With the opening of one of the world’s next great contemporary art galleries, the Zeitz MOCAA, in Cape Town in September, and with the global zeitgeist driving the by-second creation of memes, protest art and new forms of portraying creative messaging and emotion, I thought I’d look under the bonnet of where “art” is at right now and what it could, or rather, does, mean for society.
Oxford dictionary’s definition of the word:
the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
As a keen collector of contemporary African art, I’m often confronted with assessing a piece for either our M&C SAATCHI ABEL Collection, a monthly Q&A article I write with a featured artist for Business Day’s Wanted magazine – or just proffering an opinion.
I recall the first time I went to the Guggenheim Museum in New York around 20 years ago; there was a Robert Rauschenberg exhibition.
I grew up in a home where my parents, Bernie and Hermione, both loved art and collected modern art, as far as their limited means allowed. My dad owned an art gallery and framing business, so there was lots of conversation around the subject. So, as I walked around the Guggenheim I had a fair bit of knowledge to draw on for my assessment.
I have never felt more lost or out of my depth. I didn’t know how to interpret a crumpled cardboard box or shredded fabric that may have started its life as a pillow cover. I felt like the fabled little boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes who shouted “He’s naked”. What I probably did, however, given the rarefied surrounding audience of uptown Manhattan, and not wanting to show my inner PE boy, would have been to channel Rodin’s Thinker, assuming a contemplative pose, hand on my chin, while I considered the unfathomable.
When I walked out on to 5th Avenue I asked the client and friend with whom I was travelling what she thought of the exhibition, and she started laughing hysterically. I joined her. And so began my journey into understanding this fascinating subject.
Being in advertising, I’m also well versed in most forms of communication, be it visual, auditory or other sensory experiences. I’m called upon daily to assess messages, all be they commercial.
So, I want to talk a little about protest art and even how it informs social media today.
And how could I open this dialogue without referring to Brett Murray’s Spear. The famed (or notorious) painting showed South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, in a Lenin-like pose with extremely well-endowed genitals exposed. It pushes the boundaries, no doubt, and I didn’t like the piece, but at the time I understood it as a confrontational message of outrage, driven I guess by the state of our country and its citizens, to overtly comment on his polygamous lifestyle – and the alleged rape scandal regarding a young woman accuser, named Khwezi – who then had to go into exile, and later died from an illness.
This artwork was vandalised, defaced, removed, parodied and created much discussion. It was an ultimate statement of freedom of expression, although there were reported government questions and interventions.
The reason I didn’t particularly like the piece, and still don’t, is because I found it unnecessarily undignified. I’m certainly not saying it was gratuitous use of vulgarity, and it was a powerful statement, but I’ve been experiencing a growing concern and unease about a decay in decency and common respect – in our societal moral fibre, if you will.
Let me clearly state I am not a prude. I have no problem with swearing, telling a filthy joke or with adult consensual pornography. I think it’s normal. As long as there are no victims, no racism, no hate.
I also think my observations around The Spear are part and parcel of the domain of contemporary art, for what is it if it doesn’t create dialogue, some controversy, shift thinking, push the envelope – as long as it isn’t gratuitous.
Which brings me to the paintings of Ayanda Mabulu. His recent piece, of President Zuma having sex with our beloved Madiba, I found disgraceful. Not only does it strip the “dignity” of Zuma, (not politically), but from a sexual perspective, and it shows our iconic struggle leader and hero, the most admired statesman ever, in an anal sex situation that visually violates who he was and our beautiful memory of him.
Were Madiba still alive, I would wager Mabulu would never have done this.
When I first saw the Mabulu painting of Zuma and Gupta engaged in a graphic sexual act in the cockpit of a plane, as shared all over social media, I was shocked. I don’t believe it is responsible, morally nor socially, to denigrate an individual’s dignity like that. It is bullying and it is ugly in the extreme. I found these pieces to be unnecessarily graphic and gratuitous use of shock tactics to drive talkability. Now, because it’s purported to be “art”, I may indeed be incorrect, but this is my strong, personal sense.
I don’t believe that art, as defined by our friends at Oxford (upfront), needs to be as vulgar as this. Creativity calls upon us to be creative and unexpected in how we convey a message or solve a problem. Today, our younger generations are being denied the subtlety and decorum that may have influenced older generations to be able to convey strong, clear and powerful messages, without resorting to plain rudeness.
There is so much extraordinary contemporary African art that pushes the boundaries and challenges, confronts, arrests, and even shocks, without the need for vulgarity. This is where true talent and smarts lie.
I follow many young adults on Twitter from various walks of life, so as to get the pulse and feel of sentiment, mood, need-state, conversation and timbre. It’s essential to what I do. And I am mostly horrified by the way people feel incredibly comfortable, while hiding behind nom de plumes and fake identities, trashing people and creating intentional controversy and “click-bait” so as to grow their follower base.
Turn on the TV, and while “in my day” we may have seen violence on cartoon programmes, as perpetrated by Sylvester and Tweetie-bird, or Wylie Coyote and the Road Runner or Tom and Jerry trying to blow one another up, and worse, today, the way kids talk to each other on respected and supposedly wholesome American channels, is unbelievably bad.
Those cartoons allowed for messages to be perceived as different to reality. So, perhaps this younger generation has now become desensitised to the point that treating one another shockingly on social media channels is the order of the day. If so, it does not bode well for the future.
One almost needs to start a moral regeneration among the youth and young adults around what is and isn’t right or acceptable. I was taught never to lower myself to someone else’s level if they behaved improperly, and while I can’t say I’ve always succeeded, I mostly have, due to it being hardwired into my conscious and conscience.
People need to understand that one cannot say something on Twitter which you would not say to their face. It’s cowardly and lacks grace. We need to start calling out racists, bigots, liars and attention-seekers in a dignified yet firm way. I don’t want the Truman Show nor a squeaky clean, vanilla or sanitised world. I’m happy with banter, fun, rough and tumble, even clever rudeness, but not that which disrespects the dignity of others – and pulls people down simply to build oneself up.
So no, it’s not always “art” even if some say it is. You’ll know the difference; and then have the courage to call it out for what it is.
Twitter, Facebook and the like in South Africa is full of racism and related rage. Every day we have a choice to either fuel these flames or to gently pour water on them.
The latter may not gain you the followers, but it will start to heal your soul. DM
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
Mike Abel is regarded as one of South Africa's leading marketing and advertising practitioners. He is the Founder & Chief Executive of M&Saatchi Abel and the M&C Saatchi Group of companies operating in Africa. He is the former CEO of M&C Saatchi Group, Australia and before that, co-led the Ogilvy South Africa Group as COO and Group Managing Director, Cape Town. Mike has been awarded Advertising Leader in South Africa by both the Financial Mail and Finweek : and his company was named Best Agency in SA in 2015. Married to Sara and with 3 young sons, Mike is a regular speaker, writer and is passionate about politics and contemporary African art. His company is proudly also the home of the phenomenon called The Street Store, the open-source, pop-up clothing store for the homeless. It has gone on to become a global movement providing a free shopping experience for hundreds of thousands of homeless people around the world.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon