Thursday, May 31, 2012

Is Brett Murray's 'Spear' teaching us the same as Yuill Damaso's 'Anatomy Lesson'?

 Forgotten all about that other notoious painting two years ago?
Refresh you memory about the politics of art and the art of politics:

Yuill Damaso’s painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, after Rembrandt’s 1632 masterpiece of the same title, has not caused a storm (even if it is one in a teacup) because of its artistic merit or lack of it. His choice of subject is condemned as tasteless and, as always when cultures collide, racist; as an abuse of Nelson Mandela and his family; as an affront to African values, which - so the ANC complained to Mr Damaso - consider it witchcraft to show a living person dead. Cosatu also felt obliged to express their disgust at the painter’s exploitation of an icon to increase ‘profitability in the sale room.’

Ignoring for a moment whether Mr Mandela is abused, these are cultural and political objections. It makes sense then to look at the two paintings from the opposite viewpoint, as visitors do in a gallery, to see if there is anything they have missed.

Mr Damaso has pointed out that African culture is not his culture and he does not see anything wrong in what he has done. He might have added Rembrandt himself ‘profited’ from his work: it was a commission from a wealthy surgeon, Dr Nicolaes Tulp, who is shown conducting the anatomy class in the original painting. There is no outrage in one artist openly finding inspiration in another, or in Mr Damaso hoping his updated version of a famous Rembrandt might also prove profitable, albeit these days ‘in the sale room’. Artists have always had to earn a living one way or the other.

Other moral certainties look less certain on closer examination. In 1632 Amsterdam was the thriving centre of a new country. The United Provinces (Holland today) had emerged victorious after decades of war against an imperial power, the Spanish Hapsburgs. South Africans know better than most the pride and energy that releases in a people. The city bustled with trade, with a new-found confidence and freedom, and was a centre for the new ‘scientific’ thinking, the investigation of the natural world and ideas. Even so, cutting up a human corpse was still at the cutting edge. Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson’ bravely as well as brilliantly records a rare event, conducted only with special permission.

No one can deny what a SA reader posted on a news story about this subject. ‘It is not fair,’ he wrote, ‘to expect Africans to accept that which they deem taboo (in order) to be politically correct in terms of freedom of expression.’

That is right as far as it goes. But more is involved in this than freedom of expression. The anatomy class Rembrandt painted would have excited and been supported by ‘progressives’ - and condemned as profanity by conservatives. Rembrandt was not sensationally exercising ‘freedom of expression’ and publicising an abomination, as can happen in our modern media-driven age. He was recording one of the ways men were working to understand, and eventually to improve, the human condition. This ideal is shared by ‘Africans’ as well as other ‘cultures’.

Those who criticise Mr Damaso’s work might just take another look at it. Is there nothing in the idea that all our politicians would profit from finding out what makes Nelson Mandela tick? Has Mr Damaso actually done anything worse than add an insightful little twist to this remarkable man’s certain immortality?

As to whether Mr Mandela feels personally abused by this presumption, an ANC spokesman interviewed on etv brushed aside any need to ask him. The party has spoken and, not for the first time, the party considers the debate closed. At times it must seem to Mr Mandela that he has been anatomized and abused all his life. Happily, he is wise enough to know that is the fate of everyone who accomplishes extraordinary things.

In Rembrandt’s original, the anatomy class is held by the distinguished burgher Dr Tulp; in Mr Damaso’s adaptation, by the innocent child Aids victim, Nkosi Johnson, from whom the grown-ups indeed had much to learn. Both tutors look out of the picture to address a wider audience beyond the students around them.

The wider audience is us. Only we, in the end, can see if there is anything important to be learned here.

This article first appeared on Newstime, July 10 2010

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