Peter Bruce fumbles Zuma Spear

Yesterday I posted an article that laments poor analysis of art. This morning’s Business Day includes yet another literalistic interpretation of ‘Spear of the Nation’ that shows little capacity for visual communication. Editor Peter Bruce says,

But I cannot for the life of me understand what he has done to deserve to be immortalised in a painting with his genitals hanging out of his trousers. Too many wives? It’s legal in SA. Rape? He was acquitted. A womaniser? So what, as long as his sex is with consenting adults. What then? Having your genitals depicted in public is a hell of a price to pay for being a rotten political leader, for being weak on economics or beholden to too many political interests. Brett Murray is, of course, free to do as he pleases in this democracy and you could just bet on the ANC to make matters worse by kicking up such a fuss.

But the sad fact is stuff like this only works in a Victorian society like ours. The artist went out of his way to shock and it proved depressingly easy, whatever side of the “debate” you are on. There’s no artistic thought here, merely the prudish notion that you can hurt somebody you disapprove of by pulling his pants down in public and giggling as you run away, this time crying “artistic freedom” as you go. (Business Day)

This again demonstrates confusion about what the painting is and what it means.

Firstly, Jacob Zuma hasn’t has his genitals displayed anywhere public; it’s someone’s drawing of a penis on someone’s drawing of JZ. Similarly, no one pulled JZ’s pants down; they remain firmly around his waist. Both of those are massively important distinctions when it comes to supposed abuse of his dignity. It’s a painting, an idea, not a sexual assault.

Secondly, why the assuption that the painting means what this author thinks it does? Everyone is interpreting it clumsily with zero appreciation of symbolism and the way that protest art communicates. The painting could mean a myriad of things other than ‘JZ’s penis is out too much’. It’s an overly-literal analysis, decrying a field that the author seems not to understand.

Even if this painting is so crass as to be merely taking a shot at Zuma’s embarrassing sexual exploits, why is it so unbelievably hurtful to raise such issues by means of visual protest, but acceptable to tell the entire nation in newspapers like Bruce’s that he impregnated his friend’s daughter? I’d rather someone drew fictional naked pictures of me than made my actual private transgressions into international news. Whose hypocritical ethical yardstick are we being forced to use here?

Advertisements

Full Member of the Ruling Party

Brett Murray’s painting ‘Spear of the Nation’, featuring President Zuma in a VI Lenin pose, with a generously proportioned penis protruding (impossibly) from the shadows, has provoked a storm of controversy, and has been written about so much that it barely warrants any further comment. You can see the painting and read comment here: Mail&Guardian. Then you can read about the attempts at government censorship of the image here: CityPress; and some other decent pun-laden commentary here: Mondli Makhanya.

By the standards of the art world the painting is relatively tame; an artist called Ayanda Mabulu has suddenly gained some attention for also having painted Zuma in the buff (though without controversy), and his stuff is way more shocking. You can look at his Zuma pic here, or a nutty one about Robert Mugabe over here.

Some of the criticism clearly comes from people who do not visit galleries. But there are three areas of the debate that are genuinely shocking that I’d like to raise, because our national tendency towards outrage so frequently misses the point. All of them are embodied in this response from the presidency (Source: CityPress):

Said spokesperson Mac Maharaj: “We are amazed at the crude and offensive manner in which this artist denigrates the person and the office of the President of the Republic of South Africa.

“The Presidency is concerned that Brett Murray fails to appreciate that freedom carries a deep responsibility,” he said in the statement, adding that the right to freedom of artistic expression is not absolute.

Maharaj also said the Presidency was concerned that the painting “perpetuates a shocking new culture by some sections of the artistic world, of using vulgar methods of communicating about leading figures in the country, in particular the President”.

“Intense hatred of the new democratic administration or the ruling party should not translate into distorting South Africa’s value system of emphasising respect and of ensuring that disagreements are expressed in a cultured and civilised manner, which these artists are failing to do.”

1. Moral compass and degeneracy

Maharaj talks about our value system. Last night on the news, Reverend so-and-so was speaking at a high-profile funeral and used the opportunity to speak about the President’s penis (wouldn’t have been my go-to anecdote for a funeral). He expressed dismay that our society has lost its moral compass to such a degree that an artist could sink to such levels of degeneracy. He added that freedom of expression could not be allowed to cover such horrors.

This is utter raving lunacy for a few reasons. Firstly, as I’ve said, this would not have been considered shocking by the standards of the art world for the last number of centuries (even if we only restrict ‘art’ to mean paintings and galleries; literature has been nuttier for longer, and even the Bible is more graphic and passes harsher commentary on its leaders). Where have these people been?

Secondly, our country’s moral compass has been pointing far further south than this painting suggests for a very long time. Yesterday, a suspected thief was beaten by a township mob and then set on fire. Parents rape and kill their own kids here. Even our own wildly polygamous president has a chequered history with sexual abuse, conspiracy, and corruption, which is presumably part of what this painting is protesting. Many of those charges against Zuma remain unproven, but I haven’t heard too many reverends using high-profile funerals to complain that our president fathered a child with his friend’s daughter out of wedlock. If we’re going to talk about moral compass, let’s not imagine that this painting is a step down from our usual standard.

Thirdly, this presidency claims God’s blessing upon his party (see point 4 of this article) such that they will rule ‘until Jesus comes back’. The president — and especially his outraged reverend — should know then that the Bible disagrees strongly with them that leaders deserve unqualified reverence:

Deuteronomy 17:17 “The king must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. 18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is … not (to) consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left.”

Matthew 23:8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.”

In both passages, leaders are not to see themselves as superior to ‘ordinary’ citizens. They are brothers. They are not due special respect or disrespect. They are open to the same criticism as the rest of us. If our Christian and political leaders wish to invoke Jesus’ favour, then they should at least share his outlook.

If someone wishes to use their imagination to paint me in the nude then I should be as flattered or insulted as suits my personality, but I should have the same constitutional protections as the president. If it’s libellous for him, it’s libellous for me. None of this ‘But he’s the President (awed hush)’. If you’re not allowed to criticise the president in a democracy, don’t be surprised when you wake to find that you don’t have a democracy.

2. Bad analysis of visual communication

The second problem is that the outrage about this painting is so devoid of analysis appropriate to the field. All public commentary is on the level of ‘It’s Jacob Zuma’, and ‘That’s a penis’, and consequently ‘It’s trying to humiliate Jacob Zuma by showing his penis’. Maharaj’s analysis viewed it as ‘intense hatred’. That’s how toilet-stall graffiti works, but not art.

Visual art communicates primarily on symbolic levels. Depicting Jacob Zuma as the subject could mean lots of things. He could be representing Jacob Zuma, that’s true. But he could also stand for the present government, the ANC more broadly, the whole of the country, and so on. His penis might represent his shame (and so be an attempt at humiliating him), but it could also represent sexualisation of (for example) our society, it could represent abuse of power; it could even represent our government’s moral compass.

In other words, the picture may just as easily be about you, not JZ.

I can understand public misunderstanding of the function of art, because we don’t really study the arts deeply at school, and even if you did, you only had to get 30% in matric to pass, so you might have missed every point that mattered on the way to getting your qualification. But even our ministers overseeing the arts somehow fail to understand their field.

3. Threats to freedom and democracy

The most worrying feature of all is how something so innocuous could now form a new attack upon civic freedoms in this country. By way of reminder, Maharaj said:

“The Presidency is concerned that Brett Murray fails to appreciate that freedom carries a deep responsibility,” he said in the statement, adding that the right to freedom of artistic expression is not absolute.

The government set their lawyers upon the gallery, the newspapers, and anyone else that lingered long enough, trying to destroy the original image and any existing copies. At least they’re currently only sending lawyers. How long before it’s soldiers?

If this picture is indecent, then where does one draw the line? Does one censor Michaelangelo’s David for indecency, as in a famous Simpsons episode about the arts? If the problem is the implied criticism or humiliation of the president, then what about written criticisms that impugn his character or conduct? Is calling the president a dork treason now?

It’s amazing to me that the same people whose blood was shed to win freedom from enslavement to an evil government are willing to sign over those freedoms to a new government, just because they think this one will surely not abuse their trust.

Freedom of expression does carry responsibility, but I would have thought that the ANC of all people would recognise the importance of being able to protest wrongs in government. If anything, one of those responsibilities is to criticise those in power, not to pander to them.

Romney, Obama, Gay Marriage and Freedom

I’m not particularly invested in US politics, but seeing as half the country votes for the Republican party and many of those because it’s the default ‘Christian vote’, I take an interest in the role that theology and faith plays in their rhetoric. In that vein, I’ve been keeping half an eye on the recent ‘gay marriage’ issue in the presidency war.

Obama’s View

Obama has been getting flak from the GOP for claiming that his view on the issue of gay marriage is ‘evolving’, and for eventually coming down in favour of ‘civil unions’ (I’m not sure whether he’s decided that it is right to call it ‘marriage’ just yet).

I don’t think the criticism is deserved; there is something commendable about each of these points. Firstly, it means that his opinions are open to change and that he’s actually thinking about things, rather than giving whatever his party/publicist considers to be ‘the Right Answer’.

Secondly, while conceding civil unions, he also identified his faith as a reason why he is/was unhappy calling these unions ‘marriages’. Maybe he was overtly trying to appear more centrist than the average Democrat — to appeal a tiny bit more to Christian voters — bit still, I thought that it was a risky admission and demonstrated a bit of principle. It’s probably politicking, but it may just show that he is willing to express a personal belief that may be unpopular, and also to subordinate it to what he considers best for those who don’t share his beliefs.

Romney’s Recent Speech

This morning I read that Romney had been campaigning at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and had used the opportunity to take a veiled jibe at Obama, but mostly to argue that:

  • Marriage between “one man and one woman” is an “enduring institution” that should be defended
  • Faith in our Maker is more important that trivial things, and that differences in creed and theology can be overcome by emphasising shared moral convictions and worldview
  • Religious freedom is something that needs to be protected

I agree with nearly everything that he argues here. Nearly. But the point at which we disagree seems to me to call into question the integrity of everything else he says. My issue is the supposed ‘shared moral convictions and worldview’.

Romney is a Mormon talking to a broadly Christian audience. There is a great deal of difference in ‘moral convictions and worldview’, even just between Mormons and Christians, so much so that Romney’s church would typically be defined as a cult by his audience that day. We do not share beliefs and worldview, except maybe on the broadest terms.

More importantly, this attempt at finding common ground with his audience is even more unpracticable when applied to the nation as a whole. As he tacitly acknowledges by pleading ‘freedom of religion’, there isn’t complete homogeneity, even among the religious. The US is a pluralist society where opinions on morality and worldviews vary drastically, and their right to differ is constitutionally protected.

It is freedom of religion that enables Romney to be a Mormon, and he can be one even when Christians or Atheists or Clintons are in office. Leaders who are willing to protect the rights of those with whom they disagree ensure that such freedom exists. Leaders who only protect the liberties that suit them are actually a danger to liberty altogether.

Someone so eager to collect on the leeway that this particular freedom offers him ought to be more sensitive to groups that consider their freedom to be unfairly restricted in other areas. Romney’s talk about protecting marriage is the positive way of saying that he plans to restrict the freedom of people outside his camp to be married. Because their different moral and religious beliefs are too different. Now he may be right, but he’s not even acknowledging the complexities involved, let alone solving them.

It is ironic for someone defending the long and venerable tradition of Christian marriage that the Mormon church spent 50 years defending their right to practice polygamy. Some factions still do. Interestingly, polygamy was outlawed in the US because freedom of religion protects what people believe. What people do is governed by law, and polygamy was considered unlawful practice, not an idiosyncratic belief. Seeing as the US does not consider the practice of homosexuality to be unlawful, I find it hard to see how lawmakers can become inflexible concerning beliefs about marriage and deny civil benefits to couples whose behaviour is perfectly legal.

Romney makes pretty speeches, but he needs to demonstrate why his message doesn’t amount to ‘Yay freedom, except for those who are too different from us’.

So Romney received a standing ovation from the 30,000 in his audience, when in reality, it seems that Obama is the one whose faith and worldview is closer to that audience, and Obama is the one who is concerning himself with protecting the civil liberties also of people with whom he disagrees, not just in the convenient matter of religious freedom, but in the more contentious areas of governance too.

It’s easy to love your friends and to protect what is yours, but what does Romney plan to defend and protect for those people who do not fit into the homogenous faith community that he tries to paint here?

*************

A note on my own beliefs: As a conservative Christian, I believe that homosexuality is wrong, and I would prefer marriage to be defined in traditional ways. The trouble politically is this:

  • Marriage is not Christian. It is nearly universal, and even in ‘Christian’ countries, non Christians may marry regardless of their faith. Seeing as marriage is not exclusively Christian, I find it hard to see how it can be protected on religious grounds, except if Christians campaign to protect some  religiously defined marriage concept that belongs only to them (which I would support).
  • Homosexuality is not illegal. If homosexuals have all the sexual and relational freedoms of marriage made available to them already, it makes the matter of calling them ‘legally married’ or not fairly irrelevant. We seem to me to be scrapping over legal status and benefits. The horse has bolted.

If gay marriage is wrong, it needs to be demonstrated more carefully. There may be some value in arguing that long-standing definitions of marriage are inherently worth protecting, but antiquity is not necessarily a sign of value. There may be some worth in arguing that there is social and psychological value in preserving the definitions of family that we do. I certainly believe that children probably benefit from growing up with a parent of each gender, but kids have turned out OK after being raised by one parent or even one grandparent, so what do I know? Point is, it’s complicated, and the matter isn’t settled by shouting ‘protect the family’ really loudly.

*************

Reader Comment

A friend helpfully observed the following:

You’ve alluded to something that could be made more explicit.  There are two aspect to marriage, a legal and traditional part.  The tradition of marriage, which is informed by a person’s beliefs, came first and because of the partnership accept to marriage and the resulting implications for society, governments have realised the need to legislate marriage.  The distinction is very obvious in countries such as France but can also be observed in South Africa.  In France, you get legally married before the town mayor as the agent of government.  The traditional ceremony is then performed afterwards according to your beliefs. Priests, Rabbis and other religious leaders don’t have the right to perform the legal ceremony so one can clearly identify the two different aspects.

Given these two distinctions, I’ve always thought the legal partnership should be made available to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation because of the impact on society.

I see two questions, the first is: is gay marriage wrong?  The answer is most certainly yes, according to God’s word.  The second question is: given the reality of life in fallen world, should it be legislated?  Here I would say yes, to protect the weakest person in this partnership.  I don’t think one has to assume that because it’s legislated it’s not wrong.

I therefore think Obama’s stance on gay marriage says nothing about his beliefs.  His stance on abortion probably says much more…

*************