Mzukisi Makatse on freedom of artistic expression in South Africa
The contextual and political understanding of the freedom of artistic expression in South Africa
Now that the dust seems to be settling after the storm and hysteria occasioned by The Spear – Brett Murray’s depiction of President Zuma with his manhood exposed – it is time to engage deeper on the subject of the freedom of artistic expression in today’s democratic South Africa. Many social and political commentators are already seized with this undertaking and have fearlessly put their views across.
From some of these commentators, I have noticed a disturbing trend though that seeks to portray black South Africans as oblivious to the meaning and understanding of artistic expression in a democracy as it were. An attempt is made to ‘educate’ those of us who are supposed ‘illiterates’ on the subject of freedom of expression in a democracy. That in itself shows how politically intolerant we sometimes are when it comes to the understanding of the right to freedom of expression, because artistic expression has been part of black South Africa for as long as they have lived.
Well I must say from the onset that I do respect the right of these commentators to their freedom of expression and I would not do anything to undermine it. I only intend here to exercise my freedom of expression by exhibiting my own understanding of the concept of freedom of artistic expression, informed by my political outlook and within the concrete realities of the South African society as I understand them.
First, I have never regarded art and artistic expression as utopian mind boggling exercise that exist independent and above our socio-economic and political realities. The abstract forms of artistic expression have never appealed to me because they are an attempt at dreaming the irrelevant. They are fundamentally about the liberal idealism that detaches the individual from his social surroundings to an imagined but non-existent space. These abstract forms of artistic expression are to me devoid of any realism and are a failed attempt at thinking outside the concrete reality of matter.
Second, my understanding of art and artistic forms of expression stems from what I would call ‘socially conscious artistic expression of matter’. This form of artistic expression basically arises from the concrete realities that surround and shape the artist in his/ or her quest to study, understand and expose in artistic forms the peculiarities and intricacies of matter. It is an attempt at concrete investigation and interpretation of the concrete social realities to communicate the basic ideas of the artist about these realities in an artistic form.
Third, this form of artistic expression is therefore not neutral or immune from socio-economic and political phenomena because it is effectively produced by the very phenomena. In a word and within the South African context, it is an artistic expression that reflects a class, racial and gender balance of power in our society; and also an artistic expression of the cultural diversity of our country.
Accordingly, the class, race and gender contradictions are the fundamental antagonisms that still shape and inform the approach of many artists, including Mr Murray, to the South Africa reality. In my view therefore, anyone convincing us otherwise is attempting to feed us the liberal idealism that seeks to take our focus away from our real problems.
We now know that Brett Murray has a penchant for critical depiction of political power using satire. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact he must be encouraged to be more stinging where there seems to be the abuse not only of political power, but of economic power as well. But as I believe he knows, there are limits to this right. Now, why would Brett Murray decide to make a piece of art portraying President Jacob Zuma in the manner he has? The answer to this question can be found in the evolving dynamic of the socio-economic and political context of South Africa.
If one considers the dialectical interconnection between the class and racial antagonisms in South Africa, it can be argued that Brett Murray’s The Spear was informed by the class interests of the white economic oligarchy, resulting to the racist connotation being the logical consequence. In making the portrait, Mr Murray must have had the interests of his rich white buyers at heart. So he had to do anything that would satisfy the world view of his buyers while he makes more money. That the portrait was bought by a German national at a cost of about R136 000 is telling!
Just to illustrate the above point, in his seminal work: Party Organisation and Party Literature, Lenin had this to say:
“We must say to you bourgeois individualists that your talk about absolute freedom is sheer hypocrisy. There can be no real and effective ‘freedom’ in a society based on the power of money, in a society in which the masses of working people live in poverty and the handful of rich live like parasites. Are you free in relation to your bourgeois publisher, Mr. Writer, in relation to your bourgeois public, which demands that you provide it with pornography in frames and paintings, and prostitution as a ‘supplement’ to ‘sacred’ scenic art? The absolute freedom is a bourgeois or anarchist phrase (since, as a world outlook, anarchism is bourgeois philosophy turned inside out). One cannot live in society and be free from society. The freedom of the bourgeois writer, artist or actress is simply masked (or hypocritically masked) dependence on the money-bag, on corruption, on prostitution.” (“Party Organization and Party Literature” Collected Works vol. 10, pp. 48)
On the other hand, the racial connotation in the artistic work by Murray is not by accident, because the person depicted is a formerly oppressed black portrayed with his manhood exposed by a white artist for a white buyer. Mr Murray might not have had racist intentions in making the portrait except for his carelessness in focusing exclusively on what he thought were his white buyers’ interests. There is nothing more pleasing for some sections of the dominant white economic oligarchy in South Africa and elsewhere than the exposition of black African leaders in government as nothing more than sexually aroused nincompoops ready to be corrupted at the first sight of money.
If you were not aware, it is this dynamic intercourse between the race and class antagonisms that made black people to stand up and challenge what they perceived to be an insult and an assault by the powerfully white economic class to the poor black population. Needless to say, to insult black people in this way under the conditions of freedom where a black government is in power was even a deeper pain to endure.
White people might be forgiven for not seeing what the fuss is all about. After all blacks have been subjected to such inhuman treatment for centuries and they should ‘just get used to it and just move on’ as some have advised.
For instance, listening and studying the conduct of the white judge in the court case brought by the ANC against Murray, I could not help but notice the insensitive attitude displayed by this judge. To him artistic expression as informed by his white world view is what the court should be interested to. To want to bring the African cultural perspective and the historical context on the racial connotations of the portrait into the court proceedings, as Adv. Malindi tried to do, was something to be frowned upon.
This conduct displayed a classic expression of the class/race balance of power in South Africa. The fact is that many black South Africans view the courts as the domain of the powerful economic class that is largely white. They still harbour deep mistrust of the courts and its judges and magistrates, particularly the white ones. They have seen white fraudsters and murderers getting scot-free just by flashing money or just purely for being white. Can you blame them for being suspicious of the courts and its white officials? Methinks not.
So, in my view, there is no art or artistic expression that is above the social realities and mores of our people. The question is: which are the dominant interests and mores between those of the powerful economic class that is predominantly white, and those of the poor and working class that is predominately black? The answer to this question will reveal that Murray’s portrait, The Spear, was informed by the dominant interests and mores of the predominately white economic oligarchy.
Mzukisi Makatse is a member of the ANC and ANCYL. He writes in his personal capacity 30 May 2012