South Africa’s Dignity Wars – The Brett Murray Painting

DIGNITY AND indignation have a common etymologic root. When people speak of “Dignity” they often mean “Dig-ME-ty” as in the popular Whitney Houston anthem which goes: They can’t take away my dignity… because the greatest love of all is happening to ME.” We often reserve the right to become indignant, not realising that common law defines dignity in a very different way. Dignity or dignitas implies restraint, not indignation, the very opposite of the sentiments expressed in the “greatest love of all.”

The only restraints on freedom of expression (including love) in our constitution inserted, excuse the pun, by our constitutional assembly, refer to hate speech, incitement to violence and advocacy of war. Although we may become indignant about a particular work of art, how is an artwork which has no life to speak of in the real sense of the word, an affront on human dignity, which as the song says, cannot be taken away?

Brett Murray’s controversial print-work, The Spear, may portray our president in an undignified fashion, and we may have every right to become indignant at the sight of our president’s exposed genitalia, but how does this affect our rights and freedoms in terms of their intrinsic humanness – their basis not in things or objects, but our fundamental human condition?

It is revealing to find the president declaiming on his own image or likeness in public. Doing so merely perpetuates the notion that what we mean by dignity is dig-ME-ty, and that what is occuring is essentially an issue related to vanity, not human rights or frailty. [ Mike Van Graan, former head of the struggle-era Community Arts Project, appears to concur]. Public figures must learn to roll with the punches — but to take the portrait serously, even though it may be in extremely bad taste, is to risk reification, (see Gillian Schutte contrarian view on Big Dick-ness and the President’s Penis) worse still it reduces the artwork, and all artworks for that matter, into nothing more than literal or figurative representations, in the process denying the rights of citizens to interpret (and reinterpret) what they see.{Here is one attempt at reinterpreting the work by remixing it with a popular open source graphic tool, Gimp. Yes, Gimp is the sadist’s tool of choice, go figure.]

Censoring Brett Murray in this way is thus bound to backfire by turning into censorship of the body politic. Imagine laws being formulated on what can and cannot be portrayed in an artwork? We are all left the poorer for the resulting strictures and insistence on dignitas and gravitas whenever the office of the president is mentioned, as playwrite Zakes Mda puts it “as a person whose work was banned by the previous oppressors I’m against censorship even for those works that are not to my taste.” South Africa’s dignity wars thus risk turning the ANC into an advocate of the same right-wing politics which saw the banning of Ronnie Harrison’s 1961 Black Christ by the National Party government.

The Presidency should thus avoid drawing itself into public visual arts debates, debates which are best left to artists and art lovers. Doing so merely perpetuates the idea that South Africa is essentially leaderless and without the necessary “cojones” to rise above the challenge.