21 May 2012

Politicians' genitals: private or public parts?

In the same week controversy has erupted in both Canada and South Africa over the depiction of the genitals of politicical leaders of those countries in works of art.

In Canada 'Well hung' nude Harper painting sparks mixed reactions | Toronto SUN:
A nude painting of Canada's prime minister has politicians and Tim Hortons employees cracking jokes, pundits crying foul and one federal department reportedly offering up cash.

Titled Emperor Haute Couture, the portrait hanging in a Kingston, Ont., public library shows a full monty Stephen Harper, leaning back on a chaise lounge chair surrounded by a doting team with a terrier at his feet, about to sip a steaming Tim Hortons coffee.
In South Africa, on the same day, came the news that ‘Portrait of Zuma is below the belt’ - Politics | IOL News:
The ANC is outraged at a portrait that shows President Jacob Zuma, in the pose of Lenin, with his genitals hanging out. And the party is headed to court to force the artist Brett Murray, the Goodman Gallery and the City Press newspaper to remove the portrait.

The Goodman Gallery said Murray will not comment and will let the art “speak for itself”.

The 1.85m-high piece, priced at R136 000 and titled The Spear, was first reported on by City Press and a picture of the portrait was printed and displayed on its website.
Perhaps conspiracy theorists will see something significant in the fact that both the above newspaper reports were published on the same day.

In South Africa attempts to have the Zuma painting removed have been criticised as attacks on the constitutional right to freedom of speech.

The Bill of Rights states:

16. Freedom of expression
  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ­
    1. freedom of the press and other media;
    2. freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
    3. freedom of artistic creativity; and
    4. academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

  2. The right in subsection (1) does not extend to ­
    1. propaganda for war;
    2. incitement of imminent violence; or
    3. advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.
But in this case there is an earlier section of the constitution that might be in conflict:

10. Human dignity

Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.

So if the matter ever gets as far as the Constitutional Court, it will be interesting to see which constitutional principle prevails.

But it is certainly not the first time that politicians' genitalia have been the subject of political satire. Back at the time of the Rainbow Warrior affair a newspaper cartoon depicted French President Fran├žois Mitterrand with his fly open and a very erect nuclear missile protruding. He was flanked by the leaders of other nuclear powers, and I think the caption was "Mine's bigger than yours." I forget which newspaper it was in.

And of course in South Africa there is the political cartoonist Zapiro, who for a long time depicted Jacob Zuma with a shower protruding from his head, after Zuma had said that having a shower was his way of taking precautions against HIV/Aids.

But last week's art offerings seem to have been of a somewhat different order.

And, like the Bill of Rights, I find myself in two minds over the whole thing.

On the one hand, I think that both as the State President and also as a human being, Jacob Zuma has the right to dignity and privacy guaranteed by our constitution. Even though he holds public office, he has the right not to have his private parts treated as public and exposed to public view.

And this is akin to the principle behind the recent phone hacking scandal in the UK, in which the former newspaper executve, Rebekah Brooks, has been charged with perverting the course of justice.

Can one by-pass this principle by calling it "art"? And where does one draw the line between the work of artists and that of paparazzi?

On the other hand, I recall the trial of Johannesburg artist Harold Rubin for "blasphemy" back in 1963. The Wikipedia article, however doesn't do either him or his work justice, and omits to mention that his exhibition was opened by Brother Roger, CR, an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection, who was later pulled off a train to give evidence at his trial, and whose evidence probably played an important part in his subsequent aquittal. The picture in question, with the title "My Jesus", did not, as the Wikipedia article claims, have the head of a monster, but showed a human being on a cross undergoing extreme suffering. This is not the way Orthodox Christian ikons depict Jesus Christ on the cross, but Harold Rubin was not a Christian, but a Jew, though the life and death of Jesus possibly had more significance to him than it did to most Jews, something that he tried to express in his picture.

The legal system at the time certainly did try to curtail Harold Rubin's freedom of expression, but then at that time we had no Bill of rights. And the Bill of Rights we now have explicitly guarantees the freedom of artistic expression. But Harold Rubin was no paparazzo, and I believe, as did Brother Roger (who knew much more about art than I do), that it was a genuine work of art. I'm not so sure about last week's offerings.


Chris Hall said...

Hmm, just doesn't feel right to me. Smacks of a form of politically driven abuse to me.

Would they get away with doing the same to women politicians?

I'll go with the inherent right to dignity anytime.

Wayne said...

"10. Human dignity
Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected."

This right prevents the State from not respecting the dignity of the citizens.

I don't think that this right applies between citizens, If I am disrespectful to you, you won't have much luck in invoking the Bill of Rights. As I understand it the Bill of Rights is primarily to protect citizens from the State, NOT citizens from one another, (there are other laws to do that)

jams o donnell said...

It all reminds me of the furor when a teacher clandestinely put an unflattering nude picture of the then Taoiseach Brian Cowan in the Irish National Gallery. I thought it was hilarious!


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