Dignity, free speech and art

Painting depicting Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada nude. Source OpenFile.

GroundUp Editor

21 May 2012

President Zuma and the ANC are very upset by Brett Murray’s painting. The painting is on display in the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. It depicts the President as Lenin, which has not caused much controversy. But it also depicts the President’s genitals, and this has caused a furore. The SACP has called it sadistic. The president is trying to get the South Gauteng High Court to compel the gallery to remove the artwork.

Some art critics think Murray’s work is bad art. Some commentators argue that it is racist. President Zuma wrote in his court affidavit, “The continued display of the portrait is a grave violation of my right to dignity as it depicts me with my private parts showing.”

It is possibly all these things. But maybe it isn’t; maybe it is fine art; maybe it is insightful commentary on the President. How people react to art is very subjective. Even if Murray’s work is bad art, even if it is racist and even if it insults the President, this does not mean it should be removed. People say and write bad, racist, insulting things all the time. Our Constitution generally allows people to do that.

This is what Section 16 of the Constitution says about freedom of expression:

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ­
(a) freedom of the press and other media;
(b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
(c) freedom of artistic creativity; and
(d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

(2) The right in subsection (1) does not extend to ­
(a) propaganda for war;
(b) incitement of imminent violence; or
(c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity,
gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

This rightly creates a high burden of proof for anyone who wants to ban an artwork. The Constitution protects expression that is hateful, racist, anti-religion or sexist, so long as it does not incite harm. Assuming that Murray’s work is racist (and we have no opinion on that) it is difficult to see how it can be said to incite people to cause harm.

Being a public figure like President Zuma has its downsides. If you want to be a politician, you have to have a thick skin. Had Zuma ignored the Murray painting, it might have raised a few public chuckles, but it would likely have been largely ignored. By being far too sensitive, Zuma has turned this artwork into a massive media event.

Hypocrisy and Callousness

However, what is really bothersome about the ANC and Zuma’s response to the painting is their hypocrisy and callousness.

Here’s why it is callous. In the last few weeks, the public has learned how Limpopo schools do not have textbooks. We have also learned that across the country essential life-saving medicines, including an essential anti-AIDS one, are out of stock. Gauteng Province has run out of some childhood vaccines. The Kwazulu-Natal government is using a dangerous device to circumcise boys. All these problems are primarily the fault of President Zuma’s government. These failures infringe the dignity of hundreds of thousands of people and they certainly cause harm. Yet Zuma and the ANC have expressed neither outrage, nor remorse for these failures. Instead, they are outraged by an artwork. The President and the ruling party clearly have their outrage priorities very wrong.

Here’s why it is hypocritical. ANC members frequently say and write outrageously insulting things about people that go beyond the boundaries of decent political debate. Here are a few examples:

Some of these comments have been criticised from within the ANC, but none have provoked anything resembling outrage and most have not been remarked upon at all by the ANC. The ANC does not come across plausibly when it accuses others of demeaning dignity.