The “paintergate” case of the president’s penis roiling South Africa has two distinct aspects: the first descriptive, the second strategic.
Arguably, Brett Murray’s painting is offensive for the casual cruelty with which it conjures the colonial imagery of black men as hypersexualised. The painting is repugnant in its blindness to what social activist and academic Mamphela Ramphele has called the “woundedness” of black memory.
Saying this is a descriptive response. Might not Murray, before he touched brush to paint, have given a thought to the history of the naked genitals of lynched black men in the American South? Or the sexual humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib? Might the Goodman Gallery, before hanging “The Spear” on its walls, not have thought of naked men in South Africa’s mine camps, or those photographed for anthropological texts written by whites?
The exposure of black genitals is not a pathology peculiar to white South Africa, but the everyday banality of colonial cruelty.
For this reason, it seems to me, “The Spear” cannot be jocularly dismissed as just a jester’s jibe at bad governance, or trivialised as another art- world spat over the latest Damien Hirst or Robert Mapplethorpe.
A strategic issue
Artists have the right to decide what to paint. Galleries have the right to decide what to show. But artistic right does not trump artistic responsibility.
So the question is what is to be done; it is a strategic issue.
Three strategic options present themselves. First, state repression through censorship. Second, the libertarian option that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, no matter what (the Goodman Gallery defence). And third, the strategy I happen to support: democratic, collective action that may take the form of boycotts, creative mobilising through the social media and public critique.
The ANC chose the most dangerous strategy: acting forcibly downwards to prohibit cultural expression, taking the matter to a regional high court, arguing that the image violated Zuma’s constitutional right to dignity and pressuring City Press to remove “The Spear” from its website.
Most critically at stake is how far the notoriously litigious Zuma and his ruling party are now willing to use the penis brouhaha to quell dissent. Might “paintergate” be the mordant symptom of a factionalised political elite in need of a headline-grabbing diversion?
The Goodman Gallery, in turn, defended Murray’s painting by appealing to the gallery as a “neutral space.” But history is not a neutral space and racial memory is not a white wall.
The absolute freedom-of-expression defence is the weakest, because it leaves racist, misogynist or homophobic expressions unchallenged in a laissez-faire cultural free-for-all. This weakens a democracy, lessens the need for public engagement, and underplays historical trauma and the memory of insult and injury.
The third strategy (collective, democratic action, including boycott, social media pressure and other creative protest) is the most enabling for a strong democracy. It keeps cultural critique and dissent alive.
Strategies such as US Uncut and Act Up encourage people to act politically and critically, keeping the muscles of democracy flexed and public discussion open. It is the embodiment of grassroots democratic power acting upwards.
It is in the empowering nature of boycotts that governments cannot exercise them, only people can. Although City Press removed the image from its website, people seemed to have refused the ANC call for boycott and the newspaper has perhaps come out the stronger as copies sold out and the hashtag #citypress trended on Twitter.
Let me offer a recent example of people power from the United States. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh notoriously derided law student Sandra Fluke as a slut and prostitute. Public outrage erupted, but the Barack Obama government neither censored Limbaugh nor shut his show.
Instead, mass mobilisation through the social media put pressure on Limbaugh’s advertisers, more than 100 of which dropped his programme, his ratings took a major hit and much of his airtime went dead.
That is what democracy looks like.
The responsibility for restraint falls most heavily on the government. Censorship is too often an alibi for, and precursor to, political repression, disenfranchising the already disenfranchised, empowering the already privileged and silencing dissent.
Banning images of genitalia raises ominous spectres. City Press editor Ferial Haffajee has received death threats. Pastor Enoch Mthembu of the Nazareth Baptist Church called for Murray to be stoned to death.
Censoring Zuma’s painted penis could be a chilling short step to censoring gay sexuality. Only last week, an MP for the ANC declared that homosexuality was not part of “African culture”.
But how traditional are the ANC’s suits and cellphones, or indeed the president’s umpteen weddings? Cherry-picking “traditions” such as polygamy is an alibi for patriarchal licence and gender restraint.
First they came for Murray. Then they came for Haffajee. Next they might come for the lesbians and the gays, abortions and books.
Who, then, will tell them “no”?
Anne McClintock is the Simone de Beauvoir professor of English and gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States