Four cartoonists are gunned down. Cartoonists. People who make funny drawings. Very dangerous people, cartoonists – if you an enemy of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité – the values upon which our open society are built.
That most wonderful of cartoonists Gerald Scarfe has said this: “I don’t think cartoons in any way alter anything that happens in the world.” With the greatest of respect I have to disagree with him. As a teenager in the early 1970s trying to make sense of a world defined by Vietnam and pub bombings, I found his cartoons in the paper that fell onto our doormat every Sunday hugely provoking and engaging.
And while the pomposity and brutality of Thatcherism destroyed jobs, communities and people in the 1980s, it was Steve Bell’s Maggie’s Farm and If cartoon strips that gave the left confidence that while it could no longer win elections, it still had the best jokes.
The great thing about political cartoons is that they can present visually views and ideas that – if they were to be committed to the printed word – could easily result in litigation. Political artists exercising their comic liberty (which is what cartoonists are) have a skill possessed by few others – to look through the masks worn by politicians and others who exercise power and draw what they see. This form of artistic practice is not only in itself a good thing – but essential to an open society and to our democratic process. Cartoonists are artists who look hard at those who wield (and often abuse) power – providing through great visual economy an eloquent and powerful argument as to why they are wrong – and how they are vulnerable.
This is what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did supremely well. And that is why today’s events are such a dreadful blow to those values we hold dear. But through solidarity, love and comic liberty, those values will endure. We must hold on to our faith. And our sense of humour.