Art Controversy in South Africa

I don’t know if this story has made it all the way to the states, (I think it has?), but there has been a contemporary art controversy brewing here in South Africa.  The news papers are filled with stories about a painting at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesberg.  Titled, The Spear, the painting by Brett Murray has caused an uproar that has resulted in defacemant of the painting as well as protest.  The painting depicts South African President Jacob Zuma standing with his genitals exposed.  I don’t quite have a handle on the general public’s opinion of President Zuma as a political figure, who recently added his sixth wife, but is appears that the general public feels the painting is disrespectful.

The art teacher that I working with for my student teaching asked how the painting would have been received had it been painted in the United States and depicted Obama.  I always feel a little awkard trying to represent the opinion of my entire country, but it was a fair question.  I said that considering the piece was presented in an art gallery, many people might be offended by it but they wouldn’t call for procecution of the artist, or at least they wouldn’t have grounds to.  If the image were used on a magazine cover such as the New Yorker’s depiction of the President and Michelle Obama, the backlash would have been different.  It’s hard to know what would have happened in the US.  Piss Christ certainly sparked controversy.  But I think sometimes we’re more sensitive about religion than politics.

I don’t have a problem with the use of Zuma as a subject.  I think political figures are perfectly good fodder for art.  I just don’t think the painting is all that interesting.  I’m always happy for contemporary art to ruffle a few feathers, but I would rather it be in a way that is more poetic.  To be clear, I don’t believe for art to be poetic is has to shy away from the crass.  Paul McCarthy has used the crass to strike a chord that is far more intriquing and complex.  I don’t, however, like when a painting such as Murray’s turns the general public away from the role contemporary art plays in commenting on contemporary culture.  Maybe part of the point of dipicting Zuma the way that he did is that is the only way to get the public’s attention.

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