It is clear to me that a discussion is needed, and an open discussion that itself is not hampered by the application of tradition or historical comparisons.

The Guardian today published an Opinion article from Dave Rich, which levelled criticism at a political cartoon (which has since been removed from the website) by Martin Rowson concerning the resignation of Richard Sharp from the BBC.  The cartoon has been branded as antisemitic, and indeed it is hard to argue with some of the evidence that Dave Rich raises for this – most notable of which for me is the name of Goldman Sachs being on the cardboard box in which Richard Sharp has put his things on leaving the office.  Other criticisms of the cartoon I do not support individually, despite the fact that together with the Goldman Sachs reference the whole can indeed be considered racist.

The area in which I do not agree with Dave Rich his statement that Martin Rowson uses antisemitic tropes – which he argues are antisemitic irrespective of context.

Dave Rich cites the representation of Richard Sharp as having larger than normal lips, a hooded brow and a large nose.  These three are indeed tropes which have been historically used to represent a person as being Jewish – whether or not they were possessed of such features.  However, I would contend that it is worth remembering that we are discussing a caricature in this instance.  The definition of a caricature is a drawing or description of them that exaggerates their appearance or behaviour in a humorous or critical way; hence the nose, eyes and mouth are key physical features that any caricaturist might seek to amplify in a caricature of anyone who has anything less than a tiny nose, mouth etc.  The logicial extension of his argument is that we should consider that any caricature representing a larger-than normal nose is automatically antisemitic…  or is this only if the person identifies as Jewish.  How can we possibly determine how someone identifies from a picture?

Dave Rich also indicates that he believes the use of a big pink squidas reminding that in 2009 Matt Taibbi, writing in Rolling Stone, famously described Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.  He claims that this metaphor is antisemitic, and this is exemplifies the point with which I take issue.  I would invite the reader to name me any single global bank that could not be described as a ‘vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity’.  From my perspective they all are – the tendrils of corrupt financial dealings run through all banks across the world, regardless of their ownership.  Such is capitalism.

The use of the squid in this cartoon however I agree can be seen to be antisemitic, since even given that Richard Sharp once worked at that bank, it has no relevance to his position at the BBC of his resignation.  This does not mean that a pink squid per se is antisemitic.  This is where we need to be careful I think.  The line needs to be drawn between personal caricature and racism – and which is which?  And who should decide?

It seems to me that context is the predominant factor in any such determination.  Would the depiction of a French person wearing a beret be racist for example?  It is certainly an accepted racist trope, however if the person in question does indeed wear a beret then surely it can also be considered to be appropriate caricaturism.  If we are to caricature people then, and that it should remain outside of any and all forms of prejudice and discrimination; we have to be mindful of the context – else we have to avoid all forms of caricature, for fear of offending one or mutiple specific groups.  There needs to be an understanding of the difference between critiscism of a person or a policy and generalisations.

In this example, we have a specific physical caricature of a man combined with misplaced and irrelevant (to my view) contextual caricature.  The physical caricature of Richard Sharp I do not consider to be racist.  It seems to me that the artist gas captured the essence of his features and has amplified them.  Rather it is the inclusion of irrelevant contextual caricature that renders the whole a racist representation.

The line here is fine, but for me very clear.  My understanding however clearly differs from that of Dave Rich, and I am sure many others.

2 Replies to “Context is Everything”

  1. Surely the Goldman Sachs depiction was made because the only person who could sack Richard Sharp was Richi Sunak but since Sharp was instrumental in Sunak’s financial training at Goldman Sachs post University then the cartoonists link was inevitable?

  2. I followed the Sharp saga fairly closely and it is clear the appointment was rigged/set up from the outset. In my view his demise should have come sooner. At no time did it occur to me that he was jewish, for me Rich’s article is an irrelevance in the whole debate. I agree with your point about bank behaviour, the caricature is a fair reflection of their business principles.

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