This commentary was initially prompted by the appearance of an artwork by Dylan Lewis in Stellenbosch but ended up being a discussion of both that and art in general.
A controversial piece of art recently appeared on the Rooiplein on the Stellenbosch University campus. The Rooiplein (translated Red Square after the one next to the Kremlin in Moscow) is at the centre of the university’s campus and situated next to the student centre, where most students have lunch and relax between lectures, and above the university’s unique underground library, where you’ll most likely find the rest of the students not in class or in the student centre. Needless to say, the Rooiplein is probably the place on campus where you will see the highest number of individual students pass by on any given week day – the perfect place to go if you need to communicate an urgent public message (not that people really do that anymore nowadays though).
So as part of an open-air art exhibition running throughout Stellenbosch, one of these pieces – a sculpture by well-known South African artist Dylan Lewis was erected on the Rooiplein. The exact reason why that particular piece was chosen for campus is still unknown to me at this stage but what I wish to discuss is the controversy surrounding the sculpture and the response from students and others who came across it in passing.
First of all, what is art and what is its purpose? Let’s keep it simple; off the top of my head I will define it as follows: it is an alternative method, to general conversation or formal public speaking, to communicate a message or let out an inner emotion, usually in a less direct manner. Typically it is done by making use of instruments other than the voice or written work, and when it does make use of those it will be done by way of hidden messages such as metaphors or sounds and figures not necessarily forming part of any formally constructed written or spoken language. Yet, the artist communicates his message in the hope that others will comprehend it and appreciate the skill by which it was communicated – the degree of directness with which it is communicated will vary from method to method and artist to artist. The purpose of the communication would probably be the same as that of any other conversation: to share information, to make one’s inner feelings known, to celebrate or glorify something, to influence the ones exposed to the message being communicated, to draw reaction. This could be done for various reasons again: to help others make better decisions, to encourage, to urge caution, to convey one’s own feelings towards others or about other things, or even in hoping others can help one make sense of one’s own undecipherable emotions, and so we could go on.
In the specific ‘Rooiplein’ case a statue depicting a naked half-man, half-wildebeest was erected and many students found it aesthetically displeasing while others were not comfortable by what they perceived it to communicate, some even reacting negatively simply because an ‘intruder’ entered their space – which is probably a fair way to react I guess. Others again sang the old tune of ‘we should not oppose it, it is art’ in what could be an attempt to appear cultured, intellectually superior and open-minded. Some considered the sculpture and discussed what they understood by it, whether it had any relevance and whether it belonged on campus at all. One commentator, of which I’m aware, threw another classic line: ‘it is just a sculpture’. He of course totally disagrees with my definition of art and communication and it would be interesting to hear what Lewis, who I would hope puts at least some thinking and heart into his work and is truly skilled as a sculptor, would have to say about such a comment?
So if art truly is an alternative form of communication, how should the Stellenbosch town folk respond to it? I’d say exactly as they respond to any other form of communication. Does an artistic expression give you the right to communicate things you would otherwise not have been able to? Does an artistic expression give you the right to offend people you otherwise would not have been able to? Does an artistic expression give you the right to communicate something in an environment you otherwise would not have been able to? An artistic expression has the advantage of being indirect/hidden/vague many times which means the artist can fall back on the ‘I didn’t mean it in that way’ line if necessary. In direct conversation we use the term ‘I’m only joking’ to get out of an awkward situation after an inappropriate comment has been made. It seems, from the university’s official response to the matter, that Lewis did just that:
The sculpture by Dylan Lewis – according to the artist himself – is not intended as religious comment. His intention was to “explore perhaps one of the most critical issues of our time – man’s seemingly unstoppable destruction of the environment, searching for the root of this behaviour in the human psyche. The skull loosely references the destruction of animal species, in this case the Black Wildebeest that at one time roamed in great numbers on the Swartland plains and are now almost extinct in these areas. The red colour of the figure alludes to the red earth of Africa, our genetic birthplace. The naked state of the figure represents our ‘original state’.”
He touches on issues concerning ethics, morality, origins and the evolution of civilised culture and as he states here there is a strong emphasis on environmentalism. Further, if one considers the broader range of sculptures this one is part of there is definitely a message communicated which is driven by a specific worldview and belief system. Simply because someone’s beliefs and practices can’t be grouped within a traditionally defined religious movement or was according to him not intended to be religious, does not mean what he communicates is non-religious. Bryce Lawrence’s interpretation of rugby’s break-down laws or a debate surrounding the best method to draw up a balance sheet is non-religious but when one touches on what Lewis mentions above it is necessarily religious. Or if you wish to watch a religious programme on a Monday evening check out 50/50 on SABC 2 as they preach a message drenched in pantheistic thought – very informative nevertheless which is why I watch it regularly. There will be objections to this statement of mine and to those I offer this statement by Timothy Keller for consideration:
“Let’s begin by asking what religion is. Some say it is a form of belief in God. But that would not fit Zen Buddhism, which does not really believe in God at all. Some say it is belief in the supernatural. But that does not fit Hinduism, which does not believe in a supernatural realm beyond the material world, but only a spiritual reality within the empirical. What is religion then? It is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing. For example, some think that this material world is all there is, that we are here by accident and when we die we just rot, and therefore the important thing is to choose to do what makes you happy and not let others impose their beliefs on you. Notice that though this is not an explicit, “organised” religion, it contains a master narrative, an account about the meaning of life along with a recommendation for how to live based on that account of things…”
What was of further concern to me was the interaction between the various people reacting to the sculpture. Growing up my dad, who have sat through a few Latin lectures while studying at Stellenbosch himself, would regularly tell us De gustibus non disputandum est which roughly translated means ‘one must not dispute about tastes’. He never told us however that people who do not share our taste in things lack intelligence or should better learn to deal with what we consider to be good and beautiful.
Eric Metaxas, biographer and comic writer, recently asked the question When did we become so crude? and discusses the fact that sometimes it is necessary to draw the line if we care at all where our culture is heading and may I add in agreement: we are at the end of the day the custodians of our own culture and how it evolves.
So, to be more situation specific I ask When did we become so inconsiderate? (And proud of it even?) that we expect others to rather not complain about or oppose something that is being communicated towards them and might possibly be offending them? Yes, art has been and still is a great communication tool to oppose what is wrong and unjust and I encourage it to be used as such but we must also remain open to the fact that behind the art the artist, although very skilled, is still very human and what he or she communicates is not necessarily good and constructive. Taking this into account we must be allowed to criticise art as we do with any other form of communication.
I am generally in favour of communications which questions the status quo, as one would gather from this blog’s theme, but we should not be welcoming to all of it. It is no more open-minded to be immediately in favour of every new and different thing entering your sphere of movement than it is to reject it out of hand. At times the more open-minded ones are those willing to consider history and learn from it and on those grounds oppose a seemingly new idea. Some things infiltrate a culture suddenly but more often than not it seeps in bit by bit, very subtly and only after a while we realise the change in our acts and thoughts.
Before the fall of Troy some Trojans were intrigued by the beauty of the horse they considered a gift from the gods while others were suspicious of it. Approaching something suspiciously and with caution is not a bad idea in itself.
‘Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.’ –GK Chesterton
“Symbolism exists precisely for the purpose of conveying to the imagination what the intellect is not ready for” –CS Lewis
A follow-up article was written on Art on the Rooiplein: Pan-demonium in Stellenbosch: reason vs wild instinct