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Business News/ Opinion / A bonfire of our pomposity

A bonfire of our pomposity

If every artist had to spell out everything, and explain everything, we wouldn't have art at all

Photo: AFPPremium
Photo: AFP

By now, most of us can picture the child without any prompting. The boy wore a red shirt and blue shorts that ended below his knees. He had put on his trainers, which would have been useful for a long walk. We now remember him lying on the beach, face down. We also know his name—Aylan Kurdi.

Like that anonymous Afghan girl on the cover of the magazine National Geographic, who stared at us, shaming us during another refugee crisis; like Phan Thi Kim Phuc who ran without clothes on a road in Trang Bang, her body singed with burns caused by napalm after the South Vietnamese air force had bombed her village; or like the Sudanese child, crouching almost lifeless, watched over by a vulture waiting to devour him; Aylan Kurdi became the sting that bites our conscience, making it harder to put him out of our minds even if we put aside that magazine or that newspaper.

The conscientious among us changed our profile picture on social media with the image of the child.

But that gesture is empty; we are complicit in these tragedies. And to put this across bluntly, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo published illustrations last week that showed Aylan face down, now lifeless, on the beach. And over on the horizon, the billboard of McDonald’s, with Ronald McDonald offering a two-for-one happy meal deal. The caption said: si pres du but... (So near his goal). The magazine had another provocative illustration. Offering “proof" that Europe is Christian, a man walks on water while a child drowns, and the caption says—Christians walk on water, Muslim kids drown.

Predictably, there was outrage – at the magazine. Charlie Hebdo of course understands controversies. Islamic terrorists had gunned down 12 of the magazine’s staff members earlier this year because they were avenging the magazine’s cartoons against their religion. Many around the world rallied round the magazine and it didn’t miss its publishing deadline the following week. At the same time, quite a few regretted the killings, but (there is always that but) they pointed out that Charlie Hebdo was racist (which it wasn’t), as if that mitigated the violence against the cartoonists and others at the magazine.

Nobody put out any fatwa on Charlie Hebdo this time, but a few commentators criticized the magazine for exploiting the refugee crisis. It showed the magazine’s inherent “racism" or “Islamophobia", they wrote in sanctimonious prose. That misunderstands the nature of satire. Charlie Hebdo was ridiculing our complacency, our hedonism—of defining “civilization" not as a refuge from conflict, but as a place where two-for-one deals are available, and where the doors are open for some, not others. Charlie Hebdo indicted our hedonism. It mocked our certainties, as if once we blamed the root cause of the crisis (America, who else?) we could wash our hands off the problem. And the magazine mocked our clicktivism, where we feel we have done good by clicking “like" on Facebook, or “RT"ing a tweet, or signing a petition online. The Internet makes things so convenient, doesn’t it, I mean, we don’t even have to type a letter, sign it, put it in an envelope, look for stamps, and go to the post office to mail it? One click, and we become virtuous.

Charlie Hebdo’s illustrations intend to offend, to make us think. They are tasteless—“taste" is our defensive wall that acts as a barrier preventing us from confronting reality, from saying what we feel, from feeling what is really in our heart. We don’t like where the logic leads, so we call it tasteless.

In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, which suggested that the poor parents sell their children as food to the wealthy, so that the children of the poor do not become a burden to their parents or the country, and instead benefit the public. Outrageous it was, and that is the purpose of satire. What good satire does is to reveal the absurdity around our existence.

Humour is subjective and to many Charlie Hebdo wasn’t funny. Many sincere, intense folks thought that Charlie Hebdo was mocking Aylan, or Muslims, and not Europe or Christianity. But if every artist had to spell out everything, and explain everything, we wouldn’t have art at all; we’d have Soviet-era documentaries. As Yasmina Reza’s provocative play Art shows, even a blank canvas can be meaningful, forcing the viewers to face their true selves. This does not make every caricature a work of art, nor does it make every joke a piece of literature.

Charlie Hebdo wasn’t making an artistic point nor making a joke. It was pointing out our hypocrisies and making a bonfire of our pomposity, our vanities. What’s really worth reflecting on is this: What is worse? Our anger over those illustrations, or our inability to outrage over a war that has created the refugee crisis in which Aylan, like many others, has died?

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to

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Published: 23 Sep 2015, 08:35 PM IST
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