Letter from South Africa: (Art) History in Reverse
J C Myers
Friday, February 23 2001, 9:19 PM
Certain coincidences invite the application of conspiracy theory. Others are sufficiently bizarre so as to rule out all conspiracies save one. "The only conspiracy I believe in," I once heard Ernest Mandel say, "is history." But in this case, it is the kind of history that Marx spoke of in The 18th Brumaire: one that lurches and spirals backward after each brief step in the right direction.
On 16 February 2001, the New York Times ran a story on artist Renee Cox whose painting, 'Yo Mama's Last Supper', had been singled out for attack by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The painting, as the title suggests, is a variation on the Last Supper theme and features a nude woman in the place of Jesus. Having somehow gotten word of this (as I doubt Giuliani spends his Sunday afternoons wandering the halls of the Brooklyn Museum, in search of enlightenment), the Mayor declared that the painting represented yet another 'anti-Catholic' outrage and that he would do everything in his power to withdraw public funds from museums that dared to display such works.
On the same day, some eight thousand miles away, in Cape Town, South Africa, the Cape Times ran a cover story on artist Willie Bester — a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle and an internationally recognized sculptor — whose piece, 'The Dogs of War', had been removed from a hall hosting a parliamentary function after African National Congress (ANC) Chief Whip Tony Yengeni declared that it was, "not African enough." Cape Town is seven hours ahead of New York, but we can reasonably assume that the two stories were laid out nearly simultaneously.
In perfect synchronization with the Russian Revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century, constructivism and suprematism rose out of cubist roots to challenge the limits and the meaning of abstraction. The first ten years after the Bolshevik Revolution saw a flowering of constructivism: bold attempts to tear down the partition separating art from everyday life. Looking at photographs of Malevich's paintings and his teapots, Tatlin's sculptures, his stage sets and household furnishings, it is as though the cover had been torn off the world and the full force of human self-consciousness allowed free rein to remake everything in its grasp. In this moment lay an unmistakable symbol of everything that was right about the Russian Revolution. In Stalin's coerced transition from constructivist abstraction to 'Socialist Realism' lay a symbol of everything that went wrong.
Change the places and the dates, shift slightly the powerful institution under the artist's critical eye and someone in Washington would be screaming about Big Brother and 1984 and brainwashing. But all that is over now and it is no longer necessary to pretend as though the United States is a bastion of free expression or even maintains a rigorous separation of church and state. No, the genie will be put back in the bottle; the Enlightenment will be rolled back to the happy Middle Ages. We will teach creationism in public schools and hang only beautiful images of an angelic Christ on our museum walls. Amen.
In the days of segregation — both in the United States and in South Africa — the logic of segregation taught that racial difference was fundamental and all-defining: For those who were race-classified as 'white' there were appropriate jobs, foods, and forms of cultural expression, just as there were for those race-classified as 'black'. The logic of segregation taught that the lines were never to be crossed. To be identified as 'white' or 'black' was to be excluded — forcibly, to the extent that the law chose to use force — from the lifeworld of the other. Those who fought against racial segregation decried its social and cultural boundaries as inhuman nonsense: Jazz quartets and symphony orchestras were appropriate forms of expression for whoever happened to enjoy them. The end of segregation was supposed to mean the end of racial prison-houses, constricting their inmates to a scripted regimen of minstrel-show play-acting.
In New York, in the late 1980s, a close friend of mine was very nearly assaulted on the street for having had the audacity to wear a pair of jeans with holes worn through them. That was a 'white' thing, and he was supposedly 'black'. 'Black' people didn't dress like that. Who did he think he was? No more than three years later, jeans with holes worn through them were all the rage for self-identifying 'black' youth. Why? A famous rap star had appeared in a music video wearing them.
It is degrading and insulting to be stereotyped by others. It is doubly so, and far more insidious, when we stereotype ourselves. Willie Bester's response to Yengeni was the only one possible for a reasonable, thinking man: "How can it not be African enough?" he asked, "It was made in Africa." From the early 1950s to the late 1980s, the South African state compiled reams of study documents and legislation on the forms of government, commerce, and culture appropriate to the country's four supposedly different racial groups. In its struggle against the logic of segregation, the ANC rightfully and honorably fought such thinking. The notion that someone should be limited in the type of sculpture they produce or the type of instrument they play or the type of clothes they wear by their physical appearance might once have been called racism. Apparently, times have changed.
Witness the wheel of progress: Rather than set human beings free from segregation, it is segregation that has been set free. Before long, Sony, Nike, and Tommy Hilfiger will be selling 'African identity' to Tony Yengeni's children just as they now script and stage-manage 'black identity' for the Hip Hop generation.
If this is the conspiracy of history, we can only ask how much longer such painfully bad tragicomedy will continue to hold the stage.
J C Myers is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.