Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

On the interpretation of a painting

I did not really want to write this piece, knowing full well that it would be greeted by howls of derision and by vituperative incomprehension in many quarters. But as events unfolded in the wake of the public display, at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, of the Brett Murray painting metaphorically titled The Spear, reaching the almost surreal stage where the painting was disfigured by two ‘vigilantes’, and the gallery, as well as the City Press newspaper, was virtually coerced into removing the offending piece, and a photograph of it on the latter’s website, respectively, I have increasingly felt compelled to write this.

Most conspicuously, the outcry against the painting, unambiguously proclaimed to be ‘of President Zuma’, and the insistence on its being removed, followed by public condemnations of it by members of the ANC and eventually by a protest march to the gallery, have ignored the fact that freedom of expression is enshrined in our Constitution, widely hailed as ‘progressive’. So much for the Constitution; evidently the ANC respects it only selectively.

They still have to learn the democratic value of the manner in which an American lawyer explained his decision to defend Larry Flynt, editor of the pornographic magazine Hustler, against legal attempts to muzzle the magazine, when he said that he rejected with contempt the degrading pornographic material published by Hustler, but would defend Flynt’s right to do so with his last breath. Why? Because if Larry Flynt was not allowed to print his abominable pornography, all those against it would have no right to express their opposition to it either. This is the true spirit of democracy, where – short of hate speech inciting violence against certain groups or gender – people are free to say or show what they wish, on pain of being recognised for what they are by everyone around them.

For John Stuart Mill, philosopher-author of the famous essay “On Liberty”, what recommended democracy above all other forms of government was the fact that everyone – including those on the ‘lunatic fringe’ – had the right and opportunity to say and show what they liked, which ensured that the ‘lunatic fringe’ could be recognised by everyone to be just that: some variety of ‘lunatic’, in this way disqualifying themselves in the eyes of the public as unworthy of being taken seriously. Hence, applied to our situation, the artist Brett Murray, the Goodman Gallery, City Press, as well as all those who have objected to the painting, had the right to do what they did, while those who vandalised the painting and those who insisted that it be removed, had NO right to do so under our Constitution. (Which means that Mosiuoa Lekota was absolutely right when he pointed out that the Spear-episode shows that the President has failed to defend our Constitution.)

The Spear. In the commentary I have read, I have not come across any attempt to offer a sustained, accountable interpretation of the painting. And that does not mean I believe only one such interpretation is possible, as long as interpretations are what Nietzsche called a ‘responsible’ interpretation. The reason why several ‘responsible’ interpretations of a painting, a sculpture, a film, a poem, a novel, are possible, stems from the nature of images and of language, in other words, of what semioticians call ‘signifiers’: the fact that they are not only ambiguous (having two meanings), as they move from one context to the next, but multivocal (‘many-voiced’; having more than two meanings from one context to the other).

Think of the colour red – in some contexts it signifies danger, in others passion, and in others anger. Or take the phrase, ‘the wine-dark sea’, from Homer. Some may read it in a way that stresses the word ‘wine’, associating it with the occasional revelry, as well as/or drunken misery that comes with being a sailor; others would emphasise the word ‘dark’, eliciting from it the mysteriousness and unpredictability of the sea, but read together, it epitomises what I have called ‘multivocality’: the ‘wine-dark sea’ suggests the ocean as something associated with revelry or celebration, with mystery, opacity, unpredictable changes in tide, temperament, and fortune, that is, as something to be both desired and feared. Ask a dozen people to interpret the phrase, and depending on their own personal, social and cultural context, the emphases would differ somewhat, but would probably converge.

The same is true of The Spear. Not even the artist could give one a conclusive interpretation of the painting, because, as soon as an artist or writer has completed an artwork or literary text, she or he becomes just another ‘reader’ of their own work, which, from that moment further, is like a child who has left home to live an independent life. (Remember what Umberto Eco wrote after being asked by many what The Rose in his novel The Name of the Rose meant?) Hence, it is not surprising that some people saw in the painting a satirical work drawing attention to its subject’s chief attribute, namely phallic power. That this subject has been widely taken to be (a fictionalised version of) Jacob Zuma, is not surprising either, for various reasons. I put ‘a fictionalised version of’ in brackets because there is also the large group of people who saw the painting as ‘Jacob Zuma’, or ‘President Jacob Zuma’, WITHOUT the qualifying words, ‘a fictionalised version of’. In their case we witness an instantiation of what Louis Althusser regarded as the purest expression of ideological interpellation (‘interruption’), namely the tendency to see in something that should be recognised as having the status of a REPRESENTATION of something else, (a representation of X), the thing itself, namely X. Hence, instead of seeing a sculpted figurine of Christ on the cross, for instance, such a person sees the real, bleeding body of Christ.

Hence, those people who have objected to the painting as being an insult to Jacob Zuma as father, grandfather, president, husband, and so on, in this way infringing on his ‘human right to dignity’, seem to me to fall into this Althusserian category. They have seen in The Spear not an image or representation of Jacob Zuma, but Jacob Zuma himself, the real Jacob Zuma. And this being the case, it is evident that they are so thoroughly interpellated by ANC ideology, that they cannot make the distinction between an image of a person and the real person. Don’t get me wrong on this – I am not arguing in favour of an ‘art for art’s sake’-position. Art is never ONLY a formal presentation (abstract art), or a formal representation, with no real links with the social or natural world. Unavoidably, art also has those links. BUT – and it’s a big but – the relation or link is not a direct, one-to-one connection. It is rather like the light shining through a prism and breaking up into all the rainbow’s colours; art ‘refracts’ social reality; it does NOT coincide with reality.

Seen in this way, what could The Spear mean as artwork? Firstly, it is itself an interpretation of a figure, and clearly a political figure, as shown by the fact that it is modelled on a famous poster/picture of the communist leader, Lenin. Secondly, it is a parody, which shows by being recognisably modelled on a previous artwork. In other words, as parody, it deliberately lampoons, satirises, caricatures or – in student slang – ‘rips off’ – its subject, by highlighting the male figure’s genitals, specifically the phallus. You will note that I have not said ‘Zuma’s genitals’, because there is nothing that compellingly indicates that it is Jacob Zuma ‘as such’ who is the subject of the painting.

Remember what I said above: signifiers (in this case the image of a man) are multivocal. And even if Brett Murray had Zuma in mind (which he probably did), once he had signed off on the painting, it was ‘free’ – free to be interpreted on the basis of its appearance, in conjunction with its title, The Spear (obviously a phallic title). The latter is further a clear indication that it should be linked to Umkhonto we Sizwe – The Spear of the Nation, or the military wing of the ANC, which also explains its connection with the image of Lenin. After all, the ANC received support from East-bloc countries in the course of the liberation struggle, so the grafting of this image on to that of Lenin makes sense.

But – and again it is a big BUT – the exposed member does not only, or necessarily, suggest that the figure in question has ‘loose morals’ in the sense of being a philanderer – those who immediately jumped to this conclusion could only do so because the interpretive framework of ‘philandering’ was brought to the painting by themselves – no doubt in the light of widely publicised information about Zuma’s private life – and therefore this particular meaning of the painting resonates with the interpretive framework. But remember what ‘phallus’ means. On the one hand, it is a synonym for ‘penis’, the male organ, but on the other – more importantly – it is a symbolic term that stands for male, or patriarchal, authority.

Add to this something that a perspicacious friend of mine pointed out to me, namely, that the face in the image resembles the Nationalist leader, D.F Malan, to a greater extent than it resembles Zuma (whether intentionally painted like that or not; there are always resemblances between individuals and images), and the meaning of the painting becomes clear: This multivocal image is a parody of patriarchal political leadership, which leads more by the phallic authority that such vaunted ‘leaders’ have, than by moral integrity and justifiable, visionary leadership qualities. In short, The Spear is a parody of patriarchal, masculine political authority, and is not aimed primarily or exclusively at Zuma.

Anyone who would like to read in greater detail about the psychological mechanism of ‘identifying’ with someone, could read my paper, ‘That strange thing called ‘identifying’’; South African Journal of Psychology 39 (4), 2009, pp. 407-419.

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