Lilac and Lime

Contrasts in colour, contrasts in life – Mary Bruce

Snow White and the Seven Daubs

Once upon a time, for two long weeks, it seemed everyone was paying rapt attention to a publicly unwrapped male member. I first heard of The Spear on a Tuesday, two days after a national newspaper carried a review of the exhibition in which the painting appeared. Running an article that attracts such prolonged and widespread attention should be the dream of any editor, yet this particular saga brought happiness to no-one of whom I’m aware.

Bearing in mind that, like most, my opinion is based on a painting seen out of context of the entire exhibition, my first impression was of a small boy hoping to shock his audience by using a ‘naughty’ word. I fully expected the whole matter to fall flat as there are images of the real world that are far more shocking than a fictitious penis. How wrong was I. The ensuing furore was a large-scale version of the earlier aftermath of two schoolboys who Photoshopped the face of a schoolmaster onto an image he found objectionable. I suspect none of the perpetrators expected what followed in either case. Possibly the fact that I only saw the painting on the Internet accounted for the perceived detachment of the genitalia, making the Photoshop analogy even sharper.

While cultural backgrounds will inevitably shape each of us, I discerned no obvious trend in opinions expressed in my hearing. Quite separately and unknown to the others, the first opinions I heard from coloured, black and white individuals fell into the ‘what did he expect with so many wives and children?’ category. Other opinions varied from ‘barbaric’ to pro freedom of expression, also across any so-called racial divide.

Personally it will take a whole lot more than one man’s depiction of another man’s equipment to draw my attention. There are plenty of those bobbing around, particularly in the art world. What made it distasteful to me was the recognisable face of a dissenting subject.

All of that I found underwhelming but some of the secondary matters that came up for debate were a lot more interesting. Working in an academic library in the late Seventies introduced me to the concept of Banned Book Cupboards. After the librarians classified the books, they (the tomes or otherwise) trundled past us to be processed before heading to the shelves. Three locked cupboards housed the banned books. As far as I recall, the books fell into three categories. Some would have been political, others sexually or violently graphic. Despite being an impressionable seventeen year old, I cannot remember a single picture from those collections. Two images burned into my core : both involved men, both were violent, one indescribably so. One was a photograph in an open exhibition, the other a painting on a dustcover. Neither was banned nor restricted in any way. One still influences my thinking to this day. The contents of the banned book cupboard from which the community needed protection made minimal impact.

The memories of banned reading material were brought back clearly when reading J Spector Brooks’ column Films and Provocations Board : an institution’s folly on the Daily Maverick website.

Which brings me to the FPB’s recent rating decision. It seems this was based largely on energy levels. Did I misunderstand? Anyone over sixteen is permitted to look at paintings of ‘flaccid’ male genitals (now that word *could* keep me awake at night : it just doesn’t look right from any angle, especially over sixteen). Anyone under sixteen may not look at all with no exceptions, willy nilly so to speak. At the time of writing I haven’t heard at what age one’s gaze may alight on a perky penile painting without going blind or having the FPB hot on one’s heels to see for themselves. This could also have a devastating effect on entry level sex education books. If ‘those’ drawings are censored, we could have a generation of very young people who think black boxes cause pregnancies.

And we still haven’t heard the end of The Spear. One of the two men who defaced it (in broad daylight, in front of visitors including a TV crew, in polite sequence) has lost his job after being shown in action on TV news while he was on sick leave, and the court case resulting from the smear campaign has been adjourned until September.

Yawn. Slap chips or crisps while we wait, anyone?


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