The recent controversy about the artist Brett Murray’s “The Spear” painting provoked furious verbal and other acrobatics. Those who opposed the public showing of the painting did so claiming not to be censoring an exposed penis per se, but to be objecting to the ridiculing of the owner of this particular penis, namely, our president, Jacob Zuma. They maintained that the comic posture he was placed in infringed on his dignity, that the painting is guilty of racial stereotyping a practice that typified apartheid. They further claimed that this was an insult to the office of the President and showed continuing white insensitivity to black authority in general.
On the other hand, those who defended the right of the artist to produce such a work, the right of the gallery to exhibit the work and the right of the media to reproduce it and comment on it, made counter claims: that art ought to be permitted to challenge authority and convention in terms of `talking back to power’ and that defining offence is a highly subjective exercise particularly with respect to public figures whose words and actions are given wide exposure. Not even the president, despite being an important symbol of national dignity and authority, is above satire and other forms of artistic comment. Whilst recognizing historical sensitivities, in this instance they noted that the painting is the work of an artist who has a history of anti-racist political engagement and, more importantly, that Zuma has a very public record of reckless, inappropriate and `ignorant’ sexual behaviour. As such, the moral, they argued, is that everyone has to earn respect no matter their rank in society.
Over a two week period the issue traversed several terrains: vandalism (of the painting itself ), street demonstrations, court action, intimidation of journalists and massive coverage in all forms of media. Indeed, the saga was remarkable simply for the attention it generated from ANC/SACP elites who don’t usually consider cultural production noteworthy. Over the past twenty years the only other art works that have stirred comparable controversy were JM Coetzee’s novel `Disgrace’ and Zanele Muholi’s photographs of lesbian intimacy. In a country where only 10% of schools have libraries, our primary school children lag badly behind in basic literacy and numeracy and the budget for the Department of Arts and Culture has been cut significantly, this sudden interest in art making is remarkable. But leaving aside the obvious inference that this was an electioneering stunt waged by the Zuma camp in view of Mangaung’s imminence, what does this episode tell us about the general drift of values in our society?
The most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that traditionalists, patriarchal conservatives in the ANC, Stalinists and right wing business interests have won a clear cut victory in a broader campaign that includes attacks on the freedom of information, constitutionalism in rural areas and gay rights. In short, the forces protecting Zuma are gathering momentum for a deeper assault on civil and political rights by marshalling the support of both African traditionalists and the marginalized and unemployed both rural and urban who are desperate for change and susceptible to populist rhetoric.
How to stop this attack? As always, there is but one answer: opposing forces must mobilize in an organized, programmatic way. Opposition to the `Ban the Spear’ tsunami, though vocal, was largely ineffective.
This lack of organization is chronic. It is now almost twenty years since the collapse of COSAW (Congress of South African Writers) and no new writers’ organization has emerged to fill that vacuum. As commercial publishers are left to determine what gets published and the library system largely ignores the few books produced by independents who promote `alternative’ writers. Existing arts frameworks like the Arterial Network and more specific ones like PANSA (Performing Arts Network of South Africa) lack a political profile and are restricted to offering services related to funding, training, competitions and other `vocational’ aspects of the arts. And even in these more narrow terms one must also question their effectiveness: have the musician and film groupings really challenged the failure of the SABC to promote local content? Has PANSA ensured that theatres supported by state funding have transparent and competent means of selecting new work for production?
The failure to turn Newtown in Johannesburg into a thriving art precinct is an example of how the State has procrastinated and allowed business and other forces to undermine what should have become a real hub for all aspects of cultural life. The Department of Arts and Culture has a narrow focus and we are paying the price because as “art workers” we have sat back and lamented the situation rather than re-organized and taken initiatives.
Missing in the The Spear debate is the fact that the painting is a satirical comment on Zuma. The matter is a complex one and deserves serious consideration. And all artists but perhaps white artists in particular need to be sensitive to how portrayals of black people, irrespective of their political positions, can be depicted without reinforcing racist stereotypes. Where does this leave The Spear? The answer is: up all our arses …
Alan Horowitz is a playwright and poet. He is the founding member of Botsotso Magazine Collective.