As submitted to Daily Maverick
On Sunday, Zama Ndlovu (@jozigoddess) tweeted “I do hope someone will write something about how whiteness should look at that piece of ‘art’. To be fair and stuff.” I’d hope that nobody does, just as nobody should write about how “blackness” should look at Brett Murray’s “The Spear”. Because both approaches would be prescriptive in dictating that it’s race which should determine one’s attitude to dignity, and which sorts of harms should be taken seriously by our courts.
It’s too late, of course – many pieces were published over the weekend by writers of various races, with some of the writers explicitly foregrounding their blackness or the putative blackness of their analysis. More important, perhaps, is that they foregrounded the whiteness of the artist – and the whiteness of thinking that it’s permissible to depict Jacob Zuma with his penis hanging out of his trousers.
This is the crux of the controversy. Not only freedom of artistic expression competing with a Constitutional right to dignity, but the clash of cultural norms that Murray’s painting has highlighted. As with Yiull Damaso’s painting of Mandela’s autopsy, those who think it inappropriate to depict Zuma’s penis talk about disrespect, and appeal to the communitarian perspective that holds that we are responsible for upholding each others’ dignity. Those who think the painting permissible tend towards the more liberal perspective, arguing that we don’t have the right to not be offended.
These responses are not reliably correlated with race – black columnists have been among those arguing that Zuma has presented himself as a philanderer, and therefore that he shouldn’t be surprised if we end up perceiving and depicting him as one. But I haven’t seen a white columnist arguing that The Spear is insensitive enough to merit an urgent interdict for its removal from the Goodman Gallery and the City Press.
The absence of this sort of critique from white writers feeds into the narrative of racism, whereby Murray’s painting becomes emblematic of a colonial gaze, where black men are savages, ruled by their passions rather than by intellect. That sort of reaction, though, is sometimes self-serving and inconsistent. I can’t dispute that it’s sometimes a justified reaction – there are surely instances of artists and writers who have the view that whiteness has some sort of monopoly on sophistication, with blackness representing some form of primitivism.
But the demand for us to respect cultural preference in these matters is self-serving in the sense that it forestalls any possible debate or reflection on the merits of the artwork. Not the merits in terms of quality and originality, which are a separate matter, but the merits in terms of the discomfort and self-reflection the artwork could inspire. The easiest way to justify poor arguments or mistaken ideas is to refuse to discuss them – and if it is a mistaken idea that presidents, parents, or people in general merit protection from these sorts of insults, playing the race card or the culture card serves to rule that discussion out of order.
Then, the reaction is inconsistent because it frequently expresses a prejudice of its own. Instead of defending the dignity of anyone, from an egalitarian anti-racist or anti-sexist perspective, we mostly hear silence when a Jackson Mthembu or Marius Fransman says abusive things about Helen Zille or Lindiwe Mazibuko. Or, for that matter, when Mazibuko is called a “housenigger”, or Zille is threatened with rape on Twitter – both of which occurred last week (but not for the first time) in social media chatter during the march on Cosatu House.
Is this because they can deal with it, where Zuma cannot? Or because they’ve earned it, where he has not? An answer to either question will expose deep prejudice on the part of those who think these things – so, better not to think about it. Or is it simply the case that because Zille and Mazibuko aren’t of a communitarian mindset themselves, this cultural norm of defending each other against insult doesn’t apply in their favour?
If the latter is the unconscious motivation for this inconsistency in what results in outrage and what doesn’t, we can ask a follow-up question: exactly which categories of human does identity politics grant special protection to, and on what grounds is this discrimination justified? I’m not talking about recognising that certain groups of people might have certain sorts of sensitivities – that they do, and sometimes for very good reason – but rather about whether we’re comfortable with certain sensitivities receiving preferential treatment in law or public opinion.
I don’t know how whiteness should look at Murray’s painting. But I do know that I could imagine a person being offended by a similar portrayal of their father. And I do know that a black person might not object in the slightest to Zuma being disrespected by this painting, because of the belief that Zuma has done little to merit that level of respect. Among this range of responses, though, it’s unclear whether we’re acting out of principle, out of prejudice, or out of reaction to prejudice – whether perceived or actual.
Zuma can by all means test, in court, whether Murray’s aesthetics and cultural norms should bow to his. For Zuma to win, though, would require demonstrating that his dignity has actually been impaired, and not just that his feelings were hurt. And I don’t know about you, but I already had the impression that Zuma was a rather sexual creature. Not because of some identity politics claptrap, but simply because he has “four wives, two exes and 22 children by ten different women”, as The Economist succinctly put it.
As for the painting itself, of course it’s disrespectful – I’d imagine that’s the point of the painting. You might think the painting in unacceptably bad taste, but your aesthetic preferences and cultural norms are of no more consequence than anyone else’s – at least in theory. In this case, where the ANC has joined Zuma’s case as second applicant, it seems that theory will soon (and, again) be tested – leaving us with one more reason to respect them both less.