Visual art is so much more than an object that hangs on a wall or sits on a plinth in an otherwise quiet, white space. Its manifestations extend exponentially beyond its physical form and its associations and interpretations live through conversations, text and hearsay. If we ever underestimated the power of art to manifest beyond its material, the events of this past week have certainly convinced us otherwise.
Modern and contemporary art has always been controversial; indeed, one might say that modern art was born in controversy, with all its significant turning points occasioned by a rupture of conventional notions of what constitutes art that is socially and culturally acceptable.
At its most benign, this could simply be a matter of technique (one thinks of the offence that the “unfinished” nature of the Barbizon painters’ plein-air techniques caused to refined bourgeois sensibilities in the 1830s). At its most noisome it would constitute a pushing of social and cultural taboos that would lead to vandalism, censorship or the withdrawal of government funding. There are countless examples: Harold Rubin being charged with blasphemy or museums and galleries practicing self-censorship against the threat of closure or the withdrawal – threatened or actual – of government support.
Extreme reactions of this nature serve, somewhat ironically, simply to reinforce the notion that art has the potential to challenge and shape consciousness; to shift people’s hearts and minds – even if only momentarily – into challenging preconceptions about contemporary society and their place in it.
It is little wonder that Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini banned avant-garde art under their regimes in favour of sentimental, realist art that extolled the ostensible virtues and triumphs of the state. Hitler went so far as to mount a travelling exhibition of modern art, which he termed “degenerate”, in order to “expose” its ostensible turpitude and depravity.
Soothing effects of time
It is worth noting that the art associated with the early avant garde and which excited so much debate in its time, has now been firmly enshrined in the canon of modern art, thus reminding us of the soothing effects of time – outrage and scandal, it seems, have a very short half-life.
Part of the international (if not universal) appeal of art is its continued ability to provoke controversy throughout the world – something of a feat, given the phenomenal clutter of visual information that we increasingly have access to across a range of media and technologies.
Ironically, the response to artistic controversy in countries that pride themselves on their liberal constitutions and support for freedom of expression is remarkably similar to those of oppressive regimes, or indeed hark back to times of extreme censorship and oppression.
The events of the past week are a clear case in point and have brought into sharp relief questions of the limits of personal expression and the role of the ruling political elite to sanction or condemn what are considered appropriate limits.
Situations like this serve not only to test the limits of what constitutes freedom of expression and censorship, but also raise difficult questions about when the authorities, in acting as guardians of public morals, are genuinely acting in the interests of the “public good” or merely out of narrow political self-interest.
Appeal and power
It is an established philosophical principle that any work of art will always assume meanings and interpretations beyond the intentions or expectations of its maker. This is an integral part of its appeal and power, and the element that links it most closely to the principles of democracy: it reminds us that, in a democracy, we recognise that members of a society have fundamentally different points of view based on fundamentally different and sometimes incompatible value systems.
It is out of recognition of the fragility of this lack of consensus – and our vulnerability in relation to it – that we expect art to be something more than an anodyne, passive reflection of the status quo.
It is also why we value art not merely because of its physical attributes – the value of art is as manifold, complex and contradictory as the values of those who engage with it. And if an artwork is removed from a wall – whether willingly or compelled by law – this does not mean it will be removed from the minds and hearts of those talked about it, defended it, laughed at it or castigated it. It will continue to exist in cyberspace and yesterday’s newspaper, and will continue, as Tselane Tambo argues, “to express, sometimes to galvanise, always to inspire”.
In short, the role of contemporary art in a democracy must be the continued conquest of new territory and new taboos. A failure to do so would effectively constitute an abdication of responsible thought.
Contemporary art continues to excite and intrigue us largely as it seems to serve one purpose: to challenge us to see the world – and our place in it – differently and, in so doing, affirming a common humanity founded on a respect for differing points of view.
Liza Essers is the owner of the Goodman Gallery