Friday, December 16, 2016
Philippe is the Director of the Alliance Française (until next August when his term ends). He is clearly very proud to host this exhibition in a particularly French setting. It had run previously in the EU Commission Office but has been extended to run at the Alliance until 18 January 2017.
The exhibition itself comprises 12 panels of cartoons by nearly 50 cartoonists from around the world. Each panel is devoted to a specific topic linked to freedom of expression: censorship, internet, corruption, women’s rights, rebellions, racism… All of the drawings were published in local papers.
One of the panels is devoted to reactions to the Charlie Hebdo murders. Charlie Hebdo may be at the outer margins of free speech and not everyone's cup of tea but it does provide a focus for the debate even if Charlie itself is the product of a particular French configuration.
The exhibition is presented by the Institut Français and the Courrier International. It comes under the framework of the Franco-German Cultural Fund 2016, with the support of the Embassy of France in Ireland, the Embassy of Germany in Ireland and the Goethe-Institut.
Of the 50 Cartoonists none is French or German.
The objective of the exhibition is to promote debate on free speech.
Séamus is the Secretary of the National Union of Journalists and it is therefore no surprise to find which side of the free speech argument he is on. He was the ideal person to launch the exhibition in the Alliance and he gave a rousing speech kicking a few butts along the way.
He had been in the #JeSuisCharlie march in Paris following the murders and it was good to hear someone who genuinely identified with the hashtag speak on the subject. That march badly needed redeeming, populated as it was with many Heads of State and Government who were busy locking up their political opponents at home while they barefacedly paraded the streets of Paris in solidarity with just about the most extreme form of free speech there is. Make your blood boil. So, good to listen to the genuine article.
Séamus mentioned the Dublin Opinion, and Felix Larkin's excellent study of this now almost forgotten satirical magazine. The Dublin Opinion got away with murder in its day. All the more surprising as it was produced by a senior civil servant. However, most politicians were probably happy to see themselves in it on the basis that some publicity is better than no publicity. Nevertheless, it was not a magazine that pulled its punches, it just delivered them in a deceptively mild manner. Seán T O'Kelly once praised it for “pouring, month after month, the balm of laughter on our wounds”, and Séamus actually used that quote in his speech.
He also found occasion to refer to Jim Larkin's paper The Irish Worker to which Ernest Kavanagh contributed some savage cartoons, not least of which was the depiction of William Martin Murphy as a bloodthirsty vulture preying on the workers (see cartoon below). William Martin Murphy was the proprietor of the Irish Independent during the 1913 lockout. Séamus referred to a big notice from that time in the Irish Worker advertising a production of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves which depicted William Martin Murphy in the lead role.
Séamus, who is currently up to his neck in the war with Independent Newspapers over their raiding of the workers' pensions, remarked that however bad the Independent's role in the past they never touched the workers' pensions.
For the avoidance of doubt, and no doubt many other consequences, I have to report that Denis O'Brien's name was not mentioned.
Séamus had an interesting story about taking a taxi to the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris at the time of the march. Security was mad and they were stopped numerous times and had to take a circuitous route to get there, and the same on the way back. All the more frustrating when they found afterwards that they hadn't been all that far from the office in the first place. But during the trip they were watching the meter mount. When they had finished and were attempting to pay the Muslim taxi driver he would not hear of it. By then he knew why they were there. Some genuine solidarity for a change.
Séamus also took a pot at the current Irish blasphemy law which is effectively so extreme it is unlikely ever to be enforced. He did remark, however, that Charlie Hebdo, were it publishing in Ireland would run foul of the law.
John Horgan, a former journalist, senator and press ombudsman, reminded Séamus of some reported advice given to Minister Dermot Ahern in 2009 when he introduced a new drastic blasphemy law. This despite a recommendation by the Law Reform Commission which said in 1991 that there was no place for such an offence in a society which respects freedom of speech.
To give Ahern his due, I think there was a little Constitutional complication here and we are all aware of the dangers of any government putting itself on the hazard of a referendum, particularly when times are bad.
Another heavy hitter at the event was Joe Mulholland, a veteran of many roles within RTÉ, including Managing Director of RTÉ television. Joe is probably best know these days in his role as the Director of the prestigious McGill Summer School.
Séamus mentioned that there was no Irish cartoonist included in the exhibition. As he referred to William Martin Murphy, I thought I would perform the honours for Ernest Kavanagh, at least as far as this blog post is concerned.
You could not get a more vicious cartoon than this depiction by Ernest Kavanagh of William Martin Murphy during the 1913 lockout. He is depicted as a vulture on the pillar of the gate of his house, Dartry Hall, crowing over the bodies of those workers killed in baton charges during the Lockout.
Not surprising then that The Irish Worker was shut down many times by the authorities only to re-emerge under a slight variant of its original name.
As I mentioned, there is no French cartoonist included in the exhibition so I just thought to mention here my own favourite cartoon from Charlie Hebdo itself. This is the two Jihadists arriving in Paradise and looking for the promised virgins only to find the team from Charlie Hebdo, who they had sent ahead of them, had already collared the market in virgins.
Needless to say, Charlie, as well as having a go at the Muslims also directed its talents towards the Roman Catholic church. This extremely offensive cover is aimed at the Cardinal Bishop of Paris, André Vingt-Trois, who opposed same sex marriage, and should really have changed his name by deed poll at an earlier age. It's not exactly "soixante-neuf" but the phrase in Italian slang, "venti tre", denotes an arse. So it's all a matter of context.
Neither of the two cartoons above are included in the exhibition, which, while invoking Charlie Hebdo, makes no attempt to match it in sheer offensiveness.
So what have they got?
I'm including a few of my favourites below to give a flavour of the exhibition which is well worth a visit. I'm also saying why these particular ones appealed to me. None of this rules out the possibility of me having got the wrong end of the stick entirely.
Perhaps the message here is a simple one. People are engrossed in their own personal electronic worlds and are heedless of the suffering around them.
But when I see that little radio logo my head goes into a spin. Perhaps the beggar is to be commended for using the latest technology to assist people to donate with minimum effort. Perhaps he's raiding the bank accounts of every one who passes by. Perhaps one of them is stealing his day's takings while the other two are having electronic tantric sex.
Anyway I instinctively liked this one as soon as I saw it.
And the function of a free press? Shining the light of publicity on the abuse of power. But there is also a hidden layer here. You have to trust your medium and there are recent disturbing accusations of Facebook engaging in censorship. So even within the amorphous realm of the "free press" there is a constant need for self-critique and renewal.
So, is this an environmentalist figuring we are doing less damage to the planet than previously? Or is it someone who is in favour of more/higher growth and is at least consoled by the retention of the terminology?
This is a tricky one which raises the question of the limits of free speech. Facts may be facts but if the theatre is really on fire do we really want to add to the panic. Should we not keep our mouth shut until we are all safely evacuated.
And to what extent should we try to keep up with the PC bandwagon. I'm fed up hearing the tag "community" attached to every reference to an ethnic group. Where are the Jews, the Muslims, the Catholics etc.? All replaced by "communities", to soften the blow, or what?
I've seen a number of inventive uses of barcodes in art and in advertising, but what have we here? The commoditisation of women. A league table of legs? People-trafficking?
This one shows that you don't have to be able to draw to produce a good cartoon. It's the thought that counts. For someone who can't draw for nuts this is very reassuring.
But to return to the content, this is like a modern version of 1984 where you resist group-think and Newspeak at your peril.
Back to the unambiguous direct cartoon. No room for multiple interpretations here.
And, penultimately, you can't be much more direct than this one included in the Charlie Hebdo panel. Avatar material
Anyway, I hope that you have gathered the importance of context from all of the above and that you will drop into the exhibition and make up your own mind about the limits of free speech and how well or otherwise the full set of cartoons has tackled this.
This is one of two cartoon chosen for the promotional literature. It is self explanatory.