On the forced removals of art at UCT

Daniel Herwitz responds to Max Price's defence of the taking down of works that offend the Fallists

The “Art” of the South African University

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the days of rage that rocked the city of Detroit in the United States to the point of unrecoverable destruction. Should those events be called riot? Insurrection, resistance, conflagration, mob violence, chaos? The very question of vocabulary, of how to describe the crowd sourced uprising and ensuing destruction is already a moral and political question.

Similar uncertainty—and complexity—pertains to the rocking and rolling of South African universities over the past two and a half years, especially at UCT, where a campaign to remove symbols of the colonial past then morphed into a call for free education, and finally, thanks to a few, into what we called in Detroit back in 1967: days of rage (read: rampage).

In response to this spiral of events UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price took a number of steps, one of which has led to an international outcry against the university in the United States, Europe and South Africa. This step was to remove art work from UCT buildings, including the library and school of art, something one might have thought was a minor gesture given the bombings, threats and injury to human life.

But it turns out to have been a step with far more at stake than was imagined, leading to South Africa’s most famous photographer David Goldblatt pulling his archive from UCT and offering his life’s work instead to Yale University in the United States, something that Price felt required a public response on his part.

Price gave us his justification in a recent article in News 24, where he claimed that he had made the decision to pull artwork from UCT’s walls in the name of transformation: because the art work was in spite of itself part of the system of “institutional racism” that had led to UCT’s own days of rage. Price pointed out in his News 24 piece that institutional racism is more subtle than the hurling of epithets, polite sneering and paternalist condescension that remains widespread in South Africa. It has to do with the way an institution’s character and culture makes a group feel excluded, irrelevant, demeaned and/or invisible.

Price says he made the choice to remove photos by Goldblatt, Paul Weinberg (ironically on the UCT Faculty!), along with sculpture by Willie Bester although these works were in some cases made at considerable personal risk, and are in no way racist in their point of view.

In every case their work was created to make visible the lives, the suffering of persons of color whose offspring now find them offensive, and would rather see pictures of vibrant Africans who might serve as role models, confirming their status as the rising people of the future.

To the born frees who objected to them, they remain part of an old university caught in a liberal, anti-Apartheid mode which is about white power saving black victims from white power in the name of non-racialism. Even though Willie Bester is (again ironically) a person of color.

Central to a democratic culture characterized by civility is the recognition that what offends one person may well not offend another. There is diversity to offense just as there is diversity in taste, talent, belief, culture and free choice. And offense must be taken seriously wherever it may be found. But nothing follows from this moral principle apart from the demand that a conversation take place between offended parties and others about how best to find mutual ways of living comfortably in an institution in a way that lessens the offense.

When Max Price told me about a year and a half ago the university was considering removing artwork from its walls because to a small group of young students it proved offensive, we discussed a number of options. My suggestion was that new work be added rather than anything subtracted, for the work in question was of the highest political and moral integrity.

If students complained that most of the images of black people were of suffering victims who in the words of William Faulkner, “simply endured”, if they were upset that as they entered the library they saw naked bodies of black women but not white, then why not add some trenchant images of white people in states of victimhood, of white nakedness, of a diversity of suffering, as for example Albie Sachs has done in celebrating the Constitutional Court with an abundance of all manner of images, representing a diversity of people in the throes of pain but also beauty and freedom, representing a diversity of tradition and invention?

Why not add some recent paintings of black Africans in vibrant, energetic, commanding poses? Then the whole society in its various attitudes could be present through the images on walls and in sculpture. This was not the choice UCT made.

The choice was bad in the first instance because of the conditions under which it was made. UCT’s Fallists, who were the main complainants, did not choose to negotiate a resolution to their offense. Instead they responded with public violence. Art works were slashed and burned, along with offices, laboratories, and buses. Worse, people were hurt thanks to a lack of proper security. Once violence enters the scene prior to or during a public conversation around institutional offense, reconciliation is effectively precluded, all bets are off. You cannot ask for acknowledgment when you have a gun to someone’s head or a torch ready to set fire to a painting. It’s like saying: Love me or I’ll kill you. Under threat the removal of art work cannot count as a gesture towards the resolution of institutional racism but is merely placating. It cannot be otherwise.

Had UCT decided to remove artwork purely in order to preserve it from student destruction no one in their right mind would have complained, any more than people complained about the removal of the Venus di Milo from the Louvre to an undisclosed location for safekeeping from the Nazi horde in the Second World War. But UCT wanted to have it both ways. The message was work was being removed for safekeeping. But also that it was being removed because it gave institutional offense.

An institution is a nexus of multiple parties, and to placate one small party because he happens to have a machine gun is inevitably to offend another. The photos hanging on the walls of UCT represent a history of struggle that demands recognition, since these pictures were at the time of their taking meant to call attention to the indignity of the very people whose sons and daughters have now catalyzed their removal.

The Fallist wishes the world to think only he or she carries historical pain. But so do Paul Weinberg, Willie Bester and David Goldblatt. In a democratic society or institution they too require recognition. If the Fallist demands that the walls be stripped bare then he or she must also recognize that these walls bespeak a history of human decency and purpose that goes far beyond his or her particular goals, and that for a university to remove work of this kind is the greatest insult to those who made it. It would be demeaning for David Goldblatt to remain wedded to UCT when it has forcibly removed his work to some Bantustan in its basement, given that he had taken those photos in other Bantustans some years ago.

The issue goes far beyond one group’s insult v. another’s into the core function of a university: its dedication to freedom of thought and representation. Were the Fallists to open the pages of some of the books in the UCT library they would encounter plenty of material worthy of insult: Mark Twain writing of his escaping slave Jim, who is described with the N word, Sarah Gertrude Millin’s paternalist accounts of African people who always end up looking like children, Dickens’ Oliver Twist with its contempt heaped on “Fagin the Jew”, indeed Shakespeare’s Shylock demanding the cruel justice of a pound of flesh like some primitive.

These books have far more reason to be removed from the library than any photo by an anti-Apartheid photographer, whose work was a match struck for racial equality.

To cauterize the history of knowledge and representation of its dirt by forced removal quickly passes into Apartheid style censorship. One must therefore find another way to acknowledge and negotiate institutional offense. All legacies of past knowledge are tainted: whether medical, scientific, literary, historical or visual. This is a basic condition of history. Thought is never free of ideology. No free action of any kind is immune from taint. Everything will offend somebody eventually.

To reject genuine freedom of thought because it always carries a taint would be to relinquish freedom of thought as such, to reject thought as such, at which point the only thing to do would be to shut down the university and proclaim a Chinese Cultural Revolution, sending everyone out into the fields to cut hay.

A university lives through a perpetually critical encounter with its past, both learning from it while challenging the taint. There is no other way that knowledge can be generated except through this double attitude of learning and criticizing.

This principle of knowledge is bigger than any of the members of an institution, bigger than its students, faculty or Vice Chancellor, all of who come and go. It is what I will call the magical art of the university: its art of generating, preserving and critiquing its past, and of finding ways to negotiate the disorder that follows from all these things.

What kind of negotiation? Here is the final point. For Max Price to have summarily removed photographs from walls is to have failed to take seriously the central need for reciprocal recognition in overcoming South Africa’s racialized society. An institution must acknowledge the offense it gives to some of its members, who feel historically insulted. But those members also have an obligation in signing on as students, faculty or Vice Chancellors, which is to be prepared to acknowledge that freedom of thought, however also tainted, trumps them, is bigger than them and in fact requires safeguarding by them also.

When members of an institution respond with violence, they have violated what should be a basic underlying contract of participation, just as when the institution fails to address their offense it is morally and politically liable. Liability works both ways, which is why Hegel said in order to produce a just society based on truth and reconciliation both parties, both the former master and the former slave, must give up a claim to entitlement and instead work to acknowledge the demands of each other.

Without this happening in both directions no institution is sustainable on democratic grounds. And only through the project of reaching out to the other through compromise can people come to bond in solidarity within an institution, thus mitigating its racism. And not just one party, all parties, those who make photos, those who may be offended by them, those who run a university, and everybody else.

Max Price is a man of unquestioned integrity and intelligence who fought long and hard for a non-racial society. Undoubtedly he carries his own historical pain. And he has been guided by principles of equality and decency throughout two years or more of crisis. But his forced removal has done I fear, more damage than good.

Daniel Herwitz is Fredric Huetwell Professor of Humanities at the University of Michigan and was Chair in Philosophy at the University of Natal from 1996-2002.