Magazine article Artforum International

Taken Liberties: Yve-Alain Bois on Charlie Hebdo

Magazine article Artforum International

Taken Liberties: Yve-Alain Bois on Charlie Hebdo

Article excerpt

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IT SEEMS BOTH LONG AGO and only yesterday. The terrible attack on the Parisian journal Charlie Hebdo took place in January, but it both followed and has been followed by many all-too-similar events: The violence around and against speech shows no signs of stopping. All the more reason, then, to parse the complexity of polemical words and images, of the forms of discourse that are the toughest, the most incisive and the most puerile, the funniest and the worst--at the forefront of which lies Charlie Hebdo's extreme political and cultural satire. Because Charlie remains one of the knottiest and most misunderstood of outlets, Artforum asked renowned French art historian YVE-ALAIN BOIS to reflect on the publication's unstinting critical eye--its relentless interrogation of any and all figures of authority, its singular advancement of comics as an artistic and literary genre, and its implacable challenge to the silencing and censure that ceaselessly threaten our freedom.

THE THING I FOUND perhaps most absurd in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre was to see comments, particularly in the American press, presenting the journal as racist and Islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo, racist? Only people who had never even leafed through the publication, much less read it, could possibly have had such an idea, unless the journal had dramatically changed since the years of my youth. Indeed, it is rather for its militant, absolutely constant antiracism that I remember Charlie best. One of the most notorious characters invented by the cartoonist Cabu (Jean Cabut) was the repulsive beauf, a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, intolerant, and ignorant moron whose politics were closer to those of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front (one of Charlie's pet targets from its inception) than to any other. As for the specific charge of Islamophobia, it didn't square any better with my memory of the journal. Thankfully, other doubters equipped with better tallying skills than I decided to look into this: A statistical analysis of Charlie Hebdo's content over the past ten years, particularly that of its front page, was published in Le Monde on February 25. It reveals not only that the publication was actually less obsessed with religion than is generally supposed, with only 7 percent of its front pages devoted to the subject, but also that the topic of Islam makes up less than a fifth of even these covers. When Charlie attacks religion--its contributors are particularly exercised by fundamentalism (of all stripes) and the hypocrisy of the clergy--Catholicism is most often the butt of its satire. I still remember the back page of the issue from June 24, 1974, following the death of Cardinal Danielou, one of the most conservative and extreme opponents of contraception and the legalization of abortion, who suffered a fatal heart attack in the lodgings of a prostitute: twenty-four merciless cartoons, in grid formation, by the journal's star draftsmen--notably Georges Wolinski and Cabu, the two most famous victims of the lunatic jihadists in January's murderous raid.

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CHARLIE HEBDO was the journal of my student years, a banner of the French left (together with Liberation, whose golden age was the 1970s). I only realized later, after I emigrated to the US in 1983, how indebted I was to Charlie's team, not only for its political progressiveness but for my knowledge of the history of cartoons and comic strips. A little background is needed here: In February 1969, the editors of the satiric publication Hara-Kiri launched a monthly journal, Charlie Mensuel, which would be exclusively devoted to comic strips, publishing not only recent works by young authors but also great classics, particularly American ones, as well as serious articles on the history of the medium. …

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