One Nation. United. Against the ANC

Andrew Donaldson on activists unglued, and the inadvertent triumph of the ruling party's nation building project
ON Friday morning, shortly after 11am, two women entered Room 43 in the National Gallery in London and flung cans of tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers before gluing themselves to the wall on either side of this popular and iconic work. 
“What is worth more,” one of them told stunned onlookers, “art or life? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” 
The painting, said to worth more than $84-million, is fortunately covered by a glass and was not harmed in any way. Nevertheless, the women were arrested by police shortly afterwards and charged with criminal damage offences. 
According to news reports, they are members of Just Stop Oil, a coalition of activist groups opposed to fossil fuel extraction. Judging by news photographs, they are very young and, as such, seized of conviction that their behaviour will ensure mass support for their cause. 
This has not been the case. Speaking for many, the respected commentator and journalist Andrew Marr tweeted: “Right. They’ve absolutely lost me. Forever.” 
The Sunflowers incident is the latest in a series of such protests. In July, Just Stop Oil activists glued themselves to the frame of a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper at the Royal Academy of Art in London. That same month, members from the same group glued themselves to the frame of John Constable’s The Hay Wain, also in the National Gallery. Similar incidents followed at other galleries in London, Manchester and Glasgow.
These protests have not been limited to the UK. In Italy, activists glued themselves to the glass screen protecting Botticelli’s Primavera in a Florence gallery. Earlier this month, two Australian protesters were arrested after gluing themselves to the screen covering Picasso’s Massacre in Korea in a Melbourne gallery. 
The crumbling Johannesburg Art Gallery has so far escaped such activity. Which is a pity. The place could do with some superglue. Such protests could then be considered maintenance work. Stuck fast to the roof, for example, these youngsters will not only save the planet but also plug the leaks and stop the flooding that is threatening to destroy whatever artworks that have yet to be pilfered from the gallery. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___
The use of soup is, however, a new development. The critical theorists here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) claim that, in choosing a Heinz product, the activists who attacked Sunflowers missed a golden opportunity: Campbell’s soup would have provided a situationist link between post-impressionism and Pop Art. 
The less avant-garde among us suggest the spike in sales of superglue is doing wonders for the petrochemical industry’s profits. As it is, Just Stop Oil’s other protests have resulted in increased fuel consumption and, accordingly, more carbon emissions. 
On Monday, activists scaled the 84-metre masts of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge at London’s Dartford Crossing and forced its closure. Along with two tunnels, the bridge is part of the UK’s busiest road and the only way motorists are able to cross the Thames east of the capital. During rush hour, the closure caused two-hour delays, with queues of congested traffic stretching more than eight kilometres in both directions. Further chaos came when protesters later superglued themselves to the A5 in London, another busy thoroughfare. 
But we are here for the pictures. As mentioned, the gallery protests have angered commentators and there have been rousing condemnations of the activists and accusations of fascist behaviour.
Another development roundly condemned is a forthcoming Channel 4 TV show, Jimmy Carr Destroys Art, in which a panel of experts will be asked to defend “troubling” pieces and a studio audience will then rule on whether the comedian should destroy the work, probably with a flamethrower. 
One “artist” whose work faces incineration is Rolf Harris. Another, more controversially, is Adolf Hitler.
News of the programme has incensed Jewish organisations. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, for one, said it was wrong to make the Fuhrer “a topic of light entertainment.” The trust’s chief executive, Olivia Marks-Woldman, told the BBC
“There is nothing entertaining or laughable about Hitler or the murder of six million Jews, and the persecution of millions more. This is deeply inappropriate, and at a time of increasing Holocaust distortion, dangerously trivialising. The question of how far art can be linked to its creators is an important one, but this programme is simply a stunt for shock value, and cannot excuse the trivialisation of the horrors of Nazism.”
Marks-Woldman also questioned the “deliberately provocative and inflammatory” choice of Jimmy Carr for the show “given his history”. Some readers may recall the uproar over the comedian’s comments about the Roma community in his Christmas 2021 Netflix show. “When people talk about the Holocaust,” Carr said, “they talk about the tragedy and horror of six million Jewish lives being lost to the Nazi war machine. But they never mention the thousands of Gypsies that were killed by the Nazis. No one ever wants to talk about that, because no one ever wants to talk about the positives.”
Channel 4 has defended its new show as a “thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the limits of free expression in art, and whether work by morally despicable artists still deserves to be seen”. The channel’s head of content, Ian Katz, has said there would be “an advocate for Hitler” who would argue that the dictator’s “moral character” should not rule on whether or not his paintings be torched. 
Its producers claim the programme should be seen in the wider context of culture wars and discord, in which art in public places and galleries are now targets. As such, the programme is “a unique TV experiment” in which the public is able to demonstrate what it thinks about “controversial artists and offensive art in the most dramatic and visceral way possible”. And so, to the crux of the matter, as outlined in the show’s blurb, and as undergraduate as it may seem:
“Should art be be destroyed and artists censured if they cause offence? Can you separate the moral calibre of the artist from the art? Does it matter if a person’s crimes are worse or their art is? Should there be a limit on free expression? And what if the image itself causes offence?”
Some critics have argued the programme is not only an insult to Jewish people, but to everyone. The destruction of art, even mimsy kitsch like Hitler’s work, diminishes us all. 
“My view is: don’t destroy art for ratings, or for anything, or even joke about it,” Camilla Long wrote in The Sunday Times. “Don’t glamorise it, dress it up and have it smashed up or ripped to pieces by Jimmy ‘Rape Jokes’ Carr. Don’t annihilate fragments of history to laughter tracks in a brightly lit studio. You may not want to look at Hitler’s art, or think about it — you may not agree with it — but it happened. Don’t do what the actual Nazis did, and erase history.”
I wonder, though, if our arts and culture minister, Nathi Mthethwa, will be watching the show. It could inspire him to urge the SABC to also come up with some worthy entertainment in which a mob or “studio audience” decides what should or should not be tossed on the pyre. 
We have, of course, been here before. The Fallists, for example, who went on the rampage at the University of Cape Town in 2016, burning paintings in their campaign to decolonise academia. 
Before that, in 2012, there was the furore over Cape Town artist Brett Murray’s The Spear, a satirical painting of Jacob Zuma in the style of a notable Lenin propaganda poster, but with his penis exposed. The ANC and the presidency not only took Murray and Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery to court in a (failed) bid to have the painting banned, but also whipped up such hysteria over Murray’s “racist” work that a church leader even suggested the artist should be stoned to death. 
In all truth, a local version of Jimmy Carr Destroys Art will probably never happen. There’s Eskom, obviously. You can’t do television without electricity. Fact. And besides, Mthethwa’s far too busy with his tacky nationalism project, which he maintains is important if we are all to “socially cohere” in an homogenous lump of flag-waving simpletons.
Back in 2014, Mthethwa told journalists that government had set aside R34-million to fly the South African flag at every school and teach South Africans has to sing the national anthem in an effort to forge national identity and unity. It was imperative, he added, that we all know who we are and how to sing the national anthem. 
“Any nation,” he said, “should have an identity; it should be seen as some conspiracy theory … We must encourage people to know [national signs and symbols] which are meant to unite the country, to have that oneness as a nation.”
That sounded awfully cheap and hollow back then, and doubly so today, especially when considering the “unifying” pettiness with which Mthethwa has sought to attack and undermine Afrikaans. In May this year, he announced that wanted to “remove the Afrikaans language” from the Taal Monument in Paarl. 
Now, I have no brief for this eyesore. And I do consider it weird that a language that is thriving and spoken by a huge number of South Africans of different races should be honoured with a monument as if it were a daead thing. But that is just me, and the fact remains that the monument was conceived and built as a fundamentally Afrikaans project. It seems very pea-brained and insulting to piss off the volk by removing the Afrikaans bit, the very sine non qua of the thing, and renaming it “on the grounds of inclusivity” and then expect them all to climb aboard the bandwagon and behave like morons.
But then that is how the ANC is uniting the country … we are becoming one nation against the ANC. Our national identity is slowly emerging, and it’s one of being deeply gatvol. And sooner rather than later, we will stand together, united in rage and contumely, a bond that is more bondy than maybe even superglue…