Can art transform a nation's legal consciousness? This pandemic-inspired cartoon series is trying
In an era of politicization and misinformation, the simplicity of a satirical cartoon can cut through it all
Omid Milani never received any professional artistic training, but he always drew. Before taking notes in class, he would think of images to draw on his blank sheet of paper. It's always been more natural for him to draw than speak. As far as he's concerned, both are pretty similar: "When we speak, we evoke images. We're drawing images," he says. "But the process is so abstract and quick that we dismiss [that] fact."
It was this interest in art that inspired his doctoral thesis as a law student at the University of Ottawa, where he found that the dark and complex subject matter he was researching — the death penalty — could only be properly explored through storytelling. Particularly when it comes to difficult topics, Milani believes that art as a mode of storytelling allows us to communicate using emotion rather than just rationale. Now, this belief has led him to his next research project, supported by the University of Ottawa's Human Rights Research and Education Centre: Contekst (a play on the word "context"), from which the art series #COVICATURE was born.
#COVICATURE is an example of Milani's aesthetic approach to law and human rights — that is, seeing the image as a universal mode of communication and expression. "At the time of a global pandemic such as this, we need [a] universal means of communication," he explains. "The linear, textual way of communicating ideas is too slow, whereas cartoons are not like that; they are quick, but they are very profound."
Cartoons can be quickly understood and they encourage active participation from the viewer. Just as importantly, satirical cartoons — and cartoons in general — empower our imagination, making them ideal for exploring complex experiences such as suffering. "You can create your own version of the meaning, and that's clearly close to the universal spirit of human rights," says Milani. "That's why #COVICATURE can show those kinds of universal stories that we all feel, but maybe words are too little to communicate them to universal audiences."
For Milani, arts and human rights are closely tied and interdependent. "Art can help human rights in terms of communicating, popularizing, and promoting [its] content." It can also transform and broaden our understanding of what human rights really is. This is especially important today considering our current political climate.
For example, we can look at how #COVICATURE, a series of cartoons, takes on the current public discourse on COVID-19, exploring all the complicated emotions bound up in this historical moment. Cartoons can also potentially challenge the politicization of the pandemic (think anti-mask protestors, COVID conspiracy theories, and a president briefly pushing the injection of disinfectant as a cure). As Milani believes, when people in positions of power promote messages that go against reason and science, the public can become confused and unable to distinguish misinformation from fact. But in a single frame, cartoons can cut through it all, delivering audiences from superstitions and lies by communicating messages simply but profoundly.
This is not to say that cartoonists should strive to control meaning. On the contrary, as Milani believes, cartoons withdraw from that sort of "intellectual aggression," allowing the audience room to imagine and create meaning themselves. It is this liberty of art, Milani argues, that can serve Canadian human rights initiatives and legal institutions as a whole. Art gives us the freedom to create truthful images that can combat bigoted frames of reality. It can broaden our minds, free us from limited ways of thinking and offer up different perspectives rather than the ones dominant society considers "correct."
Ultimately, law and human rights both deal with life experiences, but those experiences are not so simple that they can be faithfully expressed through written reports and essays alone. "Human rights are universal and words are not," Milani argues. "Therefore, to speak about human rights, it is only natural to incorporate images."
Milani believes that #COVICATURE and Contekst can enrich legal scholarship with this exploration of the relationship between art and law. Law may be seen as a science, but it shares many characteristics with art — especially the importance of imagining, since imagination has long been key to how people have been differentially (and often unfairly) subjected to the law. Milani hopes that his way of conceiving of art and imagination transforms Canada's legal consciousness.
This hope is also the impetus behind the Human Rights Research and Education's Centre's Arts & Human Rights Program. "We can't have lawyers that cannot imagine because that's inhumane," Milani says. "The same for judges, the same for prosecutors, researchers, professors, students." He says those who fail to imagine beyond narrow readings of the law might "violate human rights."
It's a warning that reminds me of the current pushback against political cartoons and artists in various countries, and of Toni Morrison's essay, "No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear," in which she states "dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art." As Morrison argues, a key strategy of oppression is to "limit or erase the imagination that art provides" — imagination that encourages critical thinking, critical thinking that encourages empathy, empathy that encourages an understanding of shared humanity.
Law, after all, is a system that regulates humans. Therefore, future representatives of the law need to be able to open their minds and hearts to understand the depth of what humanity is. Considering it in that light, perhaps street art movements like Toronto's Paint the City Black can be just as valuable an educational tool as standard legal documents. Maybe that's why Milani considers imagination to be so precious: it's "a gift that art can share with law."