Artistic criticism isn’t censorship
There is a difference between the artistic and moral engagement with a work of art and asking an artist to self-censor.
This ought to be obvious but appears not to be the case for the country’s most skilled cartoonist, Jonathan Shapiro.
Shapiro, popularly known as Zapiro, was criticised widely for a cartoon he had produced last week which analogises from an organ grinder and his monkey to the relationship between President Jacob Zuma and the head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Shaun Abrahams.
Abrahams is depicted as the monkey whose agency is, of course, limited as he behaves like a happy little monkey dancing to the tune of the maestro.
I was one of many people who felt that the cartoon was lazy insofar as it fails to have regard for a long racist history of black people being depicted as animals.
Racist tropes abound in our society and someone with Zapiro’s skill and political awareness and impressive biography must have known how this cartoon would (fail to) land. Still, he chose to have it published.
Zapiro was shocked by the response to the cartoon and proceeded to defend and explain his work in both print and broadcast media.
And some of what he had to say by way of defending himself deserves further engagement.
As a columnist, I am sometimes surprised by headers imposed on my writing that I did not choose or did not myself regard as accurately picking out the heart of a column.
So I am tempted to not impute to Zapiro the view that critics are asking him to self-censor, as a header summarised his nexus response to critics.
But in his own words, Zapiro goes on to argue that he does indeed sometimes consider the consequences of particular artistic choices he makes, but that he has to accept that some people will be uncomfortable with some of these choices.
He weighs up, he tells us, any criticism he anticipates with the gains of publishing a cartoon, where the chief gain is a message that he wants to convey to the universe as social and political comment.
Is this defence of Monkeygate compelling?
Not entirely, I’m afraid, because it rides on deliberate straw-person constructions of what critics have been saying.
First, no one ever said that black people cannot be lampooned. Hell, we all lampooned Abrahams on social media last week before Zapiro even had a chance to think of cartooning the man for his foolish, robotic and unconvincing press statement about wanting to challenge the high court’s decision to set aside the decision of his predecessor to not continue to prosecute President Zuma for prima facie corruption charges.
So we should be clear that it is a red herring to pretend that some critics want to shield black people from being objects of laughter, scorn, lampooning or sharp criticism.
Indeed, many of us, myself included, routinely post Zapiro’s work on our social media pages with approval and glee, so that should signal reason enough for him to engage critics generously and honestly rather than imputing views to us we do not hold.
Second, the fear of censorship is just, well, censorship gevaar, frankly. Again, many who criticised this particular cartoon can show receipts of how much ink we ourselves have spilt in defence of the artistic freedom of artists such as Brett Murray to even depict President Zuma in the nude.
I still maintain that the balance of liberal democratic rights and values – which we signed up for in 1994 – demand that we accept that Zapiro can of course depict black people as monkeys if he so wishes. No one is asking him to be censored or asking him to censor himself. I certainly am not.
Instead of defending himself against the aesthetic and moral criticism levelled against this particular cartoon, Zapiro changes the subject by asserting speech rights.
That is lame. Speech rights are going nowhere. Too many of us value such rights to simply allow them to be trampled on.
But columnists, authors, artists, cartoonists, film-makers and anyone else in society who depicts their view of society and places that view in the public space is susceptible to criticism.
The same speech rights that entitle us to put our views in the public space demand of us to engage our interlocutors on the content of their criticism of our works.
That means the instrumental value of speech rights are best demonstrated, not by pretending you’re being censored, but by constructing argument and counter-argument in support of your view.
Last, Zapiro was so touched on his studio by criticism that he challenged me to a public debate on the merits of his depiction of Abrahams as a monkey.
I accept the challenge, and hope he agrees to wear a monkey suit for the occasion. Just for laughs.