/a mistaken reasoning which makes an argument invalid/
/the ability not to be affected by something/
I was going to title the present article artwork. That title would not have encapsulated the issues that I would like to tackle presently. In a country that is divided economically as well as operating along racial lines when one looks at the so call liberal arts, even before we consider such art liberal, we must go to the beginning of the conception of an artwork which is in itself a problematic journey. Yet its locale is quite clear, the conception of an artwork takes place within the exercising of freedom to respond to stimuli either internally or externally to the artist.
At the same time we must shift our focal point to the entry of the artwork in the consciousness of the public domain when that work is shown in a public space such as a gallery or a museum. The grey area that exists between the finished work and its acquisition by a private collector or a museum for that matter gives parties interested in the artist’s oeuvre the opportunity to see where that artist is in the development of their art making career. If the artist manages to make remarkable strides in their development they are bound to win a new following which will herald an interest in the body of work that has issued from their artistic enterprise. Should the artist degenerate into repetition or vulgarity theirs will be a short-lived effervescent notoriety.
It is undeniable that a work of art is a response to particular stimuli occurring either internally or externally to the artist as an individual. Externally to the artist the artwork could be a response to another artwork should the artist be at a stage where they lack original inspiration, a sort of a low artistic juice, writers call it ‘a writer’s block’. On the other hand the artist might be responding to a personal event that they have experienced and by bringing that particular event into an art form they have analyzed its features succinctly so as to give it form, a body and an artistic expression if you will. By default the work then demarcates and totalizes whatever it is that torments the artist passionately into one impression called fine art. Here the artist is responding internally.
The difference between these two polarities of artistic practices makes themselves felt when the artwork enters the consciousness of the public, and as a response to the time of the artist the work encompasses the interests of the public explicitly either in the negative or the positive. Either way it hits the nerve center in the fabric of the society concerned. The public must respond either by praising the work as aesthetically pleasing, agreeable and see it as a contribution to its culture, henceforth we speak of people who consume finer things as cultured or the public may totally misunderstand what the artist is trying to achieve and ignore him, perhaps the artist will turn a new leaf and return to the spotlight invigorated and finally claim his rightful place in the minds of consumers of the arts. Should he be vulgar in his freedom to evolve a new art agreeable to the sensibilities of his time, not only will it be difficult for the artist to reclaim their right to be addressed as artist, but he will be called names not palatable to anyone specifically himself.
Let us acknowledge that once the artwork goes public and holds its attention the artist is grabbling with external stimuli however the mode within which the artist is grappling with the issues concerned shifts and heightens from personal to public. When the ground on which he operates shifts and heightens unfortunately for him he is no longer a private person entitled to his personal views, he speaks to the people for the people. The artist is no longer on a personal journey but he has harnessed the interests of the people. Positively he will be seen as endorsing the interests of those whose values he upholds and negatively he has taken a confrontational stance towards those who are opposed to the ideals reflected in his work. By hook or crook he now represents the ideals of a particular group of the society within which his practice exists. He is positioned.
In these scenarios the artist, as a free agent of creativity may suffer one troubling fallacy. He may slip into an ideological affinity, the portal of which is fine line. Let us bear in mind that ideologies are there before we engage with the world. In this light it is difficult for the artist not to be practicing within a particular ideal. By his embarkation, by his gender or race he asserts a particular interest even if he were to shift it far afield from himself and claim his affinity with liberal ideals which by nature are specific ideologies in themselves. By his birth and location within the society the artist is a repository of certain nuances of particular ideals. He cannot shake them free. He is trapped.
Now by its position within the paradigm of advancing the artistic object and its evolution as well as the presentation of any art concerned as new art to the art consumer the gallery perpetuates the interest of the artist and that of a particular class within a society, its patrons. It too takes a position. It too by its birth and nurturing is a product of an ideology.
The Spear by Brett Murray featured in the exhibition Hail to the Thief II is one such artwork that undoubtedly takes a position. The Goodman Gallery speaks for a particular ideal, besides the stance that it took for not commenting on the controversial work and its refusal to remove the work from the body of work on show promoted the ideal encapsulated in the person of the artist. There is no way that the Goodman Gallery was not aware of the condemnation that the work would receive when it opened the exhibition or when it made its selection for the main exhibition during its planning of the exhibition.
In the arts fraternity it is common knowledge that a gallery chooses what it wants to show to its patrons. A gallery can be seen in the light within which a newspaper editor functions, it shapes its content to communicate a particular message which in this case would be the state of the arts as far as contemporary art is concerned and as it has already been alluded to earlier that ‘state of the arts’ is a particular ideology. In the painting in question the state president of South Africa is shown looking towards his right in an overcoat, right hand akimbo, with his genitalia exposed. The viewer as in any artwork that they will confront are left to make their own conclusion as to what the spear is. Is it the president’s private part? Does it refer to the spear as in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation? I am sure a close viewing will bring about these disturbing questions to the fore.
Now as I jot this article that artwork has evolved from being an aggravating work praised as brave and avant-garde to a vandalized artwork following two men who entered the gallery, apparently total strangers to each other, and have taken turns defacing the painting. While the white man crossed both the face and the genitalia with red paint the black man smeared black paint both on the face, part of the right side of the figure and the genitalia area. While the black man who vandalized the artwork after the white man was the first to be arrested the white man almost fled the gallery uncaught if it weren’t for the press that pointed out he should be also be caught. Shall stop here with this description lest I lose sight of what I am concerned with here. But I wish to venture that the artwork now has attained a state of a performance art piece with the added actions of the two men. Though defaced, it has not lost its gravity of being offensive and vulgar. It has now being relegated to a pseudo avant-garde by bourgeois standards but considering its genesis far from kitsch.
It remains to be seen and heard what will happen to the two men in this hyper unfolding saga. Their contribution to the lifespan of the artwork can be seen as its sharp relegation to an effervescent effect requested by many people when they suggested the work be removed from the exhibition and destroyed. But the artwork as an expression of artistic will and its leaning towards degradation has left its mark on the mind of the country.
If the art connoisseurs, the liberals and the petty bourgeoisie are angered by the defacing of the artwork they will be missing the point that they live in a cocktail land mired with struggles which are ideological by their nature. A country that is not ready for this sort of avant-gardism. A country full of disrespect and racial innuendo. They will have to realize that we are not yet ready, will we ever be? To view life not through the prism of racism and disrespect of the ‘other’. The bourgeois, by a knock of sense achievable through protest active or passive, should realize that the racial gaze is the first stance that we will always take when we engage. Until we realize that the common destiny of mankind is survival and to obtain it we need unity, even if it sounds corny and overrated, otherwise what else do you have if not hatred for the ‘other’ which is just moments away from genocide?
It really does not matter whether politically you are affiliated to the center, far left or the extreme left, wrong is wrong even if it is sugar coated. Bret Murray’s effervescent artwork, The Spear, cannot claim its place within the paradigm of high art. It degrades not only black people culturally, and males specifically, but the rest of South Africa and human kind in particular. I have said elsewhere, though not in the present article, that the war against apartheid was a war against inhuman racist attitudes towards black people and the condemnation of those attitudes. This work asserts the assumption that there are other South Africans within South Africa who sees the past 18 years as a waste of time, whom, by their lethal actions yearn with nostalgia the past that benefited the minority above the majority. The Spear divides the nation along racial lines which were never articulated in the first place. Racism in our country was never fully tackled except that freedom was given to all including those who oppressed the ‘other’. This is where our anomaly lies.
But Freedom comes with boundaries. Not only does the Goodman Gallery and the artist owe the state president an apology but by default they owe all South Africans, bent on making this country work, an apology. A nasty question hovers in the background as to what would have happened if a black artist had painted a white person, say one of the opposition party’s members, with their private parts hanging out. You can do the math.
*(for comparative reading read the second draft here)
© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2012