Charlie Hebdo’s Old Testament streak

An image is not the thing it represents. This point was made most poignantly by René Magritte when he wrote “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” beneath a perfectly adequate, two-by-three foot painting of a tobacco pipe.

Clare Haynes, Bell Visiting Professor of Anglican and Ecumenical Studies, brought it once more to life in a Thursday talk about visual satire that was laced with humor and bracketed by deadly seriousness.

Indeed, in the wake of January’s attack at Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo, no consideration of the topic could avoid touching, however lightly, on the specter of violence. I certainly expected it to loom menacingly in the background.

In her lecture, “A Laughing Matter? Religious Satire from William Hogarth to Charlie Hebdo,” Haynes did not shy away from this specter, but neither did she obsess over it. Instead, she mined 17th and 18th century British religious satire for nuggets of insight applicable to the genre at large.

William Hogarth’s 1736 engraving, “The Sleepy Congregation,” was a criticism of the contemporary state of religion.

William Hogarth’s 1736 engraving, “The Sleepy Congregation,” was a criticism of the contemporary state of religion.

Nuggets like this: “Cartoons are not really the place to go for sophisticated political analysis,” or more seriously, “Cartoons exaggerate, lie, can be ambiguous and deliberately omit the truth.”

In pulling my imagination away from the virtual trauma of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and focusing it on a carefully laid out section of British art history, Haynes offered a sort of momentary convalescence. For a time, the question on my mind was “What does satire do?” instead of the more politically and existentially threatening, “What does radical political or religious violence mean for free speech?”

So, what does satire, specifically religious satire, do? In 18th century Britain, it both “rends” and “mends,” Haynes said. It skewers the perceived hypocrisies of both laity and clergy, but often seeks to guide both back to a more moderate, more pious religious life—and sometimes it lambasts Catholics. But usually just foreign Catholics. Especially the French. What? Britain’s a complicated place.

Visual satire can play this rending-and-mending role because it relies on its viewers to supply the argument themselves. I’ll proceed by example. Caveat emptor: visual satire is notoriously ambiguous, and what follows oversimplifies things a bit. But what’s a man to do in 750 words?

When the British cartoonist William Hogarth created his etching “The Sleepy Congregation,” which depicts a preacher so focused on his notes that he has yet to notice his flock falling into a languid stupor, he didn’t single out any particular party for criticism.

Everyone in “The Sleepy Congregation,” from the priest, to the laity, to the parish clerk eyeing the exposed cleavage of a sleeping woman in the foreground, is an exaggerated type, easily recognized by the astute spectator. The critical question, Haynes stressed, is this: What was Hogarth asking his viewers to believe about real clerics, clerks and Christians?

Hogarth could predict the responses of his audience. He knew that he could “rend” by accusing the clergy of obliviousness and the masses of impiety. But he could at the same time “mend” by suggesting a comparison between the real world and that of “The Sleepy Congregation.” The argument is all in this off-screen work.

The satirist asks his viewers “to pick the undepicted,” Haynes said of another cartoon. This one portrayed a fat, pampered “Established Church” and an unkempt, skinny and greasy haired “True Doctrine.” The way out is through the middle.

What does this have to do with René Magritte? We have a tendency to identify images with things. Magritte’s painting isn’t “a picture of a pipe,” it’s “a pipe.” Caravaggio’s masterpiece isn’t “an image of the calling of St. Matthew,” it’s “The Calling of St. Matthew.”

In Haynes’ words, “We elide images and the things they represent.” Which brings us back to a nugget I unearthed earlier: “Cartoons exaggerate, lie, can be ambiguous, and deliberately omit the truth.”

But they do more than this. They rely on that split-second identification of image and object to connect lies and exaggerations with the object itself.

If cartoons do work in this way, they provide an almost tragicomic perspective on a central, if disputed tenet of the Abrahamic religions. The prohibition on images (“Thou shalt not make thee any graven image …”), which is part-and-parcel with the condemnation of idolatry, springs from a consciousness of this same human tendency.

Thus, Charlie Hebdo and Exodus are in agreement: images possess a profound, sometimes terrible, power. It was true then on Mt. Sinai, and it’s true today in Paris.

I was lucky enough to be a student in Dr. Haynes class on “Art and Religion Since the Reformation” during my sophomore year. The things I took from that class are too many to list here. Instead, I will simply say “Thank you” to Dr. Haynes for all of the good her teaching has done me since.

Post Author: tucollegian

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