Author and Activist
This response sent to me by Glen Henneck:
Spear in the Nation
Pardon the smart-aleck title. Like the object of my disaffection, it's meant to grab your attention, in a very noisy world - though unlike our average artists, I am courting neither money nor fame. Middle-aged and middle-class, what I really care about is more quotidian things like fairness, neighborliness and peace.
Right now I am much preoccupied by the matter of Brett Murray's painting, though in contrast to most of my deemed community - I'm also white - I really don't see this as a freedom of expression issue, other than peripherally. I don't think that the high court should (or will) uphold the ANC's petition, but I do wish that the artist himself would grow up and do the honorable thing. Having seen his portfolio value lift about forty percent, may he now find the grace, and the insight, to publicly burn the work himself, and admit that he made an egregious error of judgment. If he were to go further and donate the proceeds of the sale to an indigent, indigenous artists' collective he might just manage to repair the bulk of the damage that has already been done.
Make no mistake, this is anything but a trifling matter. Indeed, and this is the crux of what I'm trying to say, anyone who thinks it is such is complicit in Murray's culpability.
Get it. Now. This isn't England. Like it or not, the country we're living in is not a mature, prosperous, homogeneous place, where most of the citizenry are sufficiently educated, invested and inured to be able to handle even the nastiest kind of irreverence, satire and lese majeste. Ours is a still a fledgling democracy, and fractured like no other, and therefore not yet nearly ready for scabrous assaults on the dignity of our elected president. Not by white men at any rate, no matter how impeccable their struggle credentials.
That's my first big concern. Timing. Timing and more specifically the mismatch between, on the one hand, the high-brow narrative of which Murray's painting is a (fairly extreme) example, and, on the other hand, the overall collective sensibility.
What satirists like Murray, and Zapiro, see themselves doing is the profoundly important work of speaking truth to power, or holding the powerful to account. They - and the same applies to a large extent to our columnists and public academics - regard themselves as standard bearers of a universal moral code. Rather like priests one could say, and sharing with the latter the (possibly genuine) belief that they themselves are largely powerless. Largely powerless, essentially virtuous and bravely defending us all from tyranny, corruption and myriad other evils.
Handled with finesse, this role is indeed an eminently worthy one. There is incalculable benefit in a challenging artist-class and a robust press - I'm a liberal for fuck sake - but what makes me mad is the seeming obliviousness on the part of both to two things. One, the complexion (and complexity) of their audience, and two, the massive power they wield.
Without putting too fine a point on it, it is the media itself that is today the key determiner of what we think about, and of how we feel about ourselves and our collective destiny. Yes it's notionally possible that the Mr. Zuma could have Mr. Dawes shot, or incarcerated - but in their daily interactions it's the former who worries and the latter who proclaims.
As for the Murray work specifically, it doesn't really amount to much, in terms of its implicit critique. The president's appetite for sex has been the subject of a hundred cartoons and a thousand editorials, and that's not in the same moral orbit as, say, genocide or larceny. Rather the distinction of the Spear is precisely its obviousness, its crudeness, its vulgarity. It may not offend surpassingly but it will offend universally.
Actually, courtesy of a blend of new, old and ancient media, it HAS offended universally. Mildly so in the salons of Sandton, but, seemingly, abundantly so in the shebeens of Soshanguve.
Here's where we need to be careful. Careful, thoughtful, mindful, respectful.
We privileged sophisticates are ever jealous of our right to free expression. My point is that if we are to continue to enjoy it, we will have to internalize a somewhat different set of acceptability parameters to those that apply in London, or New York. Apply today, I should say, for it is important to bear in mind that the extreme permissiveness that spawned Spitting Images and Mother Goose is a comparatively modern phenomenon. Any kind of approximation in the nineteenth century would have been visited with summary banning and lengthy incarceration (if not execution for treason).
Freedom of expression, everywhere, is subject to certain (natural sensible) limits. My point is that what we need, urgently, is an open, intensive, INDIGENOUS debate about the rules, and conventions, that WE will all have to live with.
Starting with respect. Respect, which doesn't mean craven obeisance. Respect which is comfortably compatible with spirited criticism and even a measure of abuse. Respect for individuals, respect for institutions and, vitally in our context, respect for "other" cultures.
The Murray painting fails, in my view, on all three fronts. I'm no expert though, on law, on sociology, or on cultural norms, so I'll gladly defer to my superiors. All I can usefully add, in closing, is that I think the arbiters (not censors) would do well to take serious account of the following three issues.
A. The collective self esteem of black South Africans, enhancement of which is a sine qua non for the success of our "nation";
B. The question of the extent, if any, to which manifest disrespect for authority figures, in the media, translates into generalized disrespect for authority as such, and for rules;
C. Why it is that we abide – no, VALORISE – a form of expression that is built on a blend of provocation, distortion and nastiness? I’m with Herman Hesse on the fundamental importance of a sense of humour; and I’m all for criticism and freedom of speech, obviously. What I can’t quite grasp though is how this form of hate speech has become so ubiquitous, and so respectable. How did satire become art? Why are its practitioners exempted entirely from the basic rules of fairness, integrity and decency? And what is the net effect of the all the attendant cynicism, on our societal morale, and morals?