This is a lethal weapon!This artwork was created shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015, an attack in which 11 were killed, including 4 cartoonists who worked for the magazine. It was the work of those cartoonists — satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad — that incited the two attackers, who claimed they were avenging the Prophet, in accordance with the Islamic prohibition against depicting the Prophet.
It’s not the first time the depiction of the Prophet has resulted in death threats or outright violence by a peaceful religion’s most extreme adherents. From the Jyllands-Posten controversy, to incidents involving Lars Vilks, South Park, or Molly Norris, the disproportionate reaction—and in the cases of Charlie Hebdo and Lars Vilks, the barbaric reaction—to a drawing has been hard to comprehend.
The idea that someone would respond to a drawing as if it were a physical threat requiring a physical response — rather than a representation of an idea calling for an intellectual response — was the central, maddening mystery to me.
It was this juxtaposition of representation versus reality that brought Magritte’s Treachery of Images — aka Ceci n’est pas une pipe — to mind. A French expression of the absurdity of confusing an object for the representation of an object. (Although Magritte was born in Belgium and spent most of his life there, he lived for 3 years in Paris, during which time he painted The Treachery of Images.)
I debated whether or not the text should read Ceci n’est pas une arme létale— This is not a lethal weapon, or Ceci est une arme létale—This is a lethal weapon. Either version had merit, but “This is not a weapon” seemed to state the obvious since it depicts a pencil, and thus loses the irony that was the gist of Magritte’s original. I wanted to express the idea of absurdity, thus “This is a lethal weapon.”
But of course, it’s not. It’s just a pencil. And it’s just a picture.