What is the point of The Spear?
23 May 2012
LET us get to the heart of the matter. In his affidavit, which forms part of the ruling party’s legal bid to remove Brett Murray’s The Spear from public gaze, the painting’s subject, President Jacob Zuma, has complained of being “personally offended and violated”.
“The continued display of the portrait is manifestly serious and has the effect of impugning my dignity in the eyes of all who see it,” Zuma has said.
“In particular, the portrait depicts me in a manner that suggests that I am a philanderer, a womaniser and one with no respect. It is an undignified depiction of my personality and seeks to create doubt about my personality in the eyes of my fellow citizens, family and children.
“In terms of the theme of the exhibition, my portrait is meant to convey a message that I am an abuser of power, corrupt and suffer political ineptness.”
Correct on all counts, and clever president he is in spotting that, for that is exactly what the artist intended. What other interpretation could there possibly be of a depiction of Zuma as revolutionary demi-god, belt undone, genitals exposed, mockingly rendered in the style of a familiar Soviet propaganda poster of Lenin?
Regrettably, the furore has - and perhaps only for the moment - drawn attention from the theme of Murray’s exhibition, which is to expose the ruling elite’s amorality and greed. Titled Hail to the Thief II, it is, in the gallery’s words, “satirical work [that] continues his acerbic attacks on abuses of power, corruption and political dumbness seen in his 2010 Cape Town show Hail to the Thief”.
But, as an entity itself, The Spear is, make no mistake, a powerful work. One only has to consider the chorus of unhinged, inchoate fury directed against the work and its creator. The Young Communists want to storm the Goodman Gallery and tear it down; the Shembe church’s Enoch Mthembu calls for the artist’s death by stoning; and the poet Wally Serote, who really should know better, says the work is akin to calling people “kaffirs”. And so on.
It has been claimed that those who’re outraged by the painting are not getting its point. They can’t see the president for the penis, as it were. But you could argue that the penis is the whole point of the painting. Why else call it The Spear?
The induna, crudely put, is the dong, and the dong the induna. Consider the phallocentrism of Zuma’s world, the patronage of his presidency. Consider, too, the apparent violation of his “private life”. He may claim that his dignity has been impugned, but what of our dignity? Surely it is an affront to our values that his polygamous marriages and the misogyny of his tribal culture be presented to us as public spectacle?
Tyranny abhors art, something the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn understood. “For a country to have a great writer is like having a second government,” he noted. “That is why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.”
The Zuma government cannot perhaps be compared to the sort of brutal regime Solzhenitzyn had in mind when he wrote those words, although it’s not for want of trying, especially with regard to curtailing freedom of expression.
But there is nevertheless a tyranny of sorts here, one that through concerns of not offending the majority, of not questioning traditional and “cultural” values, of opting for the mundane and of not challenging the status quo, compels us to a blinkered existence. You may call it self-censorship, a closing down of the inquiring mind, or a willing embrace of the dumb, but the effect is just the same — we shut our eyes to the truth.
Earlier this month, Salman Rushdie, in his Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, told the PEN World Voices Festival: “Great art, or, let’s just say, more modestly, original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. It challenges, questions, overturns assumptions, unsettles moral codes, disrespects sacred cows or other such entities. It can be shocking, or ugly, or, to use the catch-all term so beloved of the tabloid press, controversial. And if we believe in liberty, if we want the air we breathe to remain plentiful and breathable, this is the art whose right to exist we must not only defend, but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.”
Banning a revolution is rather difficult. Chances of success are slim. The ANC should be well aware of that. But, by all means, tear down The Spear, burn the painting, prohibit its display. But to what effect? The genie is out the bottle. The painting is out there, hanging everywhere in cyberspace. It’s not going to simply disappear. Five will get you ten it will be on T-shirts by Christmas.
And let’s not forget that it was the ruling party who so emphatically directed our gaze to Brett Murray’s work and The Spear in the first place.
This article first appeared in the Cape Times.