Friday, August 25, 2006

Tehran Responds to the Danish Cartoons

In response to the test of where the boundaries lie that a Danish Newspaper held by publishing cartoons that mocked the Islamic prophet Mohammed, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri set out to challenge Western concepts of freedom of expression (and hypocrisy) by exploring one of the West’s taboos: the WWII Holocaust. With an open call for images that question the accounts of the Holocaust, the goal was to demonstrate that there are subjects that simply shouldn't be taken lightly.

The New York Times reports today on the exhibition that is being held of the images (which came in from around the world) selected to represent the best of the submissions:
The title of the show is “Holocaust International Cartoon Contest,” or “Holocust,” as the show’s organizers spell the word in promotional material. But the content has little to do with the events of World War II and Nazi Germany.

There is instead a drawing of a Jew with a very large nose, a nose so large it obscures his entire head. Across his chest is the word Holocaust. Another drawing shows a vampire wearing a big Star of David drinking the blood of Palestinians. A third shows Ariel Sharon dressed in a Nazi uniform, emblazoned not with swastikas but with the Star of David.

The cartoons are among more than 200 on display in the Palestinian Contemporary Art Museum in central Tehran in a show that opened this month and is to run until the middle of September.
There are two issues I want to discuss here and I want to keep them separated carefully. I'll start with the easy one.

As I've noted many times, such images are propaganda, not "Art," and have no business being displayed as such in an Art museum. I'm not at all sure what goals the Palestinian Contemporary Art Museum has for its reputation, but they might as well hang a red light outside their entrance during this exhibition, which is too bad because we were just starting to see inroads into
exhibiting Palestinian Art in the US (pdf file) and I suspect the association between this exhibition and other efforts might (despite being unfair) fuel the resistance to it already out there.

The second issue is whether or not this response was well designed or carried out. I have to say "No" on both accounts. I can understand the impulse to turn the tables on the West, and if there are any true taboos in our collective Western society, questioning the Holocaust is high among them. So I can see why, if one was truly offended by the Danish Cartoons and was frustrated with how Western people didn't seem to get it, devising some method to help them get it would be attractive. But unless Western mobs riot in response or burn down the embassies of Islamic nations (which I can't see happening), the test will essentially prove little.

Further, having announced that your intent was to evoke outrage might seem parallel to the Danish experiment, but given the West knows full well what the test hopes to demonstrate, it's foolhardy to think we would take the bait. (Of course, if the exhibition were to be shown in the US, the response might be a bit more than the yawn it seems destined to generate now, but we'll have to wait and see.) All of which suggests the premise for the test is a lie, and the true purpose was merely to rally the locals. But, according to the Times it seems to be generating little more than a yawn in Tehran, so....

And, again, I'm at a loss as to why they're confusing the issue by presenting the images as "Art":
A few visitors stopped by, mostly art students who said they had visited to examine artistic techniques. Many were happy to take away a free poster: a photograph showing three military helmets piled up, two with swastikas on the crown, a third with the Star of David.

“I came here to study the quality of the work,” said Hamid Derikvand, 27, who said he was an art student at the university across the street from the gallery.
{deleted art-snobbish snark}....truly, why bother with the whole "Art" pretext? The Danish Cartoons were not presented so pretentiously. This foolish mixing of messages might be the leading reason the attendance is reportedly so low (although one person interviewed by the Times suggested it's because they see such messages all the time).

Finally, the implied parallel between the sanctity of a religious figure and respect for the memory of millions of slaughtered innocent people is conceptually weak. It's clearly an apples and oranges comparison. I know the announced intent was to demonstrate that the West holds some topics taboo, but unless the topics are closer in essence, you're giving the target audience too much of an out (i.e., most folks supporting the Danish cartoons would see Islamic cartoons about G-d or Christ as a parallel and would argue that they too would object to the mocking of the slaughter of millions of Muslims), and so, again the test was poorly designed.

Other images (mind you, being a horrible speller, I feel for them in this first one)...and if anyone finds bigger ones (you know ones in which you can see the works, please let me know)


Anonymous Bnon said...

It's apples and oranges in another way. The Tehran cartoons purport to offend us in the same way as the Danish cartoons offended them--breaking a religious taboo. They do nothing of the sort, of course. They wouldn't raise an eyebrow unless endorsed by Mel Gibson. Instead, I believe they were intended to mean something like, "We, too, can promote vile, racist ideas that offend you, since you have offended us with your vile, racist cartoons." However, all the Danes purported to doing was assert their freedom to make fun of the taboo against depicting Mohammed. All I take away from the exhibit is that anti-Semitism is alive and well and institutionally encouraged in Tehran.

8/25/2006 09:36:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

All I take away from the exhibit is that anti-Semitism is alive and well and institutionally encouraged in Tehran.

Ahhh...then you are taking the bait. Address it on a conceptual level and it should embarass its organizers enough not to go this route again.

I agree that this test was designed to provoke racist ideas, but I'm not so sure the Danish version wasn't as well. Yes, its stated intention was to test freedom of speech, but when they already knew what the response would be (and let's face it, they pretty much did), then it's really something more base than that. It's a bit grayer, but only a bit.

I supported the Danish experiment, and would have supported the Tehran response, had it been parallel. But it's not.

8/25/2006 09:47:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

The larger issue I see at play here is the inability many of Islamic faith seem to show to laugh at themselves.

In an excellent WSJ Opinion Journal article, Islamofascism -- Beware of a Religion Without Irony -- Roger Scruton asserts that:

This readiness to take offense ... is a sign of the deep-down insecurity of the Muslim psyche in the modern world. In the presence of Islam, we all feel, you have to tread carefully, as though humoring a dangerous animal. The Koran must never be questioned; Islam must be described as a religion of peace--isn't that the meaning of the word?--and jokes about the prophet are an absolute no-no. If religion comes up in conversation, best to slip quietly away, accompanying your departure with abject apologies for the Crusades.

Within Christianity and Judaism is a wealth of self-mockery. Perhaps such a strain exists within Islam, and if so it needs to be nurtured.

This "Let's See How You Like It" exhibit, which so clearly demonstrates the deep-down insecurity identified by Scruton, gets a worldwide yawn because that's the perfect response, but that response is also a perfect example for any religious group, nationality or gang with cows so sacred they're worth rioting and shedding blood over.

8/25/2006 10:43:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Now I wonder how public reaction will be to this exhibit. Cause at that time (the first cartoons came out) all of us were talking about free speach, freedom. Let's see.

Great topic Ed, thanks

8/25/2006 10:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Bnon said...


Yes, I think the Tehran cartoons are simply intended to offend, not demonstrate we have taboos. I may be taking the bait, but why should I bend over backwards to like their offensive speech? Why shouldn't I be offended while absolutley defending their right to an opinion? I would only be taking the bait if I tried to suppress the T-cartoons or censure them in any way. On the other hand, the D-cartoons, however wrongheaded publishing them was, they were not just an attempt to test free speech, but also an attempt to stem self-censorship and not let "sensitivity" to dominate speech. But I agree with you. If I were a public figure speaking about the T-toons, I would not say they were offensive. I would only say that they have a right to exhibit whatever they want and the Danes have the same right. Our taboos are not so hard to find: pedophilia, incest, and murder, not to mention cannibalism. Political speech is simply not on the list (ideally speaking, American fundamentalists notwithstanding).

8/25/2006 10:56:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Regarding whether this show belongs in an art museum, I don't think there's such a big divide between art and propaganda as you suggest. Art has been used to promote political, religious and ideological for as long as there's been art (well, for as long as there's been politics, religion and ideology). I don't think all art is propaganda or that all propaganda is art, but it's difficult to say where the line is. And in terms of exhibitions deliberately designed to offend, we've certainly seen those here as well. There was plenty of it back in the eighties in response to the Jesse Helms fiasco, and you could also see the Sensation show as intended to offend, but of course the motive was profit (Saatchi's) as opposed to ideology. I think the question of what belongs in an art museum is not so easily answered.

As far as whether it was well carried out, from the NYT description and the images you provided I'd say no. The most offensive part of the show is probably the title. Most of the images shown and described here seem like political cartoons about Israel, and I don't see anything that actually questions or mocks the holocaust itself. It seems like the exhibition could have been more successful if they:

a.) were able to generate more truly offensive material. Perhaps they could hire Howard Stern to help with this
b.) showed their holocaust cartoons alongside the Danish ones, and
c.) had the show travel to the US and Europe

They could also improve the show and boost attendance by having a docent tour led by naked women.

8/25/2006 12:25:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Art has been used to promote political, religious and ideological for as long as there's been art

I shouldn't write these things before I've had my coffee. The word "agendas" should have been in there somewhere...


8/25/2006 12:31:00 PM  
Blogger ondine-nyc said...

David, are you sure you're not in network programming :)

8/25/2006 12:33:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Nah, the networks are old school. It's all about niche markets now. Cable, web, podcasts...

8/25/2006 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger ondine-nyc said...

and don't forget my favorite: branding.

just the mention of that word.... ugh... a very apt term for cattle of all kinds.

8/25/2006 12:44:00 PM  
Anonymous h lowe said...

Having just read "Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books" (not that great of a read but some interesting parts),I am very curious to see more images from this exhibition and would like to know the fears and obvious hatred that led them to this exhibit. It is a healthy thing in a way to purge through a comical framework.
Do you know where there are more pics of the exhibit?

8/25/2006 01:24:00 PM  
Anonymous h lowe said...

Having just read "Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books" (not that great of a read but some interesting parts),I am very curious to see more images from this exhibition and would like to know the fears and obvious hatred that led them to this exhibit. It is a healthy thing in a way to purge through a comical framework.
Do you know where there are more pics of the exhibit?

8/25/2006 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous danonymous said...

My hackles went up with your comment..."propoganda not art". Putting aside the pros and cons/ validity etc of this exhibition, I think it is very short sighted to say something like that. It is definitely valid if we regard our democracy oriented point of views as the sole arbiters of what is/isn't...anything but I think it is very dangerous to put out a statement like that (you are entitled to though) as representative of the Tehran point of matter how abhorent.

8/25/2006 01:39:00 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

One of the more obvious issues raised by this show is the whole idea of art as it relates to a semi totalitarian state.

I would imagine that a show like this is a good way to catch people unawares. Anyone who doesn't think this is just the most fall on your ass funny thing and exposes that opinion with a twitch could have a problem.

The level of self sensorship involved here has to be tremendous on the part of the artists. Everyone knows that they are expected to show this one view point in as strident a way they can.

8/25/2006 05:48:00 PM  
Blogger kurt said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/26/2006 10:41:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

And all this brings us back to one of Edward's earlier posts about political art. Propaganda very seldom is good art, ie, art which continues to speak after its era has passed. Can anyone think of work which exudes hatred which is still considered great art?

This show just makes me feel very embarrassed for the artists who are of the Islamic faith.

8/26/2006 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger painterdog said...

Everone who is writing here should go to there is a lot free speech being presented and a awuful amount of hate speech directed towards Jews and our govenrment.

There is a lot of this in the air, our govenrment, Bush and Co are doing their best to paint Iran as this evil country. This kind of exhibition is playing right into it.

I think we need step back and try to seperate the people of Iran from its leadership, which is having problems internaly, sounds familiar, and is using all this nationalist and anti-Isreali rhetoric to keep he population from focusing on internal problem Iran is having.

On another note I found these 2 films to be very good a dispelling a lot of myths I had about the country.

Rent the movie Children of Heaven and the Color of Paradise, directed by Majid Majidi.

8/26/2006 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I am totally ready to look at art criticizing or mocking judaism, but a stupid racist caricature ?? Come on.

I don't think the Mohamed caricature wsa racist because you're not muslim by dna. In fact it was not mocking Mohamed but the ways some integrist seems to perceive Mohamed.

Apart from that...Nothing new in hearing arabs or persians hating jews and vice-versa.

Why can't arabs and persians hate each other anyway, while we're at it? They're not the same people.

this exhibits is not shocking, it's a demonstration of stupidity.
Hahahaha...I actually laugh thinking about it.

Not exactly danish, but, I think I'd insert a Tom Of Finland drawing in the exhibit
just to confuse everyone.


Cedric Caspesyan

8/26/2006 03:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Actually Iran cinema is some of the best in the world, often provocative (amazing when we hear of what happens politically), and though the Majidi films are more accessible material, I prefer the films of Kiarostami or
some of the Makhmalbaf (father and daughter). I hate to name over-evident directors, I just forgot all the others (Ghobadi, etc). The last good iranian film I saw was happening on an abandoned boat but I forgot title and director's name.



8/26/2006 04:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

By the way I do think we have been saturated by films on world war 2.

And now they are plenty video games were you can play at killing germans violently and it's really all fun and learning to see how we've evolved. Can we make a game arabs vs jews circa 2000 years ago? I bet that would be fun too. "Move back to Maifa, Muhammed".. Yippeah....slash, slash....

Now that would break a big taboo,
wouldn't it?

I should do it, call it World War Zero,

Cedric Caspesyan

8/26/2006 04:17:00 PM  
Blogger painterdog said...

Are you for real?
I am totally ready to look at art criticizing or mocking judaism

your statement makes you sound around 12 years old.

Go and read some history on the middle east, you start with trying to understand the difference between Shiite and Sunni.

8/26/2006 08:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Oh my, haven't I touched some sacred cow, "judaism".

Why did the muslims attacked holocaust instead of judaims?
Or catholicism?

Go figure...

My friend I can go and read all the history you want but I prefer to think the same as I was when I was 12 years old, than the idea of living in 2006 like we were 2000 years ago. How many kids reading the Q'Ran think the same as when they were 5?? That is all they are taught each day, read Q'ran, read Q'ran, Read Q'Ran, ad infinitum, read Q'Ran...

What about what a jew is told when they are 5?

I totally critic catholicism (my background), I see no reason why a jew can't criticize judaism, or an arab, muslism-ism.

What is the difference between a Shiite, a Sunni, a Judaist or a
Catholic? Is there really really one? I only see people who throw old books and beliefs to differentiate themselves from the rest of the world and sometimes cause death to defend their ideals.

The only ever good thing religion brought was the art to illustrate it.


Cedric Caspesyan

8/26/2006 09:28:00 PM  
Blogger painterdog said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/27/2006 09:43:00 AM  
Blogger painterdog said...

I never said you should not be critical of religion. Jews are pretty self-effacing and laugh at themselves all the time, look at all the Jewish comedians. My beef with you is more on how you use language.
I know there are some Muslim comedians out there but, come to think of it they don't seem to have a big market on comedy.

8/27/2006 09:43:00 AM  
Blogger painterdog said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/27/2006 09:47:00 AM  
Blogger painterdog said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/27/2006 09:49:00 AM  
Blogger painterdog said...

I don't understand the child like refrences to what are pretty serioous problems that we, being part of society, need to try and understand a little.

Thinking the same way as you did as a 12 year old is, well kind of odd and escapist. Don't you think?

Do you view art through this kind of lense?

8/27/2006 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger painterdog said...

If you want to get serious about understanding human nature through a religious view point then you need to have a basic understanding of the differences.

If consider yourself as an atheist, how can you define yourself as one without knowing basic comparative religion.

People can be ignorant by choice, but that is how the Catholic church fostered ant-semitism for so many centuries. By counting on the ingnorance and illiteracy of the general population.

8/27/2006 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

Well, I think that this discussion point's out the basic conflict at work here.

Islam,is one of the few large scale religions remaining with a very large chunk of adherents who take it at absolute face value. The last time the west was like this is now refered to as the dark ages.

The fundamental conflict that the absolute fanatics have is with reason ( and therefore any free discussion of thier beliefs )Equally obvious is the fact that many of these beliefs are being questioned-- and thus the need for violence.

The fact is that most westerm religions are ( thank god ) not too serious anymore. Most parents take thier kids to a doctor when thier throat hurts and not straight to a priest.

8/27/2006 02:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Priit said...

ArtSoldier (whom I do not see commenting here) have some nice cartoony works on his site ("Law becomes the law", "Justice Scalia". Too bad he took these down.

8/27/2006 03:14:00 PM  
Blogger painterdog said...

The fact is that most westerm religions are ( thank god ) not too serious anymore.

I think you forgot the fundamentalist christian movement, thet are pretty extrem and take themselves very seriously.

Look what's happening in South Dakota, and Kansas.

These people don't beleve in evolution for petes sake...

8/27/2006 10:41:00 PM  
Anonymous William said...

Most western religions aren't that serious something like that...

I would tend to agree, but fact that public education on evolution is being challenged in different states and 'intelligent design' is being advocated clearly demonstrates how religious (metaphysical) thought is being taken very seriously at rather high levels.

As many problems I have with modernity, its roots in reason and logic, not faith, are the key components of Western thought that are becoming 'corrupted' if you will with articles of faith. I have great respect for faith, but I have even greater respect for those who understand that it's a form of trust, not fact.

You can call creationism 'intelligent design', but it's purely about aesthetics and using the language of modernity to describe the limits of our knowledge. It's the risk of pluralism, and hopefully dressing up faith in the language of pseudo-science won't continue to go unchallenged.

8/28/2006 12:11:00 AM  
Blogger painterdog said...

I agree, but these people have an agenda.
They want to live in a theocracy, which is fine with me, just don't use my tax dollors to fund it.

Faith is such a private thing.
Ther has been a Bill Moyers series on PBS on this very subject that has been real good, at least the ones I have watched.

8/28/2006 01:06:00 AM  
Blogger John Morris said...

I agree with all your comments. There is now a major force here trying to pull us into the dark ages too and as recent events are showing that is likely where we are headed.

8/28/2006 05:01:00 AM  
Blogger painterdog said...

As long as we are the subject, I recived this e-mail today from a professor who teaches political theory at DePaul University in Chicago this guy is teaching kids!!!:(in my e-mail i'm pissed of as I find his attitude about the real death threats to Rushdie, and Irshad Manji a serious matter. His asking her if there is a petition supporting the death threats is not funny.)

On Aug 29, 2006, at 12:35 AM, Norman Finkelstein wrote:

I'm not sure what you're so outraged about. Have you ever heard of someone who is the object of a real death threat calling on friends to sign a petition saying: Please don't kill me. If Jackie O got wind of the fact that the Mafia was plotting to kill JFK, would she ask friends to sign a petition saying: Please don't kill JFK.

If you weren't a palpable imbecile, you'd recognize how preposterous Manji is: this pitifully desperate Salman Rushdie-wannabe. She gives ambulance chasers a bad name. Just as you give imbeciles a bad name.

This is my original e-mail to him:

Dear Mr.Finkelstein,
I have been reading some of your articles and while I do not agree with you at all, but I think you are entitled to your opinions.

I was recently on Irshad Manji's web site and lo and behold your
name came up in regards to a comment on the petition for the
Manifesto Against a New Totalitarianism.

If you are the author of this comment then you need to really check yourself: If not than you should contact her to see if someone is using your name to spread such filth.

"Only one person emailed a disconcerting message. A gentleman named
Norman Finkelstein wrote to say, "Is there a petition supporting the
death threats?" Maybe he's just a researcher."

If you did I have to ask what is your problem and how can a professor who teaches political theory at DePaul University in Chicago say such things without getting fired. I guess you have tenure.

Think about this, your asking to sign a petition that supports the death of 12 people who disagree with the way Islam is heading. Even if this was a joke, your are supposed to be a professor.

Does a professor of political theory act like a 10 year old? Do you treat your students with this much contempt?

8/29/2006 01:54:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Irshad Manji may not the world's ultimate scholar on Islam, but she is the one who manages to connect with more people than anyone else, which is no small feat, and makes Mr. Finkelstein's problems with her seem petty and self-serving. Anyone truly dedicated to spanning the gulf between Islam and other religions would build upon her success, not try to tear her down.

8/29/2006 08:09:00 AM  
Blogger painterdog said...

The sad thing is he is teaching young minds, I have not read Irshad Manji's books, I have seen her talk, and she makes a lot of sense.

Finkelstein does have an agenda,
he is very critical of Isreal, and ogrinizations such as the Anti-Defamation League.

8/29/2006 11:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

>>>Thinking the same way as you >>>did as a 12 year old is, well >>>kind of odd and escapist.

Interestingly I find that most religions and even to some extent any cultural "safety blanket" to be some form of escapism against the face difference, death, and the intricacies of sex. I am not foul enough to behold any certainties about life after death, wrether there is a god or not. I think the universe is magical enough to make one wonder.

But I am aware of how the public psycho manifests itself and I find that often religions do not concomit with real simple facts of nature, which I find often more "moral" in themselves than whatever is brought up by men (for example, the reality of homeostasis and the fact that we are many different species that must adapt to live together).

The religious person accepts a dogma and very rarely is able to truly accept and respect the "other". I do not appreciate this concept of the "other". For me we are all in the same bag, only some of us are lunatics who went into arts while others are lunatics who went into religion. And "THEY" tell me "THEY" are separated from me but really I think "Oh..Or so you think..".
It doesn't make sense to me that a god would separate the good and evil in this world in cultural sordities. No one will ever be able to judge how someone is truly good and bad. We should leave it to God and stop pretending we can by living our lives full of codes and traditions so ancient that we barely understand the history of where and how they came up.

Religions are fragile subjects because most people are endorsed with them since they are very young and automatically think they meet EVIL when they meet someone who says " are allowed to masturbate". Truth is that us, evil people, ie. people free of dogmas, also follow some moral principles and values.


Cedric Caspesyan

8/31/2006 07:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Truth is that us, evil people, ie. people free of dogmas, also follow some moral principles and values.

I think that's what the Huron tribe of Canada called being a human being.

9/02/2006 01:11:00 AM  

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