What should we do with the art of "monstrous" men?

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Writing in the Paris Review in November 2017, Clare Dederer asked “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” in reflecting on the works of Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby and a host of other men who had committed serious offences against women (or had allegations of such offences against them), and yet had produced, and in some cases were still producing, “great art”. 

The South African Cultural Policy Network (SACPN) hosted two public forums in Cape Town and Johannesburg at the end of October using this theme as a premise, as the South African arts industry has its own “monstrous men”. Zwelethu Mthethwa is currently serving eighteen years in jail for murdering Nokuphila Kumalo, and there is controversy about his work being exhibited at the Javett Art Centre in Pretoria with the Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) calling for the work to be removed (Kumalo was a sex worker). Theatre icon Mbongeni Ngema (Woza Albert, Sarafina) was served with a removal notice by the Joburg Theatre on the night before the opening of his show earlier this year because of allegations of sexual harassment against him. Welcome Msomi, the creator of the world-famous uMabatha (a Zulu version of Macbeth), was recently found guilty of stealing R8 million from the Living Legends fund where he served as the chairperson.

Should we separate the art from the artist? If not, does this mean that the works of Mthethwa can never be exhibited, or at least not until he has served his time? Or that Sarafina and other works by Ngema – and Ngema himself – should be banned from our theatres, and from our school and university curricula? If the works are to be presented, should they be framed in a particular way (as the curator, Gabi Ngcobo, has done at the Javett Art Centre, contextualising Mthethwa’s work against his crime and sentence)? How are “monstrous men” to be reintegrated within the industry, if at all? How should the sector treat Msomi after he has served his time? Does the nature of their respective crimes matter in how perpetrators are treated, ie is there a hierarchy of seriousness in their offences? These were some of the issues that were raised in the two panels.

Amanda Gouws of Stellenbosch University mentioned that the African feminist network of which she was a member had debated the Mthethwa issue, and was divided about whether to remove his work or not, with as many believing that the work should be removed as those who thought the work should remain as part of the exhibition and be used to educate the public about the murderous actions of the artist and about gender-based violence. Babalwa Gusha, a transformation officer at Stellenbosch University, repeatedly spoke about the issue being “complicated”, revealing her inner conflicts about enjoying the music of artists who were known sexual predators (in much the same way as Dederer had written about her own love for the movies of Woody Allen while having strong emotional reactions against his alleged deeds in relation to his adopted daughter). As a mother of three sons, poet Malika Ndlovu was concerned about the language being used to frame the debate, declaring that violent language – “monstrous men” and “all men are trash” – did little to counter the violence against women, and did not at all reflect the manner in which she sought to raise her boys.

At the Johannesburg forum, theatre-maker Mpho Molepo spoke of the pain that he himself had experienced when he was wrongly accused by a woman of having raped her. He bemoaned the lack of regulation in the arts industry which allowed men – and women – to get away with all forms of crimes, including the sexual and financial exploitation of artists. Judy Seidman confirmed from her own experience and that of the women she worked with in the visual arts that sexual predatory was rife, while Siseko Kumalo, using a queer lens, raised philosophical points about power and gender as the contextual framing for understanding – and therefore addressing – sexual predatory within the industry.

There were no formal conclusions to the discussions, but in relation to the key question as to what to do with the art of those who committed serious offences, or are alleged to have done so, there appeared to be four positions:

  1. Retributive justice – and sensitivity to and honouring of their victims – required that their work be removed from public spaces and that they no longer benefit commercially from the sale of their work.
  1. Restorative justice would separate the artistic work (which had social, historical and other value – beyond commercial value) from the artist, who, after having served time for his/her crimes, would need to be reintegrated into society and/or the arts industry, perhaps under certain conditions.
  1. Accept that the artwork has a life beyond the artist, that the artist is a fallible human being, who neither seeks nor necessarily desires to be a role model, and that society should simply accept that the good that people do – whether in the arts or other sectors that thrive on innovation – live and have meaning and positive impact beyond the criminal or socially undesirable behavior of the artist/innovator. (Amanda Gouws raised the issue of Einstein, whose genius has benefited humanity, but was regarded as someone who treated his wives cruelly.)
  1. There are no “principled” positions on this question, only matters of strategy that have to do with timing, location and framing so that, for example, in a given time such as the present, with huge attention focused on gender-based violence, it may be more sensitive not to exhibit or perform the work of a sexual predator, or to frame the presentation of such work if it is to be exhibited or performed in a way that reflects such sensitivity.

An audience member in the Johannesburg panel raised the issue of censorship, declaring that she was against censorship in any form, and while she upheld the right to protest against artists who have committed crimes, or who have such allegations against them, she did not support the suppression or removal of their works as this would amount to censorship. A counterview would be that artists found guilty of crimes – like Mthethwa (murder) and Msomi (theft) – by virtue of being jailed, have some of their fundamental rights removed as a consequence, such as their freedom of movement, of association, of expression. So why would removing their work from the public domain – at least during their incarceration – not be part of their punishment?

In the words of Babalwa Gusha – it’s complicated. But that is not a reason to avoid seeking clarity about how to do deal with the issue within the arts sector. Given the absence of regulation as bemoaned by Mpho Molepo, a first step may be the introduction of a code of conduct which practitioners would be required to abide by?

Buro: MvH
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