03 maj 2013

A drawing style is like a tone of voice


Just one of many users’ comments from Huffington Post to the current debate on a controversial magazine cover illustration. To be fair, THE WEEK run a caricature on almost every single front page they publish; therefore, frequent readers of the magazine must be used to this drawing style and might not see this particular front page as being quite as offensive as some other people – including this blogger – do.

Anyway, what intrigues me is not so much the discussion on potential racism and the fact that the artist depicted the Tsarnaev brothers less ”white” than they actually are. Although this is indeed interesting, and probably says a lot about the American society. Two rather good-looking young men (one slightly handsomer than the other) have been portrayed as jowly, gloomy-faced frights. And the one thing upsetting us is that their skin was made a tad darker than it actually is.

BUT THERE’S ANOTHER PROBLEM. And that is the impression people – a majority of Huffington Post users, at least (or, rather, a majority of those who commented on the story) – seem to have of illustrations. They appear to think that if it’s a drawing, anything goes. If you are an artist, you can do whatever you please.
Now of course cartoonists should enjoy great freedom. They must have the liberty to portray Dimitri Medvedev as a puppet – and even Angela Merkel as a nazi officer (although I personally find that analogy inappropriate) – in order to criticize not so much the appearances of these men and women, as their actions.

But what some people may not realize is how much is communicated through the drawing style.
A drawing style is like a ”tone of voice” with which an artist can add nuances to a visual statement and imply how that statement should be interpreted.

The more grotesque a picture looks, the more obvious it will be to the viewer that its statement should not be taken literally.
And once we realize that it is not to be taken literally, we’ll start looking for more layers, searching for an underlying message of the illustration. A subtler message, often kind of symbolic, often using metaphors.

AS I SEE IT, the main problem with the cover illustration of the Tsarnaev brothers is that there are no hidden layers to be found. This drawing does not ask to be scrutinized, it contains nothing more than what you see at first glance.
And its message is plain and simple: ”Here’s what these two guys look like, see what kind of monsters they are”.
This drawing is pure propaganda. It wants to manipulate us into seeing two Chechen immigrants as the essence of evil.

In a way, that is kind of strange, as the headline – and the subhead in particular – suggests a depth and a willingness to try digging down into the true substance of the story which could have been accompanied much more convincingly by a different kind of images. Pictures implying that these two men may be human after all, not just monsters, in spite of their horrible deed.

I have not read the article. But I suspect that the choice of illustration might be due to poor judgment and lack of skill rather than bad intentions.
But that is another story.

Thanks to Hari Stephen Kumar for composing the above picture package.

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