If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.
John F. Kennedy
A week or two ago I wrote about my “blind spot” with reference to the visual arts in general and, in particular, The Scream by Edvard Munch. Now a very different painting has been dominating the news, not because of the absurd price it commanded,–it sold for a modest $16,000–but because it depicted the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, with his penis hanging out of his trousers.
The Spear would probably not have been in the news at all were the South African government not as ignorant of the Streisand effect as they are of constitutional law, philosophy, civics, economics, geography, democracy and science. They brought suit in the High Court seeking an injunction against the painting being displayed in the Goodman Gallery, or on the website of a newspaper, the City Press. Their grounds are that the painting is disrespectful and impairs the President’s constitutional right to dignity. The case will be heard today, but the outcome is moot because the image is now hosted on thousands of websites worldwide. Oh, hell, let’s make it one more:–
The painting itself doesn’t interest me much, but it has certainly become a mirror reflecting the soul of South African society. Reactions to it have ranged from the hysterically anti to the strident pro–no one professes indifference. Of course, in this race-obsessed nation, the first card slapped onto the table was the race card, because the artist, Brett Murray, is white and the President is black. How those incidental facts make the work racist has yet to be satisfactorily explained by any of the parties playing the card. “It’s rude, it’s crude, it’s disrespectful, it’s racist,” bleated Gwede Mantashe, the General Secretary of the African National Congress, but failed to go on to explain why.
Religion must, as usual, escape from the confines of its churches and mosques to make known its absurd opinions. Listen to Enoch Mthembu, spokesman for the Nazereth Baptist Church:–
This man [Brett Murray] has insulted the entire nation and he deserves to be stoned to death.
What he did clearly shows his racist upbringing because art does not allow people to insult others.
This is an attack on the culture of the majority, the black people of South Africa. With our culture we are allowed to marry many women. And white people must understand that and tolerate our culture as we do theirs. We are not like some of them who prefer prostitutes as they regard women as sex objects.
Anyone who seriously believes in a supernatural parent in the sky, talking snakes and zombies must have a malfunctioning brain, and you can’t really expect a malfunctioning brain to produce reasoned argument, so I won’t be too hard on Mr Mthembu; but I will point out that his opinion mirrors that of the other religious organisations that have entered the fray.
Fortunately there have been more reasoned responses to the work that touch on the meaning of the painting. Here is what Tselane Tambo, the daughter of the late Oliver Tambo, had to say:–
So the Pres JZ has had his portrait painted and he doesn’t like it.
Do the poor enjoy poverty? Do the unemployed enjoy hopelessness? Do those who can’t get housing enjoy homelessness? He must get over it. No one is having a good time. He should inspire the reverence he craves. This portrait is what he inspires.
So who is Jacob Zuma? He is–some argue–the least effective President South Africa has ever had. He has been accused of corruption (he managed to get the charges dropped, although there is a movement to have them reinstated. His co-accused, Schabir Shaik, was convicted.) Rape charges were brought against him by an HIV-positive woman whom he knew was HIV-positive, yet he enjoyed unprotected sex with her (he was acquitted). He has been married six times, although he currently has only four wives, and is said to have fathered–in and out of wedlock–over twenty children. Under his stewardship economic growth has stagnated, there are millions more unemployed than when he took office, and South African society has become even more polarised, thanks largely to his lack of effective leadership and incompetent policies.
This is the paragon who wishes to stand on his dignity. He must realise that respect must be earned–it does not come automatically with the office of President. He is ridiculed because he is ridiculous, but he wishes to enforce his constitutional right to dignity at the expense of the artist’s right to freedom of expression. We must refuse him. The artist has a right and a duty to comment on the state of the society in which he lives, and if that involves producing an image of the over-active presidential schlong, then so be it.
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License