UCT, art, and the negotiation of transformation

It’s sometimes difficult to know when you’re making the right decision, or whether you’re rather not making a decision at all, so much as being pressured into doing what someone else thinks you should.

Or, perhaps, the right decision can be made in the wrong way – too hurriedly, and without enough deliberation. At UCT, we’ve been treading these fine lines for a year now, where even if you think – as I do – that many of our decisions are correct and long-overdue (for example, the renaming of buildings), you might simultaneously fear that the idea of a university as a place of open debate is at risk.

Of course, calls for debate can privilege the established point of view, and often do so. They can serve to slow things down, or to trivialise the concerns of those who demand urgent action.

It’s in cases like this where we need to be careful of embracing an entirely false dichotomy, though, whereby either you’re on the side of virtue and join the revolution, or you’re an obstacle to it, in appealing for more debate and reflection.

You might be on the side of virtue, yet also see value in being as sure as you can be that you’re making the right decision. Which brings me to UCT’s artwork, and the ongoing discussions around what should be done about it.

To quote myself, from this article in GroundUp:

There are a number of artworks in UCT’s collection that could legitimately be regarded as problematic. Even so, any piece of art is potentially offensive to someone, and the very point of art is to provoke reflection and sometimes, discomfort.

It is therefore crucial that any deliberations around the potential removal of art – while being sensitive to those who feel insulted by any given artwork – are also sensitive to the rights and creative intent of the artist concerned.

Where art is removed for the sake of prudence, in fear of it being destroyed or defaced, that removal must be provisional, and on the understanding that a full objective reassessment of the artwork concerned and what it signifies will follow.

Furthermore, artworks need to be understood in the context of their curation. It is both possible, and often desirable, for an artwork that might be offensive in isolation to serve as a valuable spur to debate, when placed in an appropriate context.

That curation is not a task for which everybody is equally qualified. I’m not qualified at all, having zero expertise in art or art history. So, if I were offended by a particular piece of art, I have an epistemic duty to listen to the views of experts, and to give them an opportunity to explain to me that my offense is misplaced.

My opinion, and my subjective feelings of offense, are less relevant data points, and can even be entirely irrelevant to the decision, because only the most benign or even meaningless pieces of art could ever offend nobody at all.

There’s a danger here of overcompensating, and conflating art that is productively offensive with art that is gratuitously so, in the sense that it uncritically reflects racial or other stereotypes. This is why the deliberations need to be conducted carefully, and by experts.

A recent UCT communique includes the following (my emphasis):

It is important to understand that we are not censoring any artworks. Much of the negative public comment fails to recognise that current removals are provisional. It is our belief that the artworks will all ultimately be on display once curatorial policies have been developed. The University remains committed to enabling scholars and the public to engage with the most difficult and challenging works, including those presently under discussion, and many others that may arrive in the future. What is currently at issue is not whether this should be done, but how.

I’m don’t share that belief. As you can read in the statement, a broad consultative process is going to take place, and “cultural, religious or political” sensibilities taken into account.

Any of you who have been part of these sorts of processes – especially in volatile times like those we’re experiencing now – know that the maximally safe or risk-averse strategy is typically followed, which means that subjective offense becomes a trump card, rather than simply a data point in the deliberations.

I hope I’m wrong. But assuming I’m not, some of you might nevertheless think that’s as it should be, and that those subjective feelings should be a trump card. We’ll have to wait and see, though, how this is going to work: is one offended party sufficient reason to consider an artwork problematic, or five? Will the distaste that one of my correspondents has for abstract art count as a “cultural” objection?

If you find these questions silly, I’d like to hear on what principled grounds you think these decisions can be made. There are no objective criteria for offense, and we’re operating in an environment where dialogue is in short-supply, and threats plentiful.

I’m not as animated by these developments as, say, Breyten Breytenbach is (here and here). And I think that Nazi/ISIS comparisons are false and unhelpful, because they trivialise the concerns of protesters and can also be uncharitable towards the institutional response which, while made under pressure, is well-intentioned.

But anyone who thinks, or argues, that these decisions will be made by those qualified to do so, in an environment that allows for them to do so on grounds of the best evidence and careful reasoning, is sorely mistaken.

Ideology, interpolation and artistic intent

41M7ZMFHYMLThe Story of O is commonly considered to be a pornographic novel. As with any artwork that challenges moral sensibilities, a “pornographic” novel expose us to things that are morally abhorrent to us, while simultaneously leaving us uncompelled to condone what is described.

The interesting thing about The Story of O, for the purposes of this post, is that the brutality and abuse that O is subjected to seem to actually be morally acceptable in the fictional world of the story.

And herein lies my focus: is The Story of O, or any work of literature that has an implicit moral stance which we find unacceptable, to be valued less as a work of literature because of its unacceptable moral stance?

Second, should the fact that one or more of us feel outrage at something in an artwork mean that the artwork should not be shown, produced or performed?

The contemporary example that made me want to air these issues is the Estonian composer Jonas Tarm, who had intended to play “Marsh u Nebuttya” (“March to Oblivion”) at Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago.

The Carnegie performance was cancelled, after

it was brought to the administrators’ attention, in a letter of complaint signed “a Nazi survivor,” that the piece incorporates about 45 seconds of the “Horst Wessel” song, the Nazi anthem.

This, despite the fact that that the “Horst Wessel” song has been used in various compositions for many years, often as negative commentary on Nazism, and was in this piece framed negatively also (via the manner in which Mr. Tarm introduces the segment).

It seems that it was precisely his intention to get people to think about that historical period critically, and perhaps to feel some discomfort while doing so – but political and emotional sensitivities have made that impossible in the Carnegie Hall case.

This is not a judgement on those sensitivities themselves, but more on (as a friend put it) the apparent decline in our ability to interpolate between texts.

The failure of our ability to interpolate, in other words, is our failure to see things in a context, and to play off various texts (including, in the case of “O”, the moral text), off against each other.

More worrying, perhaps, is our conceding to that decline, in setting standards of offence, and what offence legitimises, that cater to serve the interests of those who are most offended (or who can claim to be so).

Victory goes to the most sensitive, which simply serves to incentivise people to be hypersensitive.

The same set of questions arise in terms of the genesis of art – for example, when (if ever) questions about the moral character of the artist matter, regardless of the quality of the art. For example, can (and should) one enjoy art produced by a child abuser, murderer, rapist, etc.?

This issue is, I feel, intrinsically connected to the question of what we value works of art for. It is true that we “possess a capacity to entertain a thought without accepting it”, to quote Malcolm Budd’s paper “Belief and sincerity in poetry”, and to my mind, this capacity is an essential component of enjoying art.

But Budd points out that a reader can enjoy a text “also on account of the poem’s expressing a philosophy that he believes”. If I subscribe to Christian values, I might enjoy Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress because of the way that text glorifies those values, just as Hitler would probably have derived great pleasure from watching Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

But works that can be described as propagandistic, in the sense that they exist primarily for the purpose of convincing the audience of the worthiness of a certain moral stance, are not, I feel germane to this discussion. The reason for this is the categorial intentions of the author.

It seems fair to say that most texts (and here I mean text in a broad sense, to include things like movies), while containing an implicit moral stance, do not exist primarily for the purpose of converting others to that stance. Works that do exist for this purpose may be considered as manifestos, but not as literary texts (for the purposes of this discussion).

So a movie such as Triumph of the Will may be viewed with distaste in the same way as we might view a swastika with distaste, while a text that can be more broadly conceived as containing a moral stance which we may find offensive, without actually having been conceived for the purpose of promoting it, should not be viewed with distaste for the same reasons. To do so would be, I feel, a type of category error.

If we set the bar at “someone could find this morally offensive”, the problem would be that is becomes impossible to find a text that has any objective (or at least, non-partisan) artistic value.

And that some texts have value, considered solely as literary texts, is a thesis which seems intuitively correct – they can make us feel, or make us think, as independent virtues regardless of their (for example) propagandistic value.

While it’s true that the moral or political stance of the audience often precludes the possibility of reading the art “on its own merits”, those merits have to include more than simply those stances.

And while there are contexts in which things are clearly simply abusive towards an audience, or only intended to provoke without additional artistic intent, the fact that we – or some of us – can’t read art in a context, outside of our subjective sensitivities, seems to be a deficiency of and in the audience, rather than in the art.

Speaking on related issues to these, the author of the New York Times piece linked above says (in relation to Mr Tarm’s composition):

I’d like a chance to think about [these issues] for myself. The New York Youth Symphony should program “Marsh u Nebuttya” on its next Carnegie program and give me, and the rest of the audience, that opportunity.

Precisely. These questions are sometimes not easy, but we get no closer to answering them by refusing to allow them to be asked.