LitNet Akademies: In conversation with Jane

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Since Jane Alexander decided to use lawyers in her response to Die Antwoord’s apparent use of images that look like her Butcher Boys, I have decided to create a photographic image in the likeness of the Butcher Boys. Here it is.

 

Cyber Butchers in conversation with Jane

Photo: Izak de Vries

 
I call it Cyber Butchers in conversation with Jane.

I am sure people with no knowledge of the Butcher Boys will understand that I am sending a message (sic) about cyber-bullying and the effect it has on girls of this age.

My three models were extremely keen to participate, simply because they got it, they understood exactly what my photo was about.

Interestingly enough, only one of them has heard of the Butcher Boys. In fact Marchalene (left) has actually seen it. The other two were more interested in the idea of participating in a shoot about cyber-bullying.

So, art, like my photograph, does have intrinsic value. But it also has meaning in “context”. My photo has value beyond the Butcher Boys, but it is only when it is read in “context”, and in conversation with Alexander’s “iconic” piece, that the real meaning of it will become apparent.

So, “context” is everything? It could be: Doris Salcedo created a crack in the floor of the Tate Modern Gallery. It is called Shibboleth and tourists are flocking there to see it. I also have a crack, in my kitchen floor. I call it Damn, but no bloody tourist has ever paid me a cent to see it.

Why do the two cracks generate such different responses? Okay. Doris Salcedo is well known, that’s why people want to see it. But then, so is the floor of the Tate Modern; she cracked the Tate Modern – get it?

Interestingly, context is also the defence of those who believe Alexander’s legal actions to be correct. In the words of Jaco Barnard-Naudé (2012):

Die kunskenner Emma Bedford beskou die Butcher Boys as emblematies van die visuele kuns wat tussen die begin tagtigs en die vroeë negentigs in Suid-Afrika geskep is. Die jaar 1985 roep beelde van politieke onluste, geweld, noodtoestande en intense angs in Suid-Afrika se politieke geskiedenis op. Dit was die tyd waarin die struggle vir vryheid en die stryd om die behoud van apartheid op die spits gedryf is. Hierdie konteks is bepalend wanneer mens die betekenis of artistieke bedoeling – die integriteit – daarvan wil vasstel.

Linda Stupart (2012) is somewhat more eloquent:

Jane Alexander’s the Butcher Boys is a pivotal work in the history of resistance art and of Apartheid – indeed THE “seminal” (I hate this word, but am in a rush, so I apologise) anti-government work to come out of the Apartheid era. The work’s importance relates to this moment, this protest and as such holds considerable cultural, historical and political capital. This is not a Banksy photo printed on canvas that we’re talking about, it’s the fucking Butcher Boys.

I wonder what Willie Bester has to say about that.

That does, however, bring us back to Barnard-Naudé’s argument for using lawyers. He says Alexander has to protect the “integrity” of her art. Alexander is an artist of international repute. That is true. The Butcher Boys is indeed a famous art work.

But Die Antwoord? You don’t have to like them, but hell, they’re big. They are bigger than Alexander. More people visit their music videos than there are feet visiting the Butcher Boys. And their context is parody, they rip off. That is what they do.

Whose “integrity” are we talking about, then? Or are we perhaps talking about the integrity of apartheid’s memories? Stupart (ibid) seems to fantasise that we can maintain a level of reverence for the past:

I haven’t had time to really formulate an argument about this yet (though I will over the week), but what really strikes me about this whole issue is that South Africa is in a swift and perhaps irreversible process of forgetting. Hey, Apartheid JUST HAPPENED. Put down your iPads, stop thinking about your cutesy fonts and your First World Problem memes and think about whether we (and who is “we” anyway, hipster artschool white kids? Hey, I don’t even go there anymore) have the right to be all postmodernly pastiching this iconic image of Apartheid oppression. And sending this (mis)imagining out into the world.

This is where I part ways with academics like Stupart.

In 1994 I tutored at Rhodes University and made myself very unpopular in the faculty when I indicated that we should drop the border war as a theme in our literature studies.

It was only four years after forced conscription for white kids had stopped, but already the kids – white and black – who sat in my first-year classes had no idea of the border war, and not the faintest worry about being on the border, or of having a brother or lover on the border.

Yes, only four years, and one of the major themes in Afrikaans literature has lost its meaning.

Similarly, Apartheid is slowly losing its appeal as a tourist destination. Even the politically aware remember apartheid only from within their own contexts. In Ireland there is a genuine belief that they, the Irish nation, brought down apartheid because they stopped importing our oranges. I kid you not, it is true. Forget Mandela, viva Paddy.

Paddy has never heard of Jane Alexander either. He has most likely heard of Die Antwoord, though.

That is why Alexander has to be careful not to be over-protective. Think rhino. We could easily pass a law that would round up all rhinos in South Africa so that we can keep and breed them in ten heavily armed rhino ranches. The public could still come and view them. We could still photograph them. We could even start breeding them like race horses. Imagine the length of the horns we could breed in one hundred years from now.

But … Would the tame, large rhinos, lazily eating nibbles from small children’s hands, have the same allure as the beasts in the veld? I spend a lot of time “shooting” with my camera and I am fortunate to get into wild spaces every so often. The thrill of finding a rhino to photograph is wonderful. Snapping away at a zoo animal is not.

If we round up all rhinos, we are likely to end up with rhino-themed play parks. These beasts breed quite fast. You’ll be able to buy rhino burgers and go for a ride on a real wild rhino’s back! You will even, most likely, be able to buy silly souvenirs like genuine rhino horn shavings that you can give to your lover as an act of appreciation.

Similarly, Alexander has to be careful not to become an over-protective mother, shading her precious three boys from harm. If we do not allow our art to be reinterpreted it will become tame and docile. Already Alexander is threatening to turn her sculpture – carefully protected by expensive lawyers – into an object of ridicule.

What is to follow? T-shirts with the Butcher Boys on them sold to cover her legal costs? We could even add cutesy slogans below the picture of her sculpture. I’ll write down a few so that I can sue her if she ever uses them:

  • I helped kill Apartheid by buying this T-shirt.
  • I am all for copyright! Protect the Butcher Boys!

Or, the coup de grâce:

  • Jane asked The Question, we don’t want Die Antwoord!
Am I being too frivolous? Does one need a Master’s degree to participate? Fine. Then I, too, will call in the big guns:
 

The act of parody, in which Die Antwoord specialises, is not without academic merit. By re-creating (note the very academic dash), the one who engages in parody becomes a co-creator. More importantly, the viewer, too, has to become co-creator of any art in order to uncover the implicit rationality in even the most irrational of human imaginings, in so far as such imaginings had actually served as the basis for the construction of social and cultural institutions by which men had been able to live their lives both with and against nature itself (emphasis by White 1975:146).

What Alexander did in the eighties was to question the “social and cultural institutions”. But she was not the only one. Memories are short. Koos Prinsloo, for instance, famously called PW Botha a “meidenaaier”. (Indeed, it was not Die Antwoord who use the word naaier in public for the first time.) The list is longer. But suddenly it seems as if Jane Alexander was the sole defender of struggle art.

It could be that Alexander is somewhat perplexed by the overt sexual nature of Die Antwoord’s work. That would be odd, because the Butcher Boys is not devoid of sexuality either. Those g-strings are quite small. My models picked up on it and Paula (in the middle) did a wonderful job of parodying just that. Look at her crotch. Funie (on the right) also hitched up her dress a lot to reveal some leg.

But, then, sex is part of art. Sex is something artists and authors use to create the interactivity between viewer and object, or the book and the reader:

[T]hey seek to lure, tantalise, seduce the reader into a world of his own. Only by forcing the act of reading to become one of imaginative possession, analogous in degree of involvement and active participation to the sexual act, can literature bring itself to life (Hutcheon 1984: 86).

Enter the Ninja?

But Jaco Barnard-Naudé seems to want to protect the “integrity” of Alexander’s work against Zef. Academically speaking that move is dubious.

Haydn White has a fair amount to say about the use of ex-centric characters in art. These off-centre characters become metaphors for the inability of the artist to be objective (White 1975:10). If Barnard-Naudé and Stupart want to elevate the Butcher Boys to an iconic, not-to-be-parodied status, they set themselves up for the very acts of parody they now seem to decry. Except that they may now have opened the floodgates. Because in post-modernist art, Zef-like parody is indeed the way to be iconoclastic:

One of the things we must be open to listening to is what I call the ex-centric, the off-centre. Postmodernism questions centralized, totalized, hierarchized, closed systems: questions, but does not destroy (Hutcheon 1988:41).

And that brings me back to “context”. How on earth does one elevate the status of anti-Apartheid art above Zef? And would that be why Die Antwoord is sued, but Dylan Thomas is not? Could be.

Anyone who has taken time to study Die Antwoord will find a very deep, and even unsettling, oneness with the downtrodden. Do we have to turn a blind eye to the poor whites and the poor blacks, the Zef-okes of the New South Africa, just because the former liberation movements have embraced Breitling watches and private jets? Is Zef the new Black? Are anti-Apartheid greats the New White? Eish.

The postmodern, then, effects two simultaneous moves. It reinstalls historical contexts as significant and even determining, but in doing so, it problematizes the entire notion of historical knowledge. (...) And the implication is that there can be no single, essential, transcendent concept of “genuine historicity” (Hutcheon 1988:89).

Context? Be careful of that word.

Remember. It was Moses who became the first iconoclast. Ever heard of him? There is a little book, called The Bible, that tells of a dude called Moses who butchered a golden calf.

And, by the way: Did Jane Alexander invent horns? Did Dylan Lewis become a copier of Alexander? Nope. Many hundreds of years before Alexander lived, there was a dude called Michelangelo. He created a statue of the iconoclastic butcher boy called Moses. And Moses, the butcher of the golden calf, had horns in the Michelangelo statue.

Yip. Intertextuality goes back a long way. Look at Moses clutching the tablets in his hand. Hmm.

Pause. Engage.

Never thought rugby could teach an artist something, did you?

 

Conclusion

Will Jane Alexander sue me for shooting this picture? She has the right to. But I dare say it would be ridiculous.

I would love to challenge other artists to stage similar parodies of Alexander’s work – as a form of protest against her decision to sue Die Antwoord.

And I would love to challenge Alexander to embrace our protests and to make them all part of a conversation with her masterful sculpture.

Imagine the foyer of the Cape Town Art Museum full of “rip-offs”, artistic comments and parodies of the Butcher Boys. Such an exhibit would elevate the Butcher Boys back to its rightful place as an amazing artistic object.

If, however, Alexander continues to be over-protective, she is likely to be remembered as “The Lady who sued Die Antwoord”. People may begin to go and see the Butcher Boys because it is “that thing about Die Antwoord”. I kid you not. Memories are short. Now is now. Yesterday is so yesterday.

Do read Joan Hambidge’s (2012) response to Alexander. She wrote about parodies on the Mona Lisa. And that is the point. People want to see the Mona Lisa because it is so often parodied. The worst thing the curators of the Louvre could do is stop all reproductions of it. That would simply kill the interest in the painting – plus a large part of their income stream.

Alexander is likely to compromise the integrity of her art by not allowing the conversation between her object and Die Antwoord to take place. And her work of art is going to lose its lustre – unless enough of us do her a favour by continuing to parody it.

Die Antwoord has turned the spotlight back to her work. Jane Alexander should be grateful.

Let’s allow our art to engage, Jane. Let’s talk through our art.

 

Sources

Barnard-Naudé, Jaco. 2012. Menswees, menslikheid en monsters – die beeldhoukuns van Jane Alexander. LitNet Akademies, 2012-02-22 (http://www.litnet.co.za/Article/litnet-akademies-menswees-menslikheid-en-monsters-die-beeldhoukuns-van-jane-alexan).

Hambidge, Joan. 2012. Jane Alexander se Butcher Boys en Die Antwoord. LitNet Akademies, 2012-02-23 (http://www.litnet.co.za/Article/litnet-akademiesjane-alexander-se-butcher-boys-en-die-antwoord).

Hutcheon, Linda. 1984. Narcissistic narrative – the metafictional paradox. New York: Methuen.

—. 1988. A poetics of postmodernism: history, theory, fiction. Londen: Routledge.

Stupart, Linda. 2012. Die Antwoord, Jane Alexander and a Culture of forgetting. GQ (http://www.gq.co.za/entertainment/music/635925.html) (Accessed on 2012.03.04). 

White, Hayden. 1975. Metahistory: the historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
 

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