What do American cartoon artists make of the worldwide protests ignited by the Muhammad cartoons published by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten? The Nation's Sam Graham-Felsen posed a few questions by phone to two whose work we hold in great esteem: Joe Sacco, a Maltese-American, the author of Palestine and War's End, and Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers.
What was your initial reaction to the controversy?
My initial reaction was, "What a bunch of idiots those Danes were for printing those things." Did they not think that there was going to be some sort of backlash? Cartoons like that are simply meant as a provocation.
To me the bigger context is that there are segments of the Muslim population around the world that have been pummeled with other images, like Abu Ghraib, that are also offensive. And you also have to see this in the context of how some Muslims around the world are viewing the actions of the US or allies of the US, for example Israel. You add all these things into the mix, and it's just another thing, another part of this ridiculous war that is being forced on people, that is supposed to be about a "clash of civilizations."
I have spent a lot of time soul searching and still come out on the same side of the equation. If there's a right to make cartoons, there has to be a right to insult, and if there's no right to make cartoons, well, I'm in big trouble. And I think America might be too.
Now that the images are out there, do the media have a responsibility to reprint them, or is it enough to describe them?
Well frankly, I'd say it's enough to just describe them. Putting the cartoon itself out–what's the value of it? An editor, working in the real world, has to balance a number of things. There is a value in showing people what the fuss is all about, but the impact might be violent, and an editor does have to think about those things. I think most American editors have handled it pretty well.
This notion that the images can just be described leaves me firmly on the side of showing images. The banal quality of the cartoons that gave insult is hard to believe until they are seen. We live in a culture where images rule, and it's as big a divide as the secular/religious divide–the picture/word divide.
The public has been infantilized by the press. It's escalated to the point where it's moot whether one should reprint these pictures or not because now to do it puts you firmly on the side of the libeler, the defamer. And yet, it seems to me that to write about this without access to the pictures is an absurdity. The answer to speech, in my religion, is more speech, a lot of yakking–and a lot of drawing. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, very often it requires 2,000 words more to talk about the picture, but you can't replace that thousand words with another thousand words.
If The Nation and the New York Times had simply said, "We're scared shitless," I could take that. I'm not only a cartoonist–I'm a physical coward.