Spear rating brings back old art ghosts

2012-06-02 17:40

Art experts and lawyers struggled to come up with a case similar to The Spear (16N)

The classification of The Spear as 16N by the Film and Publication Board (FPB) on Friday has re-established a precedent last set 14 years ago.

Several art experts and lawyers this week struggled to come up with a case similar to The Spear (16N) – where an artwork was classified by the board.

Although FPB spokesperson Prince Ndamase said that a list of post-1996 artworks classified by the board would be made available once it was retrieved from the archive, even he said he could not recall a case.

“Not in recent memory. This is not an everyday occurrence.”

However, the man who was instrumental in drafting the Film and Publications Act, Professor Kobus van Rooyen, who is today the chairman of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of SA, reminded City Press of the 1998 case involving Grahamstown artist Mark Hipper.

As part of his National Arts Festival exhibition Viscera, Hipper produced line drawings which, he said, explored child sexuality.

The show attracted the attention of Child Welfare and set off a debate that drew in then deputy home affairs Minister Lindiwe Sisulu.

An outraged Sisulu declared the work pornographic and suggested during an interview on SAfm that it should be banned.

Hipper was charged under the new Film and Publications Act.

“It was a test case for the new board,” Van Rooyen recalled this week.

“At that stage, we were unbanning things. We had told Parliament that from now on art must be free. They argued not in the case of child pornography and so that was the only exception.”

Van Rooyen recalls being in his car on the way to the seaside for a holiday when the FPB called him and asked for advice about the Hipper work.

As the drama ran its course, the FPB declared the exhibition “bona fide artwork”, which did not promote the abuse of children nor depict pornography.

FPB board CEO Nana Makaula accused Sisulu of political interference, old-order policies and of embarrassing the board. The Director of Public Prosecutions refused to prosecute the artist.

Yet the scandal was to be a feature of every obituary about Hipper, a globally exhibited artist and senior art lecturer at Rhodes University, when he died in 2010 at the age of 49.

“You can’t ban art,” said Van Rooyen this week.

“The FPB doesn’t have that authority. I have often said that art must always be judged at a higher level than the ordinary man’s perception of it.”
The case, he said, went all the way to the FPB’s review board.

“In the end, Viscera was classified 18N so adults could choose whether or not they wanted to view the exhibition.”

When asked whether The Spear (16N) constituted pornography, Van Rooyen exclaimed: “No! It is art! Or else it would’ve got an X18 or an XX. It didn’t.”

Both Van Rooyen and Ndamase this week stressed that the FPB did not go around looking for offensive art, but simply responded to complaints from the public.

Ndamase said that the ruling was not a punishment, but a warning to protect children.

“People need information to be able to make their own choices. For example, I don’t like horror movies. If I go to a movie, I want to be warned if it’s a horror.”

When City Press mentioned that horror in movies wasn’t a classification, Ndamase replied: “But it could become one.”

The FPB was nearing the end of a three-month public consultation and “the public has raised many concerns where work needs warnings”, he said.
When asked if he agreed with the 16N classification of The Spear, Van Rooyen chuckled.

“I would have made it 14N, purely because I don’t think that young children would understand the symbolism.”

Many said this week that the classification of The Spear (16N) was absurd.

Constitutional Law expert Professor Pierre de Vos said censoring an image widely distributed on the internet was “neither legal nor rational”.

“Whatever one might think of the painting, and how offended and hurt one might be by it, the Film and Publications Act simply does not provide for internet-based copies of it to be classified in the way it has been.”

The Freedom of Expression Institute said late Friday: “This judgment sets a dangerous precedent . . . It is our view that the FPB is on very shaky ground here.

“One has to wonder why they have done this – and it is hard not to conclude that their determination to do so is a bid to please the president and the ruling party.”

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