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South Africa appears to have revealed more about its loss of intellectual assurance – not to mention irony or plain good sense – in its extraordinary reactions to Brett Murray’s considered satire, The Spear.
There was a frenzy of guilt, insecurity, anger, moral anxiety, intellectual befuddlement, populist claptrap and fear. We find ourselves, as technically free South Africans, seriously contemplating totalitarian propositions as if, so long as we avert our gaze, this might provide the path to a healthy future of togetherness and moral hygiene.
The few who have stood their ground, calmly insisting that the work is just a painting, an idea which, like all ideas, is there for the weighing, have found themselves to be an embattled, quixotic minority whose commitment to notions as respect and reconciliation is judged questionable.
Are we really that afraid to be free that we feel more comfortable falling back on the modus so central to our unlamented past – the resort to official authority, regulation and statute to control what is permitted, or what we can think?
It is encouraging that at least one genuine struggle veteran, Mosiuoa Lekota – along with the unnamed authors of the Azanian People’s Organisation’s statement along similar lines – has warned of the consequences of “fascist tactics” in the face of creative imagination.
The most astonishing instance of the stifling environment now being nurtured, even if by default, is the involvement of the Film and Publication Board as an assessor of permissibility in art. This has not stopped them continuing their hearings.
It is of some comfort, but not much, that the board has acknowledged it has no legal jurisdiction to classify media content.
But, after the long struggle against the authoritarian impulses of the past, it would be a devastating irony if South African art was required from now on to seek a stamp of approval.