Fighting Fire With…Silence?

Today’s news has prompted me to re-address some of the issues raised in yesterday’s discussion. By the way, see the BBC for more on Hitler’s Cross, which has been forced to change its name amid national and international protests:

In a few weeks, I’m set to begin “Visual Representation and Global Ethics,” a course whose concept stemmed from last February’s cartoon scandal, whereby Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran caricatures featuring the prophet Muhammad, thus outraging the international Muslim community. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman responded to the controversy almost immediately:

Educated secular Westerners reared on modernism, with its inclination toward abstraction, its gamesmanship and its knee-jerk baiting of traditional authority, can miss the real force behind certain visual images, particularly religious ones. Trained to see pictures formally, as designs or concepts, we can often overlook the way images may not just symbolize but actually “partake of what they represent,” as the art historian David Freedberg has put it.

Kimmelman’s analysis reached beyond the sorts of theoretical and philosophical perspectives that inform academic discourse on the subject, even acknowledging the paleness of the contemporary art world—and New York City’s political involvement therein—when compared to current events. He nearly poked fun, even, at the scandal caused in 1999 by the Sensation exhibition, the Brooklyn Art Museum’s installation of the now-infamous traveling show of British collector Charles Saatchi’s holdings that prompted a 72-year old man to smear white paint on Chris Ofili’s painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, while mayor Rudi Giuliani actively sought to pull public funding from the institution. No lives were lost in Brooklyn, however, a main contradistinction between that spectacle and the world-wide protests surrounding the cartoons’ publication. Kimmelman asserts:

What may be overlooked this time is a deep, abiding fact about visual art, its totemic power: the power of representation. This power transcends logic or aesthetics. Like words, it can cause genuine pain.

image courtesy the New York Times; Muhammad Mulheisen, Associated Press

Fast forward to present-day Tehran, where today’s issue of the Times published a new twist in the controversy, reported by correspondent Michael Slackman. The Palestinian Contemporary Museum in central Tehran has a mounted an exhibition, “Holocaust International Cartoon Contest,” or “Holocust,” as the museum has botched the term in promotional materials. The exhibition is intended to confront what its organizers view as Western hypocrisy in response to the original cartoon controversy, and more than 200 drawings on display employ some of the most stereotypical imagery associated with Jewish culture—Stars of David, swastikas, outsized noses and, of course, the word “Holocaust.”

Slackman writes:

“It is not that we are against a specific religion,” said the show’s curator, Seyed Massoud Shojaei, making a distinction that visitors to the show are certain to question. “We are against repression by the Israelis.” …Mr. Shojaei said none of the images were intended as anti-Jewish, only anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli — and of course, anti-American and anti-British. As evidence, he said Iranians lived peacefully with this country’s Jews.
He said there were three reasons for holding the show. The first is that in the West it is all right to insult religion but impermissible to question the Holocaust, he said.

The second is to ask why Palestinians must pay the price for the atrocities of the Holocaust — which he, unlike his president, did not question. And the third is to draw attention to what he called the creation of a new Holocaust against Muslims, primarily Palestinians.
“We are not saying the Holocaust is a myth,” he said. “We are saying that by this excuse Israelis are repressing other people.”

image courtesy the New York Times; Shawn Baldwin for the New York Times

Once again the same query has come to the fore: Why do images yield so much power? While I don’t possess the answers—I don’t believe that one singular solution exists for any problem, really—I do have a few thoughts. As with all of the examples cited here and in previous posts, the question of cultural relativism quickly arises. How do Iranian, Israeli, and Palestinian national cultures differ from one another, along with Judaic, Muslim, and Christian attitudes toward imagery or iconography? Nation and religion are intrinsically linked here, after all.

The passage of time retains its importance, too, as does the mediation of said images and words. The anti-Semitic propaganda employed by Joseph Goebbels to fuel Nazi hate has been filtered down into present-day use of fascist iconography and rhetoric in fashion, art, and film, among other outlets. Just today I came across two such examples in the San Francisco Bay Guardian: “Alcoholocaust” is the name of a weekly club party, while “Hyman Holocaust” stands in as the moniker for a local band. Staunch Benjaminians would argue that the “aura” of images and words has been annihilated, or at least weakened, but constant pop cultural manipulation. And yet icons do, obviously, retain meaning, if not divinity even, for many religious groups.

Curiously enough, the exhibition seems to be attracting more attention in the West than locally—Slackman witnessed virtually empty galleries during his three-day visit— which prompts the question of why a restaurant in Mumbai has cited public outrage, while a concurrent art show in Tehran has gone virtually unnoticed? (If, in fact, that is the case.) Perhaps folks are recognizing this show for what it seems, in my opinion, to be: a counter-provocation, and a base one at that. It’s the same fighting of fire with fire that has fed Israeli/ Palestinian relations for over fifty years and up until this very moment, and one that the Iranian Jewish community has exercised its agency over, it appears, by largely disengaging from.


Michael Kimmelman will speak on these and other topics at the California College of the Arts as part of the Graduate Studies Lecture Series:

Tuesday, October 10, 2006
7 pm
Timkin Lecutre Hall, San Francisco campus
Info: 415.551.9251


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Filed under Politicks, Visual Culture

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