“These publications will not cost lives. Who killed people? We are not killing people, I’m sorry. We are not the violent ones. We are just journalists.” —Gerard Biard, editor-in-chief of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo
“So let’s get this straight: In the consensus view of modern American liberalism, it is hilarious to mock Mormons and Mormonism but outrageous to mock Muslims and Islam. Why? Maybe it’s because nobody has ever been harmed, much less killed, making fun of Mormons.” —Bret Stephens, “Muslims, Mormons and Liberals,” The Wall Street Journal
David Freedberg, the Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art and Director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University, opens The Power of Images (1991) with the following declaration:
“People are sexually aroused by pictures and sculptures; they break pictures and sculptures; they mutilate them, kiss them, cry before them, and go on journeys to them; they are calmed by them, stirred by them, and incited to revolt. They give thanks by means of them, expect to be elevated by them, and are moved to the highest levels of empathy and fear. They have always responded in these ways; they still do.”
This is an apt reminder in the wake of the straight-to-YouTube movie, “Innocence of Muslims,” which, we were repeatedly told by news media outlets, launched an incendiary wave of protests across the radical Muslim world. Only a week later, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammed in “questionable” postures. As a precaution to violent outbreaks, France closed embassies and schools in around twenty countries; it also officially banned protests. As a proactive measure to bring to justice what he regarded as a blasphemous movie, a Pakistani railways minister, in a move reminiscent of the Vader/Fett relationship, placed a $100,000 bounty on the head of the filmmaker.
For Americans immersed in an alternate universe to Salafist-styled Islam, it is inconceivable that a filmmaker could be held responsible for the reactions of viewers. “It’s just a movie,” the thinking goes, and the filmmaker presumptively has a right to express his or her views just as the viewers have a right to watch or not to watch the movie. “Take it or leave it, but you cannot make a filmmaker responsible for a public’s response.”
That’s the gist of the American reaction to the demand of pro-Al Qaeda Muslims that the U.S. government punish the filmmaker, preferably by execution.
To Americans, the notion that a filmmaker could injure an entire country or people group is not only incomprehensible, it’s also irritating. If you watched the Facebook posts around the time of the political ruckus, you would have seen Western philosophical aesthetics in action: “Freedom of speech! An inalienable right! Don’t blame the movie!” To argue otherwise, it was believed, was necessarily to argue for censorship of the artist—or worse, for the demise of good art.
In fairness, there was plenty of hypocritical handwringing among those who professed to defend Muslims against the so-called offensive speech of the “Innocence of Muslims.” These were the kinds of arguments that we would unfortunately never hear in defense of outraged Christians who feel, legitimately or not, that Michael Moore, Bill Maher, Chris Ofili, and Martin Scorsese have harmed the Christian faith. Christians, I’m afraid, would inevitably be told to shove it and quit being hypersensitive babies.
Ross Douthat, in his recent New York Times article, “It’s Not About the Video,” was thankfully a welcomed voice of reason on this account. And to put his point somewhat simply, it’s never, ever just about a video; it’s rather about the cross-cultural circumstances in which a video is experienced.
But back to our typical American filmmaker. As he or she conceives it, the transaction that occurs in a dark theater is ultimately one that takes place between individuals: between the largely autonomous maker of moving images and the viewer of moving images, between one soul and many others. If the individual artist is true to his or her inner vision, the reasoning goes, society will benefit from the result. This kind of approach to art is what James Davison Hunter calls a cultural “given.” It’s an unquestioned assumption that hides in the subconscious thinking of a society, and, as the case may be, it is also a dangerous sort of assumption precisely because we remain blind to it.
The curious thing, of course, is that this construal of the relationship of artist to society is the exception rather than the rule in human history. From the patristic era to the Medieval Age, from the century of Reformation to the early years of the American Republic and beyond, to a thousand tongues and tribes on the planet, Christians have treated images as powerfully charged, invoking and provoking violence, and they have known that their use or non-use affects the welfare of an entire society. They have also known that the responsibility for their relative use was a social one, not a solitary one.
The French author Marie-Jose Mondzain asks: “Can images kill? Do images make us killers? Can we go so far as to attribute to them the guilt or responsibility of crimes and offenses that as objects they couldn’t actually have committed?” History provides answers to these questions.
In the sixteenth century, Protestant reformers stripped altars bare and defaced liturgical paintings which they felt had corrupted the true worship of God. The Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), in the spirit of Old Testament prophets, termed this activity “war against the idols.” Those who refused to forsake such images were beaten, flayed, hung and burned. Twentieth-century monuments to Vladimir Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung, representing a history of violence, were torn down. Spike Lee’s movie Do The Right Thing (1989) was accused of being both an act of violence and an incitement to violence. This year, Warner Brothers cut all gun references in the trailer to the Dark Knight Rises after the Aurora, Colorado, shootings.
Can images kill? Yes. Do images cause people to kill? The answer to this question is more ambiguous. Did the 1974 Hollywood disaster film The Towering Inferno inspire the terrorist authors of the destruction to the Twin Towers? Possibly, but not certainly. Is it the responsibility of filmmakers to guard against these kinds of violent responses? It all depends on what we mean by “guard against” and it depends on how we conceive the filmmaker’s relationship to the community.
If it is true, as the critical theorist W.J.T. Mitchell suggests, that the life of images is not a private or individual affair but rather a “social life,” then perhaps we need to ask ourselves basic questions about the mutual relationship between artist and society. While such questions cannot be easily resolved, I believe our assumptions need to be continually interrogated.
What kind of questions might we ask ourselves? Perhaps these, for starters:
- What might result if filmmakers invited their community to participate not just with the final product’s marketability value but also with the whole process in which a film is made, from conception to reception?
- What benefit might be had if filmmaker listened with and to the regular sorts of people which comprise their lives, trusting that their imaginations would be all the better for it, precisely because the Holy Spirit was enlarging their imaginations because of their communities, not despite them?
- How might the practices of the Christian church—such as breaking bread together and prayer, acts of service and social reconciliation—inform the aesthetic habits of filmmakers?
In short, what would it look like to conceive of the artist not in opposition to society, not as an outsider at odds with society, but rather in fellowship with those who bear with and for the well-being of the artist, without any softening of the irritating contours of good works of art?
David Morgan, in his book Icons of American Protestantism (1996), writes: “An image is never simply what an artist says it is but is also what the artist’s training, publisher, dealer, market, audience, and critics say it is.” In other words, an image is what a society says it is.
I’m not sure how I would answer all the questions I’ve raised, but I think it’s exciting to imagine a society that welcomes the opportunity to grow in its capacity to read and respond thoughtfully to moving images along with artists, who in turn as artists welcome the opportunity to be deeply embedded and implicated by that society.