This is not about art

Between the relentless media coverage, the twitter deluge, the pronouncement by a South African judge (“This is a matter of great national importance”), and declarations by the South African President’s daughters about “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” you might be forgiven for thinking that–finally–some urgency about South Africa’s big issues was making national news. Were we talking about how to deal with the persistent racial and class inequality, joblessness, and a lack of government accountability? Not so much.

Instead, the fuss revolved around a piece of agitprop art by artist Brett Murray that cut and pasted a limp penis and President Jacob Zuma’s head onto a Soviet era poster of Vladimir Lenin. By midweek the ruling party had sued the gallery displaying the work and demanded that a Sunday newspaper “remove it from the internet” (huh?) and two men had entered the gallery and defaced it. (The different treatment of the two men–one of them was white–by the media and gallery security, is another story, entirely. But let’s not get distracted.) The leader of the South African Communist Party, an ANC ally, called for a boycott of the newspaper.

Inside South Africa the whole thing, apart from making the artist Brett Murray very famous, is playing out as a battle between freedom of expression and African “values.” Some half-baked theorizing about black sexuality compared Zuma to Sara Baartman, the nineteenth century Khoi women abducted and displayed at freak shows in Europe.

Liberals smell authoritarianism (this is “Africa”) and impatient black elites see white racism. As far as the dignity argument is concerned, this is not a series of naked photos taken of the president by insatiable paparazzi. It is an artist’s representation of a penis that, as far as we know is not modeled after the actual one, but is meant as an artistic statement about contemporary South African politics and Zuma’s complicated and scandalous personal life. The question is whether it’s successful. Most critics are unimpressed. The ANC appears to be Murray’s biggest promoter.

So it no longer matters that Murray makes didactic and uninteresting art. The fact that so much passion can be generated around it, when the material conditions in which people live are so dire (see the AIDS activist Nathan Geffen’s critique of the whole thing here or that of Tselane Tambo, daughter of the late ANC leader, here), perhaps makes Murray’s point much better than his artwork ever did.

We are mostly stunned at how the ANC and its allies have handled this. (You have the spectacle of people like Buti Manamela of the Young Communist League, tweeting about arranging marches to the gallery before the poster was defaced, protesting at the court, and forwarding essays about “black male sexuality”.)

But perhaps we shouldn’t be. New South African politics and how the country’s media report it, has always been done in such a way that someone with little knowledge of the country or its history, chancing upon its public discourse, would mistake it for Somalia or North Korea.

Here’s what the proponents of freedom of expression (who incidentally remained silent or oblivious when Murray’s gallery refused to display some of his other work for fear it may offend Jewish and Muslim South Africans) and those on the other side yelping about African “tradition” can’t or won’t see: this is plain electioneering by the ruling party. Whether it started out deliberately like that, is not at issue here. What is, is that the ANC is giving red meat to supporters. Check how ANC supporters have come out in support of the party on social media. They know about Zuma’s personal failings and how his party has failed them when it comes to housing, health care and schooling. But they’re living in a world where the mainstream rubbish trade unions and the white leader of the main opposition party refer to black South Africans as “refugees.” So they still have no choice but to vote ANC. The ANC knows this and they’ve doubled down. They don’t care about critics on this one. Critics of how the ANC is handling this don’t vote ANC anyway and the ANC does not need them. In any case, another day spent on posters about penises is another day in which people don’t talk about government ineptitude. The ANC has found its comfort zone in a visionless neo-liberal malaise. This serves to generate a politics buttressing the wealthy at the expense of the poor by channeling and mobilizing legitimate anger away from the failures of capitalist exploitation. Moral of the story: The ANC is a cynical political party now. South African politics is finally normal.

* Melissa Levin contributed to this post.


10 thoughts on “This is not about art

  1. This is a good take on the issue. I wonder by whom and if the ANC can be pulled back from the brink? Yes, it is cynical politics as usual, and as it happens around the world, but the penisgate revealed a new level of agitation and non-sensical sloganeering that is quite scary – Mantashe speaks now worse about white people than Malema did – and one wonders how these precedents can be changed without strong directions from a party leadership that believes in more than preserving power and obscure and essentialized notions of culture and race.

  2. Sean, while I agree with your analysis of the political dynamics of this dispute, I still find the potential consequences chilling. Once a ruling party starts playing politics with freedom of expression, things can turn nasty very quickly. The most disturbing aspect is the notion that the political arty and/or the state can distinguish between “art” and “non-art” as permissible and unpermissible forms of speech….

  3. It’s not at all true that the Goodman refused to exhibit works by Murray that may have offended Jews and Muslims. It’s a desperate fiction by the ANC’s legal counsel.

  4. Alex the problem with this debate is that people’s entry into the debate is largely based on their upbringing/conditioning and understanding of freedom of expression or African Culture. Many who find the picture disrespective come from a background whose English is not their mother toungue. Many do not understand the word satire or freedom of speech (and I say this with not wanting to sound patronizing). It is true that curtailing freedom of expression can be dangerous but showing disrespect to a father of a nation is proving to be as if not more dangerous and I feel that those fighting for freedom of expression are not interesting in trying to unerstand the other side (maybe this is true for the Africanists). South Africa is a shared country and therefore I feel we need to show respect for each other.

    • “Many who find the picture disrespective come from a background whose English is not their mother toungue. Many do not understand the word satire or freedom of speech (and I say this with not wanting to sound patronizing).”

      This is very true. England was the first country to invent “satire” and it’s colonial child, America, invented “freedom of speech” sometime soon afterward. Poor, ignorant Africans who either weren’t colonized thoroughly or simply do not speak English cannot grasp these profound concepts and thus, we see the outrage over this piece by Murray (and I say this with not wanting to sound patronizing).

  5. I wonder if the Tea Party in the U.S. had produced (or endorsed) this kind of an image of Obama what people’s and politicians’ reaction would have been. Or, rewinding to 1998, what would have happened if Bill Clinton had been portrayed in a similar pose? Berlusconi in Italy would have been offended by the association with Lenin rather than by exposed genitalia. Hey, maybe this could be a fun game. Willy Brandt? Mitterand? JFK?

  6. From an Afrikan perspective, and I it is the same perspective I have, the picture is rude and totally unacceptable.

    Whatever freedom of speech ideals people may hold, there are limits unique to each society.

    In Europe denying the Holocaust is a crime, yet that could be called curtailing free speech.

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