That’s why you need those thousand words around it to know what’s happening.
And interestingly enough, at that point, when Sharpton, who’s a problematic figure, was like one of the few people at least talking about the Amadou Diallo shooting as something that needed attention, right after that is when Susan Sarandon and others were showing up and getting “radical chic” arrested down at City Hall. And I believe that my cartoon had something to do with that. I’m sure of it, because pirated badges of the cartoon were being sold down by City Hall as things people could proudly wear, the “41 shots, 10 cents” moment. So the cartoon really engaged with that issue in a deeper way than could happen from either the shrill polemics of a Sharpton or from the gentility that allowed us to just pass over this and move on as it was an unfortunate event, as opposed to a symptom of just how severe the clash is between law enforcement and the black community.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to ask you, as well, Art, about the position from which you draw, as it were. You’ve described your relationship to Judaism by saying that you’re aligned with the, quote, “alienated diaspora culture of Freud and Kafka,” that you feel a kind of a rootless cosmopolitanism, which is of course a term of derision that was deployed by Stalin. So could you explain what that means and what this sense of—because you’ve mentioned it a couple of times here, as well—of being on the outside, a kind of solidarity with the afflicted, how that is perhaps produced by this rootless cosmopolitanism, if that is in fact the case?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, I mean, I think that—I wear the badge proudly. I’d much rather be a rootless cosmopolitan than a Zionist settler, if I have to choose my form of Judaism. And I think that it has to do with the fact that our real situation, even though we pretend otherwise and there’s horrible consequences, including something that came up right before we were talking now, that has to do back with the consequences of these assassinations that just happened in France, which has to do with—the reality is that we’re all Jews now, Jack, whether you like it or not. We’re all outsiders, nobody more than the people in the large ghetto in Israel who aren’t dealing with it well on the Jewish side and the ones who are the afflicted in the Occupied Territories at the moment.
The reality is the planet has become too small, thanks to the—the Internet is great, Allahu Akbar, all praise be the Internet. It really has created that global village that McLuhan was talking about before we all got wired. And the result is, the consequences of what happens in one place are so immediately felt elsewhere, so the only safe place to take a position is in the dangerous space of identifying yourself with all of those who are outside the status quo norm.
The problem, incidentally, that I was just referring to with the French horror show of yesterday is it will have an effect, and certainly not the effect that the French citizen Muslim gunman barbarians want, which is—was shown well in a cartoon that I saw that was published yesterday, which was the only way I was getting my news as I was trying to data-sift and move through my life, which is a picture of the gunman shooting into the offices, and the bullets spraying out the other side of the building and hitting a mosque. Now, that actually was an intelligent cartoon, because the result of all this is to actually solidify the caricature of all Muslims as terrorists. And that caricature is the dangerous one that leads to further outsiderness for an already disenfranchised community. And it’s going to be very hard to not let this become the way the American event became a way to eliminate a lot of American freedoms. I’m going on an airplane tomorrow, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my damn shampoo, you know? And—
AMY GOODMAN: And what this means for France and its politics.
ART SPIEGELMAN: What this means for France and its politics is one that’s going to empower Marine Le Pen. You know, it’s going to help usher in another round of fascism. Wasn’t that great the first time France embraced it fully back during World War II or during the Algerian conflict afterwards, and now, yet again, France is going to plummet, unless enough good cartoons appear to change the discourse, that this is not an appropriate response, any more than our response after 9/11 was an appropriate response to what had happened. These things are horrifying wake-up calls of just how bad things have gotten, and they’re not going to be cured by rallying around the French flag and saying, “These people don’t act like good Frenchmen,” you know? And that’s unfortunately the easiest plummet to predict of what’s coming next.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, it looks like they are Frenchmen. They were born in France.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, they’re born in France, but they’re not Frenchmen any more than a black man in the South in 1900 was an American. You know what I mean? They didn’t have the freedom of movement, the freedom of choice, that America likes to pride itself in offering. And similarly, if you apply for a job with a first name of Mohammed, you’re very unlikely to get it from your résumé. This was proven by just doing it as a test, taking the same résumés and sending them out for jobs in France with a French name and same résumé with an Arab name.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you drawn anything since the attacks yesterday?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Oh, no, I’m amazed that I’m still even functioning. I’m trying to leave town for like two weeks.
AMY GOODMAN: But you mentioned something very important. You said you were getting your news yesterday through cartoons. Now, there was something incredible happening on the Internet yesterday, and that was people responding with cartoons.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yep.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, I mean, the quality of the cartoons wasn’t so bad, what I was seeing, although a lot of them moved toward the polite very quickly. In other words, the symbol for—it was a picture of a pencil or a pen, and it up against a Kalashnikov. OK, it’s fine, but pencils are a lot safer to draw than caricatures of chauvinistic Frenchmen or caricatures of the banlieue population. And so, the immediate place to move there was euphemism rather than the assault that was built into Charlie Hebdo's DNA. It's fine for it to be there, and I saw one that I actually liked a lot, which was attributed, probably wrongly, to Banksy, but it’s a picture of a pencil, it says, “Yesterday.” Then, below that, there’s a picture of a broken pencil with splinters, it says, “Today.” And then there’s a picture that’s labelled “Tomorrow” right below that, which is two small pencils with points—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Both sharpened.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Both sharpened, ready to make more trouble. So, that was actually a rather sophisticated use, you know, of at least talking about—it’s not useful to talk about how Charlie Hebdo won. No, Charlie Hebdo didn’t win, like a lot of people are dead, including people who were rather courageous and knew that they were facing death threats while they continued making this magazine for supposed economic gain. I thought Charb’s quote of wanting to live on his feet rather than die on his knees—die on his feet rather than live on his knees—sorry, as I said, I haven’t had much sleep—was an indication of that particular courage. It wasn’t just bravado, although it sounds like that. He lived it, and he paid consequences for it. But to talk about this as a victory for freedom of speech, no, this was a terrible, terrible thing that happened. But the hope is that one will have more pencils in the future. And that was well expressed in that three-step drawing.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I just wanted to go back to something that you had mentioned. You alluded to Israel earlier, but in another context you had said that you’ve spent a lifetime trying not to think about Israel. Could you explain why you said that and then why you subsequently changed your mind?
ART SPIEGELMAN: Well, I mean, I thought that the creation of the state of Israel, from my point of view, was: This is a bad idea. Why are we going to have a Jewish state? The only reason was, OK, everybody was aware of the horrors that nationalism had wrought in the immediate aftermath of World War II. So, instead of—one impulse was to create something called the United Nations. And then, the unfortunate side impulse was: Let’s not give it any power; that’s too dangerous. So it’s just a fig leaf organization to say that we have to acknowledge the state of the world and embrace it as if we were the United States with lots of states, it’s a world with lots of countries, but an amplification of that idea, that we all are functioning in one larger body politic. Instead, it was like, “Yeah, the Jews got a raw deal. They didn’t have a nation. They were a people without a nation. Let them have the damn thing, you know?” And I thought that was a really kind of primitive solution that—it’s been playing out that way ever since. I always felt grateful that my father just went right instead of left and ended up in America rather than in Israel.
And I understand why, you know, a lot of really humane and humanitarian people, including I.F. Stone, was embracing these refugee ships that were like going into Palestine at the time. And then he wrote a corrective later saying, well, but the problem was that it didn’t embrace the people that were already there, and there were other routes to an Israeli state that wasn’t such a Zionist state, but accepted a larger one-state solution. Now that’s off the table, I think, because a one-state solution could only be a two-headed creature like Chang and Eng, who are going to try to murder each other since they can’t physically separate the Siamese twin chunk of skin that connects them. I don’t know if that was an obscure reference or everybody knows about Chang and Eng. But anyway, so, I was just grateful not to have to be part of a militarized, nationalist Israel and could live that diaspora dream of being the outsider in a country that will have me.
And recently, I was just very worked up about what was going down in the last round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict a couple of months ago, and I drew just a something—
AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli attack on Gaza.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, the Israeli attack on Gaza. I drew a cartoon that I thought was a rather anodyne thing, and I just did it for—it wasn’t even a drawing. It was a collage I made. And I didn’t know what to do with it even. I just went, “OK, I sort of got it out of my system,” but I don’t believe cartoons exist until they’re printed. It’s just an article of faith for me. So I didn’t know where to send it. I sent it to The Nation. They happily published it. And what it was was perspectives on Gaza—did you see that cartoon? Or you don’t know why this quote that you read was out there even?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: No, I’m not—no, I’m not sure. I really asked you because I didn’t know.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Oh, OK. So I had done—I had done this collage from an old Bible illustration of David and Goliath. And Goliath is enormous, coming at David with his sling. And then, through Photoshop, I changed the ratios of the people, and they’re both the same size, but depending on the perspective lines around them—it’s an optical illusion that I learned in childhood, but not using David and Goliath. They’re both the same size. He looks big in one, tiny in the other, Goliath. And all I said was—showed that picture in two stages and said, “Perspectives on the conflict,” you know?
It got me more hit—now, in The Nation it wasn’t seen, because that’s the problem with unequal media outlets, but out of frustration, I just put it on my Facebook page, and then it went sort of weirdly viral. It was appearing in all kinds of spectrum of political blogs and elsewhere, thousands and thousands of hits on a Facebook site that’s mostly dormant, that was set up by my publisher to promote books. But I was able to get in there and at least post it. The insanity of the comments and responses at least forced me to understand that the little thumbs-up like means “I will kill you on sight,” you know, like most of the comments were just so indignant about what I had drawn, mostly from American Jews who were horrified that my take on Israel wasn’t theirs, because they just saw it as: “How dare you present them as equal size when the Arab threat is so great to poor little Israel?” which is the mythology that pervades that point of view.
And for me, it just indicated, “You know, you were smart to stay out of this.” Like, at one point I thought these cartoons can help, but right now I feel like it’s—whatever I do, I’m just entering into an internecine, deadly divorce struggle that my neighbors are going through, and anything I say, no matter how rational—and especially if rational—will only get them to unite to clobber me, you know? And then they can go back to killing each other. So, that was just the most recent round of this. And I believe that that cartoon was actually very, very mild compared to where I can go if I really entered into the one book, when I thought, “Maybe I’ll do this,” I was thinking, “Maybe you could do a book called A World Without People, using animals in Israel, as a follow-up to Maus,” you know? And I realized that, like, you know, smarter people in my—butted up against this issue with it just seeming like this is one of the original Gordian knots. This is not going to untangle through rational thought, but only through bloodshed. And I’m horrified by that, but I don’t believe that rational discourse is possible in Israel right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Why censor yourself?
ART SPIEGELMAN: I don’t feel I censored myself. I let something out. I could let more stuff out. But if I focus here, I will—you know, it’s like I—oh, like I started saying in terms of the No Towers cartoons, I never wanted to be a political cartoonist. I thought that that stuff has the shelf life of milk, that it’s interesting at the moment that it’s happening, and for the most part, the only afterlife this thing can have is as a footnote in a history book text that helps you explain the Teapot Dome scandal or something, you know? And that I was more interested in graphic novels, which aren’t the same as these political cartoons we’re talking about. They actually have—they unfold in time more like words in a row and have more complex narrative content. And I’ve tried to, like, stay with the idea that comics are a possible form of self-expression, and it’s a potent one, because it does allow pictures back into the mix.
But to do these targeted political cartoons, I did a number of them in The New Yorker. They were interesting. And if I can just make things even more complex—the Amadou Diallo cartoon that I was describing did have an effect, but it also had an unintended consequence, which is, when these bastards were brought up for trial, the cops who did this, the trial was effectively moved out of New York City, saying these guys can’t get a fair trial in New York. Why? And they brought up a couple of things, one of which was The New Yorker cover. And that was allowed to get these guys to a Republican stronghold in upstate New York, where they were let off scot-free.
So, I don’t have the commitment to stay with this day by day, and then have done cartoons about what happened to those cops and beyond. And maybe that’s just a sign of weakness, but I’m scattered enough to wake up with a different self every day and not knowing which place to deploy it. I don’t think of what I’m doing in Israel as even self-censorship. It’s more like, if you actually apply yourself here, can you actually make a difference? And I don’t believe I can.
AMY GOODMAN: Art Spiegelman, renowned American cartoonist, editor, comics advocate, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus, about the Holocaust. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.