The painting The Spear by Brett Murray has by now aroused such interest and reaction negative and positive that it has taken on a form beyond itself, an image which became the symbol and space for all to use for their motives of expression. From the original intent of satirising government and the president to a method of reinforcing racial clashes, discussions of freedom of speech to discussions of what is the role of art or what is art, as well as a well written post-colonial critique I would recommend.
I can’t help but think that as a painting, an isolated object of art it is rather simple (aesthetically, I mean, that poster aesthetic is kind of what a lot of people do, there is is even that function on Photoshop) and as political satire goes, quite superficial. An artist doesn’t have to work hard when using a figure who already carries all the weight of meaning on itself. The power of this artwork lies within its context and the debates it aroused. And I would like to also argue that the defacement of it (although I really do not wish the gallery or artist any harm), would be the ultimate act to complete it.
W.J.T Mitchell comes to mind in his discussions of iconology and iconoclasm. Both the artist and the defacers used an iconoclastic gesture. Both acts could be considered violent. The artist using subversion breaks down the untouchable image of the president by showing us his genitalia. It is a violent act to expose someone, it is a violating act. And some might argue, yes but he is a bad president, he inspired it, but one must also say, yes but he is also human, and can still be hurt, he can still be violated. This gesture in some way reveals this contradiction.
Then there are the defacers. Physically painting over the image which angers, the wish to destroy it, to cover it is violent, the word deface itself indicates this violence. Usually objects displayed in a gallery on the wall remains untouchable, they are holy objects to be admired, to be contemplated, to be sold, but never to be touched. That final act of defacement was a violent one, and rebellious against the system of the gallery. The covering up of the painting with a red crosses and then with black paint reveals just as much as that of the original.
Both works revealed this relationship with violence we have in South Africa. We use it for a motif as we criticize it, we us one form of violence to satirise the president, another form to counteract it. It was also revealed on blogs and Facebook in the commentary by readers and viewers as this soon became the way for people to personally attack each other’s view. We like to complain in South Africa about the crime and violence, but I dare to say that our attitudes of distrust and defence lies right in the middle of our problem. Or perhaps this is the result of it.
Another topic arouse through this work was that of censorship and freedom of speech. The president wanted them to take the painting down. The gallery refused, stating it will not succumb to censorship. People advocating that it was freedom of speech, the right of the artist, congratulated the gallery for standing up for freedom, while others criticised saying that this disrespect of the president must not be stood for. Of course censorship is a slippery slope and for sure a president must not be allowed to censor artworks, if one can start, before one knows it, anything that defies the president can be shut down and then we have a problem. Yet the defacement of this painting revealed the complexities of freedom of speech and its relationship to who holds the power. Some of the same advocates that hailed the painting as the right to expression of the artist found this defacement a crime, and from a video I saw the culprits were arrested and quite violently so too. Yet weren’t these defacers not just using their freedom of expression?
Defacing a painting is an atrocity someone said on Facebook. Why would such an act be considered more violent to some than the (albeit visual) personal attack on the president – a human being? The ultimate was revealed when they started speaking about the monetary value of the work, how this cost the gallery and the artist R 100 000 (or something like that). We all know the art market is based on speculation, this is not the true worth of the painting, yet many of those same advocates of freedom of expression considered this an important enough reason to justify that the defacers freedom of expression was in fact illegal, that its monetary value excludes it from the fire. The ultimate question lies within this, what are the limits of freedom of expression or more specifically, who has the right to freedom to expression? Those who have ownership? Another question arises, when does something pass as hate speech, one wonders don’t haters also have a right to expression (the twitter model debacle comes to mind)?
These questions cannot easily be answered and should never result in censorship. Yet we must ask ourselves what responsibility we carry in our right to expression, what violence do I carry in my right to expression? So in the end I must wonder about the brilliance of this painting as it revealed so much more then the short comings of our president and the ruling party, but also so very much about our own hypocrisies.