There are many layers to the row over The Spear, a dramatic painting of President Jacob Zuma on display at a Johannesburg art gallery, his manhood exposed.

One of them is that the rumpus might not have erupted had Zuma’s defenders, his ANC comrades, not raised the roof. The picture in the Goodman Gallery, part of an exhibit titled Hail to the Thief II, appeared on the front page of City Press Sunday before last.

It caused little fuss. Then, after visiting the gallery to check, ANC officials touched off the big upset late on Wednesday afternoon, announcing they were going to court to have the painting and a picture on the City Press website removed. So the real trouble started.

The world’s gaze was drawn to the Parkwood gallery and the painting. What might have been confined to a debate about taste and the picture’s appropriateness spiralled into a widely watched, bitter brawl. Zuma comrades, and many others, expressed disgust at what they saw as vulgarity, defamation and an abuse of artistic licence. Racism was even brought into it.

It soon escalated into a tussle between free expression and personal dignity. Televised arguments in the Johannesburg High Court tomorrow will no doubt draw a sizeable audience.

Some of the many adjectives about the painting from the anti side ranged from fitting to arguable; some were excessive. But fury at the perceived slur on the man, and insult to the presidency, received a pithy response from an unsympathetic member of the Tambo family, who said: “He should inspire the reverence he craves.”

Such are the divergent views over this. With this sentiment were those who thought the work permissible, humorous satire, as it was apparently intended by artist Brett Murray.

Had the ANC not reacted so vehemently, The Spear might have been headed soon for a collection somewhere in Germany. Instead, we have a constitutional contest over a debatable art work.