UCT: Art and the question of offence

Daniel Herwitz replies to Max Price's defence of the university's stance

Art on the Walls and the Resolution of Offense

The question of principle at stake in the national and international conversation around the University of Cape Town and its shielding of artworks from public view is how one balances a university’s commitment to freedom of representation with a need to address representations that give offense to one party or another, and especially to those who have suffered the ills of history. Since I have been critical of Max Price’s News24 piece and especially of the concept of curation I take to be behind it let me also say I think that piece is a sensitive acknowledgment of the subtleties of racism of importance for the process of transformation, written as it is by a man in the trenches.

The University of Cape Town has had to address questions of institutional offense under real threat to its collections not to mention to its very persons. If I don’t agree with what the Vice Chancellor and his committees have come up with so far, I do appreciate that they have been under the gun to rethink, revise and/or maintain principles rapidly.

The debate so far has been all too inflammatory, especially on social media, where in the usual Donald-Trump way a fair amount of mudslinging has been hurled in various directions, especially at Max Price, who has been called everything from a Nazi to a dictator. I disagree with UCT’s policy—in part because we have yet to have a clear statement of the principle behind it. It is a policy that keeps Willie Bester’s brilliant sculpture of Saartjie Baartman draped in funereal black at the entrance to its library: and a library is a temple of knowledge for any university, the epicentre of its very existence.

But this is a disagreement that can only be worked through if the air-conditioning is turned on and the temperature of the debate reduced. Hurling insults at a Vice Chancellor who is dedicated to patient conversation in the name of equality and transformation is simply not helpful. On the other hand, that so many people are upset might be taken by UCT as a prompt to reconsider its current position.

The question is how far an institution should bend, and in what ways and in what circumstances, to accommodate the sense of institutional offense felt by some of its members. The student response to this sculpture, and to other artwork is born of a deep exasperation. Their perception is that such work yet again fetishizes the black body in a way other racial groups are not similarly fetishized. One can only sympathize with this sense of exasperation, of being singled out. But I also think that while offense must always be acknowledged it is also true that negotiation leading to its resolution can only take place after all parties understand its terms.

This means that while those in control of the institution are required to understand where the offended parties are coming from; the offended parties also have a responsibility. They must be willing to learn something about the source of their offense, simply because they may have misunderstood. What does the representation really mean? What is the intention behind its creation, the piece of history it wishes to capture? What makes it tick?

This demand on both parties to learn something is crucial to the transactional nature of a university. Universities like all other institutions are built on trust. And when trust collapses the institution becomes unworkable. Trust is an implicit contract based on mutual understanding and respect. The institution has to acknowledge where these students are coming from and stand ready to change its policies in the course of it. And the students have to be open to changing their attitudes should they learn something new that shifts their perception.

They must become acquainted with history: about the historical Saartjie Baartman. They must be willing to learn something about the art: about who the sculptor Willie Bester is (he is black for example and grew up in a poor township), about the way his work endeavours to protest the humiliation of the black body, bared cruelly before colonial medical science. They are free to feel at the end of the day that they are still offended, that it doesn’t matter to them, all this background. But without knowing it, there is no conversation that is possible.

Only when both parties have educated themselves can the question of offense even begin to be properly worked out. If the students are still offended, then there is a real problem for the institution. Something has to be done.

But what? My own strategy would be never to cover or remove an artwork unless it violates constitutional norms. (The question of monuments like the Rhodes statue or those of the American confederacy is more complex and I’m not going to get into it here.) One should rather seek to catalyse a different kind of negotiation with those offended parties that at once maintains the absolute commitment to freedom of representation while acknowledging the offence caused by the visual representation.

My earlier recommendation is still one I stand by. Add new representations, as Albie Sachs has done in the Constitutional Court, so that there is no longer the appearance of harping on the black body (which can indeed feel offensive), or on men (to the exclusion of women), or women (to the exclusion of men), or on whomever. But there is rather a diversity of images variously representing a diversity of people. I recommend this strategy to UCT. It would be what Max Price in private correspondence with me called the need to “change the aggregate”: I think my proposal is the best way to change the aggregate.

The more luminous point is that whatever one decides will be fraught with complications, both expected and unexpected. So the key question that follows from any curatorial policy is: how does one then deal with the parties aggrieved by what one does in clearing up the original offense? How does one deal with the ripple of offense caused by the very attempt to placate it elsewhere?

Let me confine this to the artist although I know there are other aggrieved parties inside and outside of UCT. What about the offense felt by Willie Bester? Is he simply an outsider whose insult isn’t really central to university policy?

A university is a complex system reaching far beyond those actually there at any given moment back into its legacy of books, images and scientific papers. But a university also reaches across cosmopolitan space to the persons who have contributed to that legacy, including those like Willie Bester who are still alive. These contributors are in an important sense as much part of the university community as the people who work and study there. And so when offense is given to them it is part of the university’s duty to address this also.

One might call this Ubuntu: it takes a wider world of contributors to make a university and that world is as much part of it as any single villager living within.

I think this is implied by the superb concept Max Price brought to UCT a decade ago. That it should strive to become an “Afropolitan university”, meaning one dedicated to a cosmopolitan stance within the African continent, and a conduit between Africa and the wider globe. This concept has served UCT well in a number of ways, strengthening the texture of its international relations, and deepening its relation to the African continent. But it should also be extended to the artists in its collection who happen live down the street from UCT, globally speaking. They too require serious acknowledgment. The walls of a university should remain open in every sense of the word.