There’s a huge row going on at the moment concerning the latest Gerald Scarfe cartoon in the Sunday Times newspaper.
The cartoon features Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a brick wall in which Palestinians are trapped and crushed between the bricks, with the mortar between the bricks being bright red to symbolise blood.
The cartoon has been criticised as being offensive, and by some as being antisemitic. As a result the proprietor of the Sunday Times, Rupert Murdoch, has issued an apology. As has the editor of the newspaper. Gerald Scarfe himself has also issued an apology too (although this wasn’t for the content of the cartoon itself but for the unfortunate coincidence that it was printed on Holocaust Memorial Day).
My own feeling is that the accusations of antisematism are misplaced. The truth is that although the cartoon may be judged to be crude, grotesque and offensive, this is an allegation that can be levelled at a lot of Scarfe’s work. It’s his trademark style. In fact this cartoon isn’t particularly crude, grotesque or offensive by Scarfe’s standards.
Scarfe depicts all politicians as grotesque, they are almost always doing something despicable, and there’s often a lot of blood around.
Scarfe is so blood fixated that a book that features his work over his (then) fortyfive year career goes by the title of “Drawing Blood”. The book includes the one word subtitle – “Uncensored”, which is a fair indication of the (deliberate) offensiveness level of his work.
If Scarfe’s work were to only descend into grotesquery when he was depicting Jewish politicians he may have been open to accusations of antisemitism, but he treats all politicians the same. The only accusation that I think can stick is one of being anti-politician, which may not be a bad thing at all.
Much is being said about the blood in the cartoon possibly being a reference to ‘blood libel”. Blood libel is the false accusation that Jews sacrifice Christian children in order to use their blood for certain ritualistic purposes (Blood libel can also apply to other religious groups, but it’s usually associated with Judaism, as here). There are. I think, two reasons why this accusation is wrong.
Firstly, the simple fact that, as mentioned earlier, a huge amount of Scarfe’s work is blood soaked. This one particular example of his work probably isn’t blood soaked for a reason that’s any different to the rest of his work. As I write this I have beside me a cartoon by Scarfe (from the book, Drawing Blood) featuring Margaret Thatcher with a head shaped like an axe. The axehead – Thatcher’s head – is covered with blood. She’s just chopped off the head of an unemployed man.
That’s Scarfe for you.
The second reason why I think that the blood libel allegation is wrong is that in Britain most people aren’t even aware of the term, and even if they were they almost certainly wouldn’t see it leaping out of the image in a cartoon.
So, as far as I can judge, in Britain the cartoon was seen as what it was – just another example of Gerald Scarfe’s blood spattered and grotesque style – a style that I personally think he uses to such an excessive and un-nuanced extent that he undermines its potential shock value.
However, things are different abroad. If you came to a Scarfe cartoon for the first time you wouldn’t know that he has history when it comes to grotesquery – that it was just more of the same. If you came across the Netanyahu cartoon having never seen a previous Scarfe cartoon you’d be forgiven for suspecting that it was antisemitic. However, the newcomer to Scarfe need only do a quick internet image search for “Scarfe cartoons” to see that he treats Netanyhu the same as he has treated numerous other politicians. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Richard Nixon to name but a few.
The ease with which an internet image search can show that the cartoon isn’t antisemitic and is merely a typical example of Scarfian stylised shockery calls into question the motives of some of the people who are complaining loudly that the cartoon is in fact antisemitic. It seems that some people want to be outraged and will ignore the facts in order to be so. Nothing new there.
One fact about the cartoon that seems to be ignored by many of its critics is that the cartoon does not, as far as I can interpret it, depict dead Palestinians or severed limbs incorporated into the wall, as is frequently stated. The people in the wall seem to be very much alive to me, and the limbs are all clearly attached to people, even though the people’s bodies may be hidden within the wall. The people are, I think, being depicted using the cartoon convention that people or animals can be squashed flat and still be very much alive. Describing the wall as containing dead bodies and ‘body parts’ seems to me to be a suspicious over amplification of the shock content of the cartoon.
There is one argument against the cartoon that has a certain validity. This is the argument that it will be picked up and used by antisemites for their own purposes even if the original intention of the cartoon itself wasn’t antisemitic. That’s probably true, although I’m sure that antisemites can find more objectionable, truly antisemitic cartoons elsewhere. They only have to do that internet image search that I mentioned a moment ago, but substituting ‘antisemitic’ for “Scarfe”.
The official Gerald Scarfe website – designed in a suitably blood stained manner.