Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bad ass white boys and the Liberal Phallus

In the 1997 movie Air Force One, where Harrison ford plays the President of the United States of America, he is advised by one of his secret servicemen, “[…] sometimes Mr. President, the best course of action is no course of action at all.” I first thought that this advice would have been fitting for our president in the debacle surrounding the painting in question. However the heightened debate perhaps has two important and useful repercussions. On the one hand it has possibly worked in Zuma’s favour to galvanise support ahead of the October congress. On the other, it has raised important issues that have always been simmering below the surface in this country.
A relatively minor show by a relatively obscure artist has now been raised in importance beyond its calling. For the last two weeks, it has occupied an inordinate amount of space in the political and cultural imagination of South Africa. Due to the call for its removal by the ANC and the media coverage that followed, the work is now located in a debate that draws on numerous controversial and pressing issues that are not new, and will not be resolved in the near future. Freedom of speech and the right to criticise the ruling party is one such issue. The other is the right to privacy and dignity. The complexity of debate around this painting is that our constitution protects both of these rights.
A seemingly glib appropriation has now become a placeholder, a point of departure for questions of race, masculinity and political leadership. These signs, while simplified at the level of the painting, are complex in how they operate across the multiple levels in which they have been discussed in the last weeks. From shebeens to braais, cocktail parties to nightclubs, and classrooms, it seemed impossible to get away from discussing The Spear and I have to admit a certain amount of phallus fatigue.
To discuss it even further, in this context or any other, has the danger of reifying the work and lending it more intellectual and aesthetic value than it perhaps deserves. In any case, since we are here, and the debate around the work has reached such intense levels, we need to realise that something important is being raised about the broader context that frames this painting, the body of work it is a part of, and the larger discourse on artworks similar in terms of content, politics and perspective.
This present context is one that is necessarily implicated in a politics of race. The racial politics I would like to foreground here do not rely on the black body, but rather that of the white South African artist who created this work and others like it. From this perspective what is at stake, and what needs to be engaged with is how white liberal South Africa (and Africans) formulate critiques on political power and what these critiques do in terms of a broader political agenda. This reading that I am proposing is one that looks at politics and identity through the lens of power. This is to look not at the penis but at the phallus.
This is to look beyond, or behind the obvious signs at play. This is to read the work from the perspective of who is doing or performing the representation, rather than in terms of what is visibly represented. Readings of the biography or location of the author in terms of their identity is not new, however it is normally reserved for women, gay, lesbian or black artists. What I am proposing through my reading here is to upset this normative gaze reserved for the ‘other’, question it, isolate the privileged position of white heterosexual masculinity, and problematise it. The questioning of power through the concept of whiteness and masculinity is a project much too large to properly execute here. But The Spear, I believe, allows me a moment to explore what such a reading could look like.
The position of the Jester, or provocative bad boy artist, is one that has been enacted by numerous white male South African artists: Neil Goedhals; Barend de Wet; Wayne Baker; Kendell Geers; Peet Pienaar and Ed Young to name but a few, have relied on provocation, often accompanied with media outrage to activate their work. While such subversive tactics were more easily readable in Apartheid South Africa, this confrontational and iconoclastic polemic, has assumed an ambiguous position in a democratic South Africa. Peet Pienaar’s 2000 performance where he filmed himself being circumcised by a black female doctor and then proceeded to auction his foreskin online, also caused a media ruckus, albeit one that was minor in comparison to the case at hand. The work itself, its gesture, would not have amounted to much without the media attention.
In The Spear, and in the show Hail to The Thief II more broadly, white masculinity is in performance mode. It is staged through the proxy of political critique, using the appropriation of anti-apartheid struggle rhetoric combined with provocative juxtapositions. The overwhelming idea that comes through in this critique is that the ANC, once a revolutionary communist aligned entity has sold out to a democracy based on the conception of a corrupted neoliberal market.
If we take this critique seriously, we would imagine that the artist would be in favour of the ANC returning to its more radical past, performing more redistribution, more nationalising interventions and in effect reducing the power of a white minority that exists as a structural majority in terms of wealth. The White Liberal is here caught in a double bind. The critique, if accepted and acted on would lead to an erosion of the privilege that allows the critique to be staged in the first place.
It needs to be asked if the critiques posed in Hail to the Thief II and other similar works are actually meant, whether the implied consequences are to be stood by, or if the self-serving rhetorical flourishes performed have another function. The other function I allude to is salving a paranoia and neurosis that is deep within white South Africa. The guilt from the spectre of complicity with Apartheid can be seen as manifesting in a critique of the corruption and poor governance of the black African National Congress. It forms the basis for a white liberal position that revels in the assumed ineptitude of the new democratic government as it says “Look, it is worse now than in the days of Apartheid”.
Of course Brett Murray and many others would deny this reading. Murray himself has asserted his own Struggle credentials to justify and contextualise his provocations. However this is not the point. What is clear is that this paranoia of whiteness, born from the guilt of Apartheid does not only affect White Liberals, it is an increasingly present malaise that permeates beyond identity positions because whiteness still carries an immense amount of power. In this sense, The Spear is not relevant because of what it says of black masculinity, but how it indicates that white privilege still has the power to construct meaning, the power to control representations, and to set the agendas of political debate. In this sense the reaction of the ANC should not be seen in terms of the black penis, but rather in terms of the white phallus. It is not problematic because it is an attack on black masculinity, but because it asserts the symbolic power that is White Liberal and humanist. This unequal power to represent is one that hits home deep into a post-Apartheid neurosis that stretches beyond the obvious sign play at work and beyond the artwork in question.
Zen Marie
The Wits School of Arts