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Darrell Cuthbert
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The Pen(is) Mightier Than the Spear – or is It?

09 July 2012, 11:09

How far is too far when it comes to freedom of speech?

The recent debacle surrounding the controversial painting by Brett Murray titled “The Spear” prompted strong reactions from people from a diversity of viewpoints and ideologies. These reactions ranged from vitriolic condemnation to rapturous support.

The painting in question even inspired a few amateur artists to do a little painting of their own and “retouch” the piece that caused all the fuss.

In the aftermath of this incident even more opinions were shared in the press, online, on radio and television and of course around that arguably most influential of all South African media – the braai fire.

One of the burning questions addressed was how far the right to freedom of expression goes. Is depicting the president with his genitals exposed a legitimate form of artistic expression and social comment, an act of libel and an attack on his dignity, or simply vulgar and in extremely bad taste.

Just when the painting of Jacob Zuma that was displayed and defaced in the Goodman Gallery seemed to be slipping of the national opinion radar the issue has resurfaced, prompted by the latest Zapiro cartoon in the Mail and Guardian.

So once again the same question arises – is the cartoon by Zapiro justified as a social comment or in equally bad taste as the original painting that caused all the fuss in the first place.

In my opinion, it is a bit of both. Usually I am fully in support of Zapiro’s work and find his cartoons insightful and thought-provoking. I also am not by any means siding with the president on this issue as I have my own reservations about the direction his moral compass points in. The mental image of Zuma with his genitals hanging out – or even portrayed as a giant penis may well be apt but should probably have remained as just that, a mental image.

Using words or even images to evoke the image indirectly would have had the same effect of provoking thought and debate without having to resort to vulgar images in the public domain.

I may well be labelled narrow-minded by some for this point of view but so be it. Words or images that carry hidden meaning and innuendo operated on two levels – getting the point across to thinking adults without resorting to images or blatant statements that may well be viewed by underage minors and cause unintended offence or shock.

Ultimately though, we live in a (sort of) free society and one of benefits of this is having the freedom to debate issues and share viewpoints in a public forum. Much as I have reservations about the way both Brett Murray and Zapiro have used their artistic gifts lately I still support their right to freedom of expression – I just wish that it had been possible for them to make their points in a less vulgar fashion.

If you haven’t yet seen it – Click Here to see the cartoon and decide for yourself.

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