On art, statues, language and other burning issues
Our social media and public discourse has become increasingly polarised and polarising; there is little room for nuance, for reflection rather than point-scoring between “us” and “them”. This is the first in a series of three articles to be published on three consecutive days, in an attempt to negotiate this minefield. They are stand-alone articles, but they need to be read in their totality.
“Send these barbarians to jail”, was one impassioned plea that probably represented many a middle-class viewpoint in response to the burning of art works, photographs and portraits at UCT recently. Implicitly, those deemed responsible for this lack of “art appreciation”, were deemed to be “uncivilised”, not worthy of being at a university.
Yet, the Rhodes Must Fall student activists – generally regarded as having been engaged in this “bonfire of colonial vanities” – clearly do have an appreciation of symbols and metaphor; they had built a shack to highlight the lack of accommodation for black students.
One of the leading RMF activists is a doctoral student employed by Iziko Museum, and serves on the National Arts Council. RMF will itself host an exhibition in March to mark its year-old anniversary.
So it is not that RMF activists are “uncivilised barbarians” unschooled in, or unappreciative of the value and meaning of art; on the contrary, it might be that precisely because they are conscious of how art, images and monuments can exert soft power, that “colonial symbols” on the walls of various UCT buildings were the target of their activism.
There were others who deemed the burnings in the same light as the destruction of heritage sites and antiquities by the world’s favourite “barbarians”, ISIL. I would bet that not many of these voices were raised in opposition to the tearing down of statues of Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. I still remember the television images of American troops helping Iraqis to topple a huge statue of the latter dictator; I do not remember any arguments in favour of keeping those statues in order that future generations would learn from history. Is it that that one’s ideological or political position informs one’s sense of the value of history, culture and symbols?
Then there were still others who pulled out the hoary favourite – the Nazis and their burning of books – to imply the fascist tendencies of the student activists. Just last week though, “civilised” German people set fire to a building that was being converted into a hostel to house Syrian refugees fleeing the devastation of their war-ravaged country. People cheered as the building burned; some even tried to prevent the firefighters from doing their jobs.
A few stated that they supported the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, but that the burning of art had gone too far. So, they were happy for the Rhodes statue to be removed (but not destroyed?), but not for the portraits of other white men (and women) to be removed (and destroyed). Or was it the burning of artworks produced by a black artist that was particularly incendiary?
Generally, much like throwing excrement at statues, the middle-classes do not take too kindly to burning things (other than at braais, perhaps). And yet, not only has the statue of Rhodes been removed, but its symbolic falling has highlighted legitimate grievances about the university curriculum, staffing and governance at UCT, and inspired unprecedented national student protests around access to tertiary education.
When the Tunisian street vendor, Tarek Bouazizi, set himself alight in protest against his mistreatment by municipal authorities, it is unlikely that many middle-class westerners would have applauded his action. And yet, it led to large scale protests, fondly known as the Arab Spring, and resulted in the downfall of at least three long-serving dictators. Bouazizi was eventually named as “Person of 2011” by The Times in the United Kingdom!
Over the long weekend or the period connecting Freedom Day to Workers Day, thousands of mainly white folk make their way to the Tankwa Karoo for Afrikaburn, where the most spectacular sculptures are built. And then, they are burned. Is that what the “civilised”, the culturally-evolved do? Purpose-build creativity for the purpose of destroying it?
This is not to assign “rightness” and “wrongness” to burning art, or destroying symbols or images; this is about interrogating the values and the perspectives that inform our respective responses to such destruction. Is burning art wrong, because there is something intrinsically valuable in art that needs to be protected? Is the destruction of statues and sites that have historical value, always unacceptable because of the implicit loss to our collective history, or does this depend on our political or ideological dispositions in relation to those statues and sites? Are black people who burn buildings more “barbaric” than white Germans who burn buildings?
Perhaps it is that violence is being done, that we are witnessing acts of physical destruction, which we abhor? We are often blind though to the violence that is done to human beings psychologically, emotionally, intellectually and in other ways in which we may be complicit by omission (failing to do something about it) or as beneficiaries (benefiting from systems and structures that violate other people’s dignity and humanity).
In a society, power and influence are not only wielded through coercive means such as legislation, the judicial system, imprisonment, the police and the army; it is also exerted through “soft” means such as the education system, religious institutions, cultural practices, economic structures, the arts and media. “Soft power” inculcates values, nurtures ways of seeing or interpreting the world, introduces and consolidates belief systems. The UNESCO 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions promotes trade in creative goods such as films, television series, literature, etc not only because such trade potentially contributes to economic growth, but also to encourage greater equity in the global distribution of ideas, worldviews and values. Should we only consume films and television series, or news from international networks based in a few economically dominant countries, we generally imbibe – whether consciously or unconsciously – the values, ideas and worldviews embedded within these. In this way, hearts and minds are won (it is no coincidence that there is more funding for the arts in the US military, than there is through the National Endowment for the Arts, the US equivalent of our National Arts Council).
Artworks are not only political in that they have values, ideas, cultural perspectives, aesthetic tastes, embedded within, or expressed by them, but they also have a political dimension through their associations: who selected the works? For what purpose? What stories do they tell? Whose stories do they tell? For whom? Who had the means to create and distribute the work? Who has the means to access such work? What do these works say to, or mean for, people who may not share the historical, cultural, economic or educational backgrounds of the artists? The arts communicate ideas, tastes, perspectives; they are a form of language. Whose language is being spoken? For many students whose language may not be English or Afrikaans – the only languages of instruction at tertiary level – what additional meanings are being conveyed to them through portraits, statues, the names of buildings, art works, monuments and photographs that adorn such institutions?
Let’s face it. We do not erect monuments and statues in order to learn from history, or to honour those who made some significant contribution to our collective well-being; we do so to celebrate political victories and to assert political hegemony in public spaces. Why else would we have so many statues and monuments to Nelson Mandela, and yet we now have a political leadership so far removed from the self-sacrificing and service-oriented values he espoused; a venal, corrupt set of politicians that “honour” Mandela with a bust in the parliamentary precinct, but only metres away engage in the collective rape of the public purse? The reported neglect of the monument to the Cradock Four – built to honour the teachers Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata and Sicelo Mhlauli as well as unionist Sparrow Mkonto who were assassinated by the apartheid government – is itself a metaphor for a teacher union that is now more in the news for its corrupt allocation of jobs, than for its contribution to the education of learners.
If public art, symbols and monuments are to play a role in building “social cohesion”, we will need to adopt different approaches. In the case of UCT which has an extensive art collection, perhaps it might be an idea for the art, portraits and other symbols in its public spaces to be re-curated every four to five years (with a curatorial committee comprising staff, students and others), so that these works reflect, and help to make meaning of the times in which they are displayed, for the university community.