Violence & Images

Destruction of art and sculpture in Zurich (1524)

"These publications will not cost lives. Who killed people? We are not killing people, I'm sorry. We are not the violent ones. We are just journalists. [We are just cartoonists.]" -- Gerard Biard, editor-in-chief of French magazine Charlie Hebdo

David Freedberg, the Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art and Director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University, opens his masterful book The Power of Images with the following declaration:

“People are sexually aroused by pictures and sculptures; they break pictures and sculptures; they mutilate them, kiss them, cry before them, and go on journeys to them; they are calmed by them, stirred by them, and incited to revolt. They give thanks by means of them, expect to be elevated by them, and are moved to the highest levels of empathy and fear. They have always responded in these ways; they still do.”

This is an apt reminder in the wake of the movie, "Innocence of Muslims," which ostensibly launched an incendiary wave of protests across the (radical) Muslim world. Only a week later, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammed in "questionable" postures and activities. As a precaution to violent outbreaks, France closed embassies and schools in around 20 countries; it also officially banned protests. As a pro-active measure to bring this blasphemous behavior to a stop, a Pakistani railways minister, in a move reminiscent of Darth Vader and Boba Fett, placed a $100,000 bounty on the head of the filmmaker.

For Americans, immersed in a philosophical and cultural ether that exists in an alternate universe to pro-Al Qaeda and Salafist-styled Islam, it's literally inconceivable that an artist and his movie could be held responsible for the reactions of viewers. "It's just a movie, so help us God." And by implication, the artist has a right to express his views, just as the viewers have a right to watch or not to watch the movie. "Take it or leave, but don't blame me for your response. That's your responsibility, not mine." The transaction is ultimately one that takes place between self-subsistent individuals. This kind of attitude is what James Davison Hunter calls a cultural "given." It's the unquestioned assumption that hides within the subconscious of a society, and as the case may be, it's also the dangerous sort of assumption precisely because we remain blind to it.

That a filmmaker could injure an entire country or people group is not only incomprehensibly foreign, it's also irritating to Americans. All you had to do was observe the Facebook posts around the time of this ruckus to watch western philosophical aesthetics in action: "Freedom of speech! An inalienable right! Don't blame the movie! WTF?!"

The curious thing, of course, is that this kind of American (and European) attitude towards art and society is the exception rather than the rule in human history. From the patristic era to the Medieval Age to the century of Reformation to the early years of the American Republic to a thousand tongues and tribes on the planet, Christians have known that images are powerful and that their use or non-use affects the welfare of an entire society, and that the responsibility for their relative use is a social one, not a solitary one. I won't say that this debate can be easily resolved, but I will say that our assumptions must be questioned, because, well, we're really screwed if we don't. David Morgan, in Icons of American Protestantism, puts it this way: “An image is never simply what an artist says it is but is also what the artist’s training, publisher, dealer, market, audience, and critics say it is.” In other words, it's what a society says it is.

I'll pause here for now, but I wanted to pass along a few noteworthy treatments of this eruption of passion in response to the YouTube video. These are the kinds of articles that inspire clarity of mind rather than more muddled thinking.

By the way, I'll also say that there has been a lot of hypocritical, neanderthal thinking that alleges to defend Muslims over against the so-called offensive speech of the "Innocence of Muslims" movie. These are the kinds of arguments that we would never hear in defense of outraged Christians who feel, whether legitimately or not, that Michael Moore, Bill MaherChris Ofili, and Martin Scorsese have done harm to Christian faith. Christians would inevitably be told to shove it and to quit being hypersensitive babies. This is a lame article, for example.

The better kind are these, excerpts included:

1. Ross Douthat, "It's Not About the Video" (The New York Times)

"There is a cringing way to make this mistake, embodied by the apologetic press release that issued from the American embassy in Cairo on Tuesday as the protests outside gathered steam, by the Obama White House’s decision to lean on YouTube to take the offending video down, and by the various voices (including, heaven help us, a tenured Ivy League professor) suggesting that the video’s promoters be arrested for abusing their First Amendment liberties. But there’s also a condescending way to make the same error, which is to stand up boldly for free speech while treating the mob violence as an expression of foaming-at-the-mouth unreason, with no more connection to practical politics than a buffalo stampede or a summer storm."

2. Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, "Fighting Over God's Image" (The New York Times)

"In the early Republic, many Americans avoided depicting Jesus or God in any form. The painter Washington Allston spoke for many artists of the 1810s when he said, “I think his character too holy and sacred to be attempted by the pencil.” A visiting Russian diplomat, Pavel Svinin, was amazed at the prevalence of a different image: George Washington’s. “Every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home,” he wrote, “just as we have images of God’s saints.”"

3. Bret Stephens, "Muslims, Mormons and Liberals" (The Wall Street Journal)

"So let's get this straight: In the consensus view of modern American liberalism, it is hilarious to mock Mormons and Mormonism but outrageous to mock Muslims and Islam. Why? Maybe it's because nobody has ever been harmed, much less killed, making fun of Mormons.... Finally, it need be said that the whole purpose of free speech is to protect unpopular, heretical, vulgar and stupid views. So far, the Obama administration's approach to free speech is that it's fine so long as it's cheap and exacts no political price. This is free speech as pizza."

4. Jonathan V. Last, "A One-Man Department of Justice: Batman as the American Hero" (The Weekly Standard)

(NB: this would be the article that "explains" how Americans thinking about rectifying justice.)

"But Batman is different. He is not an avatar for a particular political argument or idea. Batman is about the liberal order itself​—​specifically about the durability of classical liberalism in the face of modernity.... What Nolan is saying in The Dark Knight is that our social order is far more fragile than it seems, and that even democracy is not sufficient to maintain it. Upholding the liberal order requires larger guiding forces​—​such as religion and natural law, as suggested by the ferry dilemma. And sometimes maintaining order requires illiberal actions, such as those undertaken by Batman."

Bonus article: This academic article just landed in my inbox, courtesy of my friend Tanner Capps and Jessica Wong.

5. Marie‐José Mondzain, "Can Images Kill?" (Critical Inquiry 36.1 [Autumn 2009], 20-51).

"Who today would deny that images are an instrument of power over bodies and minds? Such power, conceived over the course of twenty centuries of Christianity as liberating and redemptive, is now suspected to be the instrument of alienation and domination. Images are considered to have incited the crime when a murder seems to have been modeled after fictions shown on screen. The accused parties blame such fictions. But who is actually guilty, those who kill or those who produce and circulate images? Culpability and responsibility are terms attributable only to persons, never to things. And images are things. Let's abandon this strange rhetoric."


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