Another Islamic extremist killing spree was blamed on cartoonists as recent, ugly events unfolded in Denmark surrounding Swedish “cartoonist” Lars Vilks. A lone killer sprayed machine gun fire at a “free speech event” organized around Vilks, who has attained a bizarre level of celebrity for drawing Prophet Muhammad heads on the bodies of dogs.
Vilks is a “conceptual artist” who had been known for building towers made of sticks before he took up the Prophet Muhammad-dog theme. Vilks studied art history and didn’t train as an artist, as is clear to anyone who sees his terrible drawings. His most famous Muhammad dog drawing looks like he drew it in five seconds, on a napkin, with his eyes closed, and both hands behind his back.
Unlike cartoonists who seek to have their work published, Vilks shopped around for galleries that were willing to hang his scribble on their wall – when one gallery agreed, the drawing made the news, and the art show was cancelled, but the news was enough to give Vilks new fame as the Prophet Muhammad dog “cartoonist”.
For a conceptual artist, the act of creating art and the response to the art are all that matters. For example, an artist can put a crucifix into a jar of urine, or cover herself with chocolate and if she can get the National Endowment for the Arts to pay for it – and cause a stir – and create a new conversation, the conceptual art is a success. Vilks’ towers of sticks were built in a Swedish nature sanctuary, violating local regulations, and triggering a reaction from local authorities who wanted to regulate the structures. Drama = art.
Conceptual artists are nothing like cartoonists, who can draw, who usually have editors, and who want to have their cartoons and ideas reprinted and distributed to a large audience through the media. Unfortunately, after the Danish Muhammad cartoons and the Charlie Hebdo attacks, editorial cartoonists are painted with the same broad brush as Vilks, the “artist” who the media insists on labeling a “cartoonist.”
Vilks seems to relish his place in the spotlight as a self-appointed authority on freedom of expression. He’s done an exhibition of classic paintings with Prophet Muhammad-headed dogs inserted into the paintings. He travels with an armed escort and is a featured speaker at “freedom of speech” events, organized by his supporters, like the one that was attacked in Copenhagen. Vilks is a media-darling for interviews. I suppose it isn’t surprising that some narcissist would take a clash of civilizations as a opportunity for self-promotion.
As an editorial cartoonist, I live in a new world now, where timid editors see editorial cartoonists as dangerous. The talented Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are among the top cartoonists in France, their Muhammad cartoons reflect their concerns, and the concerns of their readers, about a culture clash with Islam in French society.
The Danish Muhammad cartoonists, back in 2005 were also different – they were paid $50 each by a local newspaper to draw Muhammad; they were illustrators given an assignment by an editor, Flemming Rose, who wanted to make a point about crossing red-lines by publishing offensive cartoons. In their cartoons, the Danish cartoon illustrators playfully rejected the premise of the assignment, except for one, Kurt Westergaard, who was the staff editorial cartoonist for the newspaper; he drew the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, an image that became the only Danish Muhammad cartoon that anyone remembers. Rose, Westergaard and Vilks share equal billing on the Islamic death-list marquee.
Since the Danish cartoons were drawn only for the purpose of demonstrating that there is a right to offend, they set up the narrative that drawing Prophet Muhammad cartoons is all about freedom of expression, that editorial cartoonists are eager to push the limits, and that editorial cartoonists are dangerous, reinforcing the prejudices of editors who are more timid now than ever. Vilks, by taking the reins of the Prophet-Muhammad-cartoon-bandwagon, is limiting my own freedom of expression as an editorial cartoonist almost as much as the Islamic-extremist-nuts who repeatedly try to kill him.
Vilks doesn’t deserve to be killed by an Islamic assassin; he doesn’t deserve to be punished or silenced, and he doesn’t deserve to be called a “cartoonist”. He deserves to be ignored.