Deface of the past, deface of today, deface of the future

Deface of the past, deface of today, deface of the future

The destruction of art works is nothing new, and it often has a religious element to it. In fact, one of the first acts of defacement took place in the Old Testament. But there is also the element of personal, political power. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at what’s been happening for a long time.

While all manner of social, political and economic crises and challenges were put on hold, warring elites joined in on the Battle of the Spear. To review an increasingly improbably chain of events, Cape Town artist Brett Murray’s exhibition, Hail to the Thief II – featuring an array of clever but angry satirical works that decried the grasping, avaricious tendencies of the ANC government, its president, and the new tenderpreneur class – opened quietly at the Goodman Gallery in suburban Johannesburg.

Then, after the exhibition had already been running for several weeks, several South African newspapers highlighted one of the works in the exhibition – what may have been its most least subtle item – a mock Lenin-style portrait of President Jacob Zuma with genitalia exposed, entitled The Spear. An obvious, logical interpretation was that it was a critical juxtaposition of Zuma’s grandiose presidential pretensions against his well-known reputation as sexual swordsman, polygamist and self-declared traditional man.

Until this exposure in the media, the exhibition had been a conversation starter primarily among the city’s most obsessively engaged cultural enthusiasts. But, after reproductions of this portrait – and some graphic descriptions of it – appeared in the media, it was off to the races for a battle over The Spear.

The ANC and its allies promised they would seek deletions of the stories in the press’s online sites, removal from the gallery (and then destruction) of the picture and suitable chastisement of the artist and the gallery for having had the temerity to paint and display it, and that to demonstrate their anger they would march on the gallery. At least one indigenous church leader declared that the biblical punishment of stoning was appropriate for the artist. The whole tripartite alliance issued angry denunciations parallelling presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj’s equally angry statement on behalf of Zuma.

Then, in an extraordinary development on Tuesday morning, captured on video by the serendipitous presence of a TV journalist and her camera crew, two men came into the gallery, and, surprising everyone, one of them, a middle-aged white man, painted red crosses on the head and crotch of the picture’s figure. Then, a younger black man slathered thick gouts of black paint across the entire figure with his hands. This African defacer was then violently wrestled to the ground while the older white man meekly submitted to the gallery’s guards.

This being South Africa, the differential treatment meted out to the two men by the gallery’s rent-a-cops generated its own entirely new firestorm in the media – on the country’s talk radio stations and in the country’s social media. In addition to different theories about the “why” of the anger – was it a genuine concern over the violation of some important indigenous cultural norms; was it the violation of a president and man of substance to have a legal right to protection of personal and presidential dignity; or was it some kind of opportunistic bread-and-circus event to deflect criticism of the government’s inability to deliver on its real tasks – the video documentation of the assault and the way the two assailants were handled has managed to generate a  counter story.

For some, this whole thing has been one magnificently directed and produced, on-site performance piece fully worthy and illustrative of South Africa’s complex, convoluted politics of race and class. And dead right for a city like Johannesburg.

Now, as if on cue and ready to provide a convenient act two for this drama, the courts have managed to schedule their hearing about the propriety of hanging or publicising this painting (paradoxically only after it has already ceased to be that particular painting following its defacement) to coincide precisely with the opening of a major national conference – ‘The Art of the Creative Economy’.

The same morning as the court case, most of the country’s most influential arts organisers, managers, funders and practitioners will all manage to be in the same room together to get their own dander up about what has been happening. It doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out what topic will generate the most light and heat at this meeting.

This very court session will also be broadcast live on TV as the various pro-ANC/anti-painting groups are pledged to march on the court in support of presidential dignity. If there is one, the director of this sprawling on-site performance piece must be a genius. This is like a South African version of The Truman Show – only all the participants think they are real.

All this fuss about a snarky, funny, clever, push-the-bubble painting! One could easily be confused that this place is the Paris in the aftermath of the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring back in 1913, rather than Johannesburg. But wait: didn’t artist William Kentridge call Johannesburg the second greatest city on earth after Paris? Maybe he was on to something there.

What is it that’s so powerful about an unflattering picture that it drives people to whip up their passions in this way and even drives some to try to destroy the image itself? Is there something really interesting here when people somehow say that a picture is as real as the real thing and thus becomes a fit target for destruction?

Assuming there is historical – or at least psychological – truth to it, the Biblical tale of the golden calf might even be termed the first documented case of artistic defacement – in this case, in the name of religious fervour. As the Bible tells it, after the Hebrews’ idolatrous statue had been built in the wilderness of the Sinai, Moses returned from the mountain and “saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.”

Clearly upset, he says to Aaron the priest “’What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?’ Do not be angry, my lord, Aaron answered. ‘You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us.’ …And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.”

That was one heck of an artistic defacement in the name of religion. And it is one with an echo about three thousand years later in Afghanistan as the Taliban carried out their destruction of the astonishing Bamiyan Buddhist figures. The power of dynamite and artillery fire was brought in to deface and then virtually destroy these 5th century statues – but it took over several weeks to do the job. During the destruction process, Taliban information minister Qudratullah Jamal is reported to have lamented: “This work of destruction is not as simple as people might think. You can’t knock down the statues by shelling as both are carved into a cliff – they are firmly attached to the mountain.”

Or consider the more recent destruction of Andres Serrano’s controversial photographic work, Piss Christ, destroyed in 2011 by Christian protesters in Avignon, France, after weeks of protests. New York artist Serrano had put a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine and photographed the resulting installation, claiming it was a statement on the misuse of religion. Since its creation, the work had obviously been controversial as well as the subject of extreme individual taste, but the tension in Avignon reached an unprecedented peak on Palm Sunday, when a mob attacked the photographic installation with hammers following an “anti-blasphemy” campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists.

A question for further discussion: Should we put all this destruction in the same column as those fig leaves painted on or affixed to earlier paintings and statues so that more sensitive viewers would not have to avert their eyes from the visible immodesty? Are these the varieties of artistic defacement or even destruction as men conflate an inanimate painting or statue with a religious principle, thereby inferring power on to an object such that it must be drained away to protect and preserve faith?

But religion is certainly not the only reason artistic works come to be defaced. There is also the question of the assertion of power – political and personal power that can be at play as well. Viewers of History and Discovery Channel TV documentaries have come to a realisation of just how often public inscriptions and statuary are attacked as a way of giving voice to vigorous or violent political change.

On Easter Island, for example, the nobility of that isolated, inwardly focused Polynesian society was violently replaced and some of the island’s iconic, giant statues are defaced – their noses chipped off as a tangible demonstration that the old order is gone – just as the island’s food resources are about to collapse and the society is to descend further into chaos.

Or, in ancient Egypt, the successors to the revolutionary pharaoh Akhenaten chiselled his name from steles in an effort to erase his memory physically. And there were other pharaohs whose successors similarly tried to delete their predecessors from the historical record. If one can’t read about them, perhaps they didn’t exist. And, while no one actually knows who defaced what is probably the world’s most instantly recognizable statue – Egypt’s Sphinx of Giza – the evidence is there that tools were deliberately used to cleave the nose off the statue’s face, disfiguring a highly visible sign of authority and power to make a statement.

Or consider the sad tale of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest – yet never finished – works. He was creating a great statue to glorify the reputation of the Sforza family that had ruled the Milanese city-state in Italy when the French army invaded the territory and deposed the Sforza. To demonstrate their domination of the city, they simply used Leonardo’s clay mock-up of the statue as target practice in 1498 – until it was totally destroyed.

More recent damage to the foot of the statue of David by Michelangelo in 1991, after it had undergone several previous assaults in civil commotions, seems to have been the result of a painter who felt driven to assail one of the world’s best-known artistic treasures in a fog of confusion between artistic criticism and divine guidance.

Is there a connection, therefore, between that attack, the more recent one by a man with a big bucket of red paint of Poussin’s portrayal of the biblical Golden Calf scene as it hung in the British National Gallery; and the most recent defacing of Murray’s The Spear in Johannesburg? An interesting question, that. At least one of the two men who attacked The Spear appears to have said he did it to achieve social harmony – perhaps a kind of secularized version of religious feeling?

People attribute enormous political, religious and personal powers to works of art – and then some of them choose to desecrate, deface or destroy those works in order to displace the very power they have assigned to the work in the first place. Buried in and among these reasons – together with a desire to displace the anger of citizens about a failure of government to deliver on its promises, tapping into subliminal concerns about traditions of male dignity or even the dehumanisation of African men – is the engine generating the heat and friction over Brett Murray’s former painting.

Veteran political scientist Peter Vale observes that all this was probably bound to happen in some form or another as an increasingly authoritarian-inclined state bristles against a culture of intense critique that had helped bring apartheid to its knees. He argues that, in addition to its almost automatic division along racial cleavages, Murray has drawn on the satirical tradition developed by a century and more of South African cartoonists – most notably Jonathan Shapiro – who have chosen to speak truth to power.

As a result, South Africa has entered this moment with a lexicon at the ready for people to take up as their respective cultural weapons. But, Vale cautions, “It remains, however, an open question whether as a country we are prepared to look forward and settle the issue in the spirit of our democratic undertakings rather than look backwards to our grim past.”

It has already been an extraordinary weeklong, public, multi-venue performance art piece, a kind of African Kabuki with brass knuckles, even if it is not consciously directed. It will move forward – but will not end – on Thursday in a courtroom and at a national conference on the state of South Africa’s arts and cultural community. Stay in your seats, the third act hasn’t even begun. DM

Read more:

  • Why Poussin’s Golden Calf was a sitting duck at the National Gallery in the Guardian.
  • The Bamiyan Buddhas: Eleven years on… at the Heritage Trust website.
  • How Michelangelo’s David hit 500 at the BBC website.
  • Attack on ‘blasphemous’ artwork fires debate on role of religion in France at the Guardian.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Elections24 Newsletter Banner

On May 29 2024, South Africans will make their mark in another way.

Get your exclusive, in-depth Election 2024 newsletter curated by Ferial Haffajee delivered straight to your inbox.