Straight-shooting son of a gun
24 April 2014 17:41 (South Africa)
Opinionista J Brooks Spector

An Immodest Proposal

  • J Brooks Spector
Look, it’s time to move the national conversation forward. So we’re going to suggest something a little less radical than Jonathan Swift’s proposal to fatten kids and eat them to fight hunger. We’re saying let’s have two really shocking things: art education and – shock! horror! – a national, nude-art exhibition.

We simply have got to move on from this god-awful kerfuffle over The Spear. It’s past regulation time and we’re well into overtime. It seems pretty clear we cannot stay locked in a rancorous “he said/she said” squabble over whether a painting of a partially nude image that refers to President Jacob Zuma’s private parts (until it got something of a refit with a new coat of red and black paint) is racist, illegally undignified, or a fit subject for a pointed political discourse.

This, of course, is beyond the question of whether the original picture should or shouldn’t be on one newspaper’s website. That doesn’t really matter much anymore since it is all over the internet anyway and no march, no legal decision is going to have any effect over that.

Surely there are things now that will advance the discussion beyond an increasingly pointless and degrading debate about whether the president is: a) a reckless philanderer, b) a devious political Svengali who has used this issue to deflect criticism of his flaws as a leader, c) an agile political wrestler, d) the victim of an insidious racial attack, or e) someone beyond this kind of arts criticism by virtue of his position at the apex of the pyramid.

Clearly this painting shouldn’t be subject to infinite calls for boycotts, demonstrations, demands for restrictions on press and artistic freedom, defacing property, accusations of racism as part of an unwillingness to acknowledge there are still fresh wounds from apartheid in the nation’s psyche. All of these possibilities hang about, virtually unanswerable in the current impasse.

Something must now move our national conversation forward before we end up with another example over yet another painting, or a book, a play, a film, or photographic exhibition – or maybe even a particularly challenging contemporary dance work.

As luck would have it, on Monday afternoon I had to make a quick run to the nearest Woolies for some milk, bread, cat food (and a designer chocolate bar) when I bumped into two friends – one a veteran media man and the other a leading gallery owner – one black, one white, one older, one younger. And no, we won’t reveal which one was which – does it really matter?

What does matter is that we all agreed that over the past two weeks  we have been wrestling with the sad state of affairs spinning out from Brett Murray’s The Spear, its disfigurement, the court case, the marches, the accusations and the general ill-feeling that has come from all this. 

Said one of us: “Why don’t we get this gallery to host a big new exhibition – every work in the show will be a contemporary interpretation of the nude – male and female nudes, paintings, sculpture, film, video, photography, and installation. And we’ll ask South Africa’s most important, interesting, innovative, black, white, male, female artists – everyone – to offer a new work for this exhibition. It would allow South Africans a wonderful opportunity to use new art to help them contemplate how nude figures have been part of the world’s artistic output for the past 20,000 years or so – right back to rock and cave paintings across Africa and beyond – and right up to today.”

Says the other one of these two friends: “That’s a great idea but while we’re at it, why don’t we also arrange for President Zuma plus all his advisors to come for a special red-carpet tour of that wonderful, brand-spanking new Wits Art Museum? He and all his advisors, the lot of them, let them all come along for the ride.”

“If he comes for this visit, the president has a unique opportunity to tell the nation how wonderful South Africa’s artistic heritage is, how it challenged the old regime, how artists made contributions to national liberation – and how he is proud of the nation’s artistic heritage, made right here in Africa.”

We talk for a few minutes and we agree that if he does this, he gets to show the world that he gets it – he understands art is not simply pictures of bright, colourful bowls of fruit or peasants herding cattle or tending their fields. That, despite our occasional differences, art (and the artists who create it) is a crucial part of the country’s nation-building conversation.

And if the curators who arrange the tour are clever, they’ll make sure the president sees that a lot of traditional art from around Africa has always included depictions of the body for spiritual and ritual reasons, as well as aesthetic ones. And anyway, it is a really nice exhibition space that points to the revival of downtown Johannesburg, so that would be something else the president can savour publicly for the media. Win, win, win. Even Mac Maharaj might like this one.

If Zuma does this visit, he also gets to act, well, presidential – but presidential on behalf of all South Africans, regardless of race, wealth or politics. He also gets to extend the hand of friendship and magnanimity to an artistic community that always craves the respect of the inner circle, even if it isn’t always reciprocated.

As an added benefit, the president would get some pretty good media coverage domestically and internationally. That latter point might well be important for a man who often has been the recipient of some pretty patronising media coverage of his personal life.

And maybe there’s a small side benefit to this for the nation as a whole – besides lowering the national fever over Murray’s painting. Education officials keep saying the national curriculum now includes something called cultural arts – including art, dance, drama, and music. The problem, however, is that this new curriculum hasn’t really managed to filter down to the majority of the country’s schools – schools that don’t even have sufficient funds to set up modest libraries or laboratories, let alone provide for an arts and cultural education package (go ahead, price a full set of marimbas and traditional drums for school use).

Since so much of the dispute over The Spear seems to hinge on an understanding of what art is and what it and the artist try to do through symbols and images, surely it can’t hurt to have some presidential attention on the importance of giving every one of South Africa’s students more understanding and love for art and how it educates, informs, illuminates – and challenges its viewers? DM


  • J Brooks Spector
brooks spector 02 BW

Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

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