The Spear: Straight Outta The Art Ghetto

In my mind, Brett Murray’s painting, The Spear, is art in its most powerful form. It has challenged people’s values, spoken truth to power, caused controversy, stimulated national debate and transcended the elitist ghetto where this kind of art traditionally resides.

That it has done so largely because of the coverage given to the piece by City Press is apt. In these hyper-mediated times, just about everything can be amplified out of its original context to become a national debate.

Witness model-racist Jessica Leandra’s career-immolating twitter firestorm the other week. In the years before social media, her k-bomb would’ve been a throwaway comment to her like-minded friends and it would never have emerged from Bedfordview, or wherever people like her reside.

Likewise, Brett Murray’s painting – despite being artistically conceived – could easily have been a throwaway K-bomb of its own type.

Doubtlessly made to outrage society as much as critique our president’s priapic personal life, it could easily have elicited little more than chuckles over canapes on the exhibition-opening scene.

Thanks to its mediation by City Press and its subsequent adoption as topic of the week by the social media set, it broke out of those confines and began to do what the best art often does. Challenge the audience.

Unfortunately, a lot of that audience were unwilling to be the audience. They’d not gone to an art gallery, they’d simply bought a City Press, or logged onto Facebook and now they were confronted with the (artistically) corrupted derivation of a Soviet propaganda poster originally depicting a heroic Lenin. But this one showing the president with his penis out.

It was likely a comment on President Zuma’s numerous children in and out of wedlock, perhaps questioning the implications of that for our national culture in the time of HIV.

The unprepared audience was outraged. Cries of racism were quick to come and inevitable. Interdicts were brought by the ANC to force the Goodman gallery to take down the painting. “Rights go with responsibility,” quoth ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. “If you don’t respect the responsibilities, you are going to destroy those rights.”

Conspiracy theories have emerged on Twitter, some even implicating Murray himself in a performance-art defacing of his own art work.

But what this latest fiasco reflects is the breaking down of the walls that have kept our various cultures separate and bringing them into starker relief. The comfortable, privileged white enclave’s opportunities to be quietly racist among themselves are fewer. Likewise the demurely outspoken art scene’s chance of outraging patrons in a titillating, stylish manner, but remaining out of the way of blue-collar society with its less refined take on what constitutes art.

Swedish Culture minister Lena Adelson Liljeroth and “blackface cake” creator Makode Linde might agree.

We are finding it harder and harder to live past each other. The ubiquity of social media, and the fact that some media – notably City Press – are transcending their traditional audience demographics means we are increasingly being exposed to each other. (Pun, upon reflection, intended).

More and more, we are sharing the same mediated space. This offers great opportunities for artists hoping to make an impact and a social comment. It offers fewer opportunities for racists.

It also offers a greater space for debate, support or universal condemnation as the culture deems appropriate. And yes, there is a racial component to art. What some deem provocative, to others is an insult to the nation. But the cultural and media boundaries that kept our art out of each other’s way lest we offend each other are no more.

We’re going to have to deal with each other and our means of expression. White people can no longer ignore “dubul’ ibhunu”, we need to engage with it and formulate opinions. Understand what our countrymen are saying. Are they trying to offend us? Or are we usually so firmly separate from each other, culturally and linguistically, that it’s not usually been an issue. The courts must rule on whether a derivative image of the presidents cock violates the president’s dignity and mocks his office. And if it does, does it still have a right to be displayed?

Is that judicial call any different from pronouncing on an image of a massive, presidential phallus in a cartoon by Zapiro on the Times’s comment page? Will the ANC’s next call be for an Arts Tribunal to make our country’s artists more accountable?

The Big Brothering of our creative industries is an ominous prospect. But a greater awareness of each other’s cultural attitudes might make for different art that appeals to more people and can open more minds with a more culturally inclusive visual language. So in that sense, the debate that The Spear has stimulated is welcome.

It’s all the media’s fault that we’re having to deal with this, with each other and our different cultures. With our different forms of self-expression. But it’s about time we did.

Writer for television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Editor and writer of books. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). The last whitey at umsebenzi. Latest book 415 Action-Packed Neighbourhood Marketing Tips with Basil O'Hagan, out now. @hagenengler

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