So ja, I’ve given in. I’ve decided to talk about that painting. The one that’s transfixed the nation for more than a week now – even on Twitter, a platform known for nothing so much as institutionalised ADD. It is the PR gift that keeps on giving: apparently it’s reached 108 million people and delivered over R25-million in equivalent advertising value, and therefore deserving of an award for delivering such phenomenal ROI.
I think it’s a much better work, post defacement, than it was before. Sacrilege, yes, because to deface work is not only criminal, it is to evoke the Nazis and the Soviets (both of whom insisted on wholesome realism in a tradition parodied by Murray in the picture that caused all the trouble). Technically speaking in terms which insurers can understand, the stretch of acrylic on canvas reputedly owned by a German who paid R136 000 for it, has been destroyed. But if we are to view it primarily as commentary on the state of politics, patriarchy and power – as the artist presumably wishes us to – it has been vastly improved. As art object, it’s ruined. As art, it’s superb.
I disliked the original because it was so unsubtle, so 3rd year. True subversion is sly: it sneaks up on you, fools you into making comfortable assumptions, then sticks a stiletto between the ribs. It doesn’t whack you over the skull with the obvious. (As a piece of satire, this “Gandhi Spear” parody actually works a lot better.) As a critique of power and patriarchy the work was also hamstrung by a context in which white men painting black dicks is never not going to be problematic. Even if this was not the intention of the artist, it was too open to interpretation as racist, the lugubrious echo of a colonial discourse that reduced Africans to sexual objects who stirred both fascination and fear.
The Emperor has no clothes
Then there is the problem of Zuma himself. Mockery is premised upon the assumption that your target is doing his best to maintain a dignified exterior. There is no way to truly subvert the image of Zuma, not in the way that was possible during apartheid. For one thing, the president operates within a cultural context that is saturated with mockery (Zumockery, if you want a convenient portmanteau to add to your lexicon). Now, for all the lawsuits, derisive images of the president are everywhere, some of them on extremely unpleasant racist websites. The image of Zuma that predominates in popular culture is (ironically) the antithesis of dignity. We see him dancing or waving a gun, or pulling an inadvertent middle finger when he adjusts his glasses; he’s been the punchline of jokes since at least 2004 (similarly, it’s difficult to be truly subversive when mocking Malema). The Spear fails as satire because it is too familiar; the artist echoes the jokes around the braai rather than interrogating them.
I think the work offended people because it made explicit what was always tacit. Much of the attention was stirred up by the ANC who stand to gain from what Sipho Hlongwane describes here as “dog whistle politics”. The focus was on the literal interpretation – the penis is verboten – but of course it operates on the metaphorical level too. Now the unspeakably awful appendage has been covered up, and the self-appointed guardians of our moral fibre have declared themselves (mostly) satisfied, but we all know it is there. It’s a much more powerful representation of the point than the original ever could be. The Spear now stands as a mute accusation: not just a representation, but the thing itself. It becomes an embodiment of the thorny problems of representation, criticism, respect and culture; all the largely unspoken messiness we tangle with every day.
So the Tzaneen taxi driver and the Kempton Park Afrikaner have become part of something much bigger. The two who defaced the work might be morons, as Gus Silber described them on Twitter. But they are useful idiots in their own way, and what started out as a canvas on a gallery wall is now process of creation and destruction, meaning added upon layer of meaning.
One artist’s representation of the presidential penis has been effaced by a layer of black and red enamel. The offending organ can no longer be seen, but it’s more visible than ever.