Kerushun Pillay
Kerushun Pillay

Inflaming emotions is art’s job

There has been serious outrage which has greeted an art exhibition which appears to mock Christianity at a KwaZulu-Natal school. 

A pastor in a video circulated on social media labelled the exhibition “demonic”, arguing that the paintings, some of which show cartoon paintings of Jesus Christ alongside a McDonald’s mascot, degraded Christianity. 

Other pieces of art featured cut up bible verses and depictions of the devil. 

The Freedom Front Plus then weighed in on the issue at Grantleigh Curro school in Richard’s Bay, questioning why this exhibition was allowed to be displayed publicly while brandishing the old apartheid flag was considered offensive. 

The DA in KZN then advised parents at the school to take their concerns to the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. 

All are missing the point of artworks, which are created to inflame, frustrate, provoke or entertain. 

As much as a person could naturally be offended by such an exhibition – and indeed the artwork’s merits may not hold up to actual artistic scrutiny – the right of an artist to expression  has to be upheld, defended and encouraged, especially in a democracy. 

It is the role of an artist or creator to, among other things, hold up a mirror to society. Usually that is a funhouse mirror which distorts and exaggerates reality in which the viewer may find some deeper meaning. Sometimes that extends to parody or gratuity. 

Defending this exhibition is not being anti-Christian or anti-religion, and nor is it a point about mindlessly embracing crudeness or bemoaning “snowflakes” who are easily-offended. Rather, it is about allowing artists to create independently and without restraint. 

In a perverse way, the outrage is actually a good thing: it shows that people are, for better or worse, engaging with the exhibition and some may not look at it not as a crude joke, but as something more. 

The obvious response by someone offended by the exhibition would be to do something like conflate the outrage of the exhibition with a similar response that people recently had over a Woolworths bag which appeared to have the same colour scheme as the old apartheid flag. 

The two are not the same; art should be judged on vastly different criteria than the average image which causes a stir among people and becomes fodder for trolling. The obvious main concern that emerges from this fiasco is that opportunists will retaliate by publishing similarly incendiary content under the guise of “artistic freedom”. 

It is, of course, understandable why a devout Christian would be upset over this exhibition. But taking this outrage overly seriously and then looking to question – or even curb – the artistic freedom of creators would be dangerous.  

As for the message of this particular exhibition, I’ll leave that to those more learned than this writer. Overall, however, this kind of freedom of expression that artists and creators – and the wider South African public – enjoys should be celebrated. All art will never be to everyone’s taste, and while public outcry and potential hurt is not ideal, it is certainly a price worth paying for that freedom.