Sensibilities Need to be Offended: An Interview with Anatolii Osmalovsky and Georgii Litichevsky
By Guest Writer Valeria Strachevskaia
No one was killed at Charlie Hebdo’s office even though the recently published caricatures could insult millions of Russian people still recovering from the A321 tragedy which took place on 31 October.
An ongoing heated debate on the ethics of these images, especially emotional among the Russian community, looks like a broken record bringing us back to January discussions on Charlie’s caricature of Islamic prophet Muhammad and the terrorist attack that followed.
If I am asked what I feel looking at these pictures it will be difficult to imitate indifference. Tragedy came to my city and (regardless where in the world I am now) I am sharing the sorrow with those who lost their relatives and friends. But ‘art’ and ‘freedom of speech’ are not about ‘me’. It is about various opinions, all eligible to be expressed. I see a couple of crucial points to be aware of. First of all, political caricature rarely addresses individuals. Even in this particular case, responding to the Kremlin’s accusations in sacrilege Charlie Hebdo’s Chef Editor Gérard Briard said: “There are no caricature personages in these pictures. We are simply commenting on and express our opinion about the event” (rbk.ru). A message depicted in this genre is most commonly addressed to a regime, nation, country, culture, or religion, therefore to a wider public.
Secondly, this kind of political sarcasm has always been used in political fights, as Napoleon once admitted the caricaturist (James Gillray) had contributed more to his defeat than the armies of Europe. And it is the responsibility of a receiver how to deal with it - whether to accept it as a critique and analyze, or reject it and feel offended. Finally, political caricature is a form of artistic response to contemporary politics. Similarly to various performances and artistic protests it is not intended to be funny, but rather to be honest.
These pictures and the debate around them gave me a good occasion for translating and publishing a nice interview with a Russian curator Anatolii Osmalovsky and Russian artist Georgii Litichevsky on the accepted levels of provocation in art.
(The interview was taken by Natalia Kochetkova, LENTA.RU, September 2015).
10 years ago the publication of 12 caricatures depicting Islamic prophet Muhammad in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten triggered a long-lasting political and cross-cultural conflict. Almost all European and Muslim Asian countries became involved in it. In January earlier this year for the caricatures of the same prophet ten members of the French satire journal Charlie Hebdo were killed right in the editorial office. Recently they published caricatures of the photo of a drowned Syrian boy that provoked critical public reaction. In Russia over the last few years Kazaks, orthodox activists and individual people has destroyed various exhibitions on the basis that presented works of art “offended their religious sensibilities”.
Is Charlie Hebdo’s caricature depicting the Syrian boy acceptable?
A.O.: It is not merely acceptable, but it is requisite! It is the business of political caricature to show the society its unattractive sides. No one never laughs at political caricature. It is Louis de Funès who makes people laugh, but political caricature should insult them. And it is precisely what the picture by Charlie Hebdo is doing.
But the public complains that this image offends their sensibilities and the sensibilities of the boy’s parents.
Then, they shouldn’t publish and multiply the photo of him. Is it better to live without knowing that there are people dying somewhere in the world? Is it better to live in a made-up world without conflicts and problems, as we used to do under the Soviet regime? Caricaturists are just whipping-boys in this situation. The idea of “not offending” someone’s sensibilities is totally silly. Sensibilities need to be offended. Because only when we do so, people start to express their feelings. One of the things art is dealing with is reminding people that they have sensibilities. I believe the fair of offending someone’s sensibilities - religious, ethical, political or any other – can lead to a glasshouse regime where no one offends anyone and where people do not feel anything. In the normal contemporary society, the offence of sensibilities should exist.
Careless treatment of the viewer’s sensibilities, is that a problem emerged in contemporary art?
It started from Pheidias who was accused in the ancient Athens in that he gave to the sculpture of the Goddess Athena the appearance of his mistress. When it came out the public immediately felt offended and sued him. There was a huge scandal. But he managed to escape the court.
The Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo was commissioned by the Pope of Rome. When the Pope saw that Jesus and other characters were painted without pants he did not like it and asked the artist to overpaint it. Michelangelo refused. Then another artist was hired who painted clothes. About 20 years ago conservation specialists washed this underwear out. So there has been a lot of offences of this kind in the history of art.
Interestingly, sometimes an artist wants to offend someone and sometimes he has absolutely no intentions to do so, but the public is offended anyway. Feelings is a very complicated area and it is very difficult to predict anything here. The 20th century artists spent a lot of energy on the well planned offence of sensibilities. It happened because in the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th century art entered the market, started its independent journey. Before that, it used to serve either the church or aristocrats. Apparently, in order to survive in the market art had to shake the viewer, to touch him. Only then art began to be praised. However, we should not limit the entire discussion to the cynical market strategy, of course.
Well, don’t you think that one can touch the viewer in various ways? The palette of emotions is big enough.
Sentimental feelings were given to the salon of art a long time ago. The salon art is when a great number of people are doing the same thing. It is not particularly interesting and ‘serious’ artists do not normally deal with that. To be honest, offending sensibilities has also become uninteresting segment already. It was something new and in fashion in 1990s. But I have to admit that offending sensibilities is a risky game. The members of Charlie Hebdo were shot for that.
If insulting someone has become old-fashioned, which feelings do ‘serious’ contemporary artists deal with?
With fairness, for example. Or bad conscience. Especially in the western society. That caricature with the boy works exactly with this. It is a highly demanded trend to work with a bad conscience of a West-European ordinary person who has surrounded himself with a comfort life and does not want to know that there is hell beyond it.
Are there any limits to provocation in art? Figures, themes, which is immoral to depict?
There aren’t any. Art has nothing to do with the laws of morality. Like science. The only exception is medicine with its codex. Science in general doesn’t have moral laws: it is a personal choice of a scientist whether to create a nuclear bomb or not. The same could be applied to art. Art is beyond morality. It disconnected from morality as early as in the 17th century. An artist makes his/her own choice. When art does not deal with a human body (in a performance, for instance) then it deals with images. What limitations are we talking about then?! There shouldn’t be any.
There is an opinion that this caricature addresses exclusively French audience with their centuries-long tradition of satirical images, therefore representatives of other cultures interpret this image incorrectly.
I don’t think that a particular caricature is not clear to immigrants. Moreover, I think that, in a sense, it warns immigrants. They don’t quite realise where they are going to. The advert of MacDonalds which is depicted at the beach is a good reminder that they are tying to get to the world of fast food and cynical manipulation. The capitalist world is made up of aggressive attacks. And it is worth knowing how to withstand it. By the way, the works of art, which allegedly offend someone’s sensibilities, to a great extend helps to improve skills in being resistant to marketing strategies and tricks. In addition, it is a vaccine from manipulations of any kind. It pushes the viewer towards reflection and self-analysis.
Can a caricature image offend?
G.L.: The one who wants to be offended will always find an occasion to do so. And it does not matter where this desire comes from: from the specific organization of his mind or his expectations to receive compensation. If artists are to think about every single person willing to feel offended they will need to handcuff themselves.
On the other hand, the ability to read the message of a caricature (as of any other work of art) requires some background knowledge. Let’s look at a classy example from gastronomy: an olive seems tasty only to a foodie person. It is another matter that a publication in mass media can appear in the hands of a person unprepared for seeing it. Different countries have different traditions, including those in caricature. Russia which has always been between the West and the East is less expressive than Europe. The latter has reached a sort of freedom in this respect. After all, France is a country with an old tradition of satire, they had François Rabelais and François Villon. But now the country is becoming more and more multicultural and their cultural product is no longer consumed by the French only, but by the ‘newcomers’ as well. This is where this unexpected reaction on caricature comes from. However, it doesn’t mean that France should abandon its cultural tradition and stop drawing caricatures which have been created there for several centuries.
Do artists need to bear in mind that the nonindigenous French could read an image’s message incorrectly?
I am sure that the scandal was not created by refugees but rather by someone who wanted to benefit from that. It is important that it was published in a European journal in a European country. No one was spreading these images as propaganda throwing it away from a helicopter over Syria. People arriving in France have to remember that this country has different cultural traditions. Not only the host country should take the refugee’s cultural peculiarities into consideration, but the refugees themselves should appreciate the French way of life. Multiculturalism works both ways.
Caricature is always in a risk zone. It is an immediate acute reaction to a particular event or situation and it is addressed to the wider public. The entire history of caricature is full of various cases in court and public’s resentment. The classical works by Honoré Daumier are a good example.
Could we say that the journal editors were expecting a scandal and, partly, they were aiming at it? Therefore, the publication of this image hit the bull’s eye.
It is unclear what is going to be the end of this story, but the guys took a chance and that demonstrates their talent. But it is important to note, that no one is laughing at this poor boy. This is a form of solidarity with refugees which is between Scylla and Haribda. On the one hand, there is a horror they are running away from, on the other hand, there is this confusing Europe which is allegedly pitying them. Has Europe deserved to be someone’s dream? This image is, first of all, an attack against European hypocrisy. It is an image full of meaning, it shows the entire world in its ‘terrifying beauty’.
Does art obey the laws of morality?
Morality cannot dictate which topics should be represented in art. What is immoral is to hit the viewer on his head with a painting, but the subject matter of this painting, nonetheless, can be anything. If someone does not like a painting, it is allowed not to look at it. But there are no prohibited themes. Well, in some cultures there are some restrictions on the representation of some particular people or things, but these restrictions are very conditional. If we are to keep them all in mind we will end up with depicting only ornaments. Image is not a physical violence, hence any thing can be depicted. Moreover, this particular caricature is not a defense but rather a critique of permissiveness which has become so widespread in mass-culture. It does not represent the boy, it represents the photograph which was published by every single media. The question on what should and should not be shown (executions, violent scenes) is constantly debated in journalism. This type of images affects the viewer in a sensational way. What is important is not the subject itself, but the public’s fascination with it. In this case it is fascination with death. This caricature brings the situation back to the human level. The artist drew the widely-spread photograph by hand. It could be compared with the works by Andy Warhol. He frequently reused the images of accidents and deaths in the electric chair cut off the newspapers. But being incorporated in a work of art that images were loosing their charm of death. The contemporary consumer of mass product wants to be fascinated with the pictures like that. He likes to be oppressed with horror and fair. This caricature deprives him from this pleasant state, pushes him to think and react. This is exactly why caricaturists are so rigorously criticized. They deprive people from the bliss of being charmed.
Anatoly Osmolovsky (1969) – a Russian artist and curator, representative of Moscow actionism. In 2007 received Kandinsky Award in the nomination ‘Artists of the Year’
Georgii Litichevsky (1956) – a Russian artists. The list of institutions possessing his works includes Kiasma Museum (Helsinki) and Centre Pompidou (Paris).