the prime minister’s penis

I tend to avoid blogging on political issues for two reasons. The first is that I live with my head firmly up my own bum, so I don’t know enough about the shit that doesn’t directly involve me. My excuse for this obsessive self-involvment: juggling motherhood and the writing life means I struggle to find moments to pen great novels, so I can’t justify the time it would take to extensively research current affairs for my non-income generating blog. (How I justify writing novels that make little more than this blog is a topic for another day).

The second is that I’m prone to outrageous emotional pronouncements on all things political that are fit only for the ears of those who are related to me by blood or the kinds of longstanding friendships that become, over years,  familial, i.e. people that already love me. However, and don’t all great falls from grace begin with however, the urge to talk about politicians and their penises is just too hard to resist.

Over the past week there is a great deal of hoo-hah surrounding Brett Murray’s painting, The Spear (now defaced). The airwaves are awash with debates regarding freedom of expression vs protecting personal dignity. The word racist and race is being bandied about, especially in relation to what seems to be a commonly held perception that white artists, having been raised with colonial views, stereotype the sexuality of black men (see Mail&Guardian columns here and here). The ANC are pushing this agenda, saying that Zuma is open to ridicule because he is black; if he were a white leader, they say, a white artist would never be so disrespectful.
This week past in another democracy across the ocean, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper woke up to find he, too, had been painted with his pants down. In fact, the Prime Minister reclines in the nude on a chaise lounge, staring out at the viewer with classic come-to-bed eyes, the red tip of his ministerial member resting against his thigh, lap dog at his feet. He is surrounded by suits, someone offers him a drink. He is portrayed in the sexy, wanton way artists have depicted the concubines of kings and nobleman throughout history, a reclining naked spectacle to be tittered over and sniggered at by the ladies at court, their physical attributes ogled by leering gentleman. The Prime Minister must have found the image embarrassing, if not down right humiliating. He must have wanted to have the painting destroyed. And yet his office responded with a single cheeky tweet that not only preserved his dignity, but demonstrated that Stephen Harper was a statesmen with better things to do than worry about his penis.

“On the Sutherland painting: we’re not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person,” tweeted Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall, referring to the canine on the canvas.

That’s it. A tweet. His party did not call for the painting to be destroyed, or for the artist, Margaret Stuherland to be stoned. He rallied no supporters to march on the gallery and deface the artwork, made no application to the high court to have the painting banned and his countrymen’s right to freedom of expression curtailed. As a result, Emperor Haute Couture has not spread across the web like wildfire and, I reckon, by the end of the month no one will give it a moment’s thought. 
On the other hand, the image of Zuma with his penis hanging out has gone viral. Every media outlet around the world has shown it; newspapers, internet, television, blogs. I’m willing to bet kids in schoolyards are flashing it about on their cellphone screens. It’s being passed around on Twitter and Facebook, and every other social networking site. I saw it on Al Jazeera the other night. Type the word Zuma into Google and the first pages are all about the artwork.  The Spear already has it’s very own Wikipedia entry. Billions of people around the world have now seen the image Zuma and his cronies set out to suppress. 
Brett Murray did not paint The Spear because Zuma is black, he did so because Zuma is a political figure and artist’s have been satirizing politicians for centuries. Zuma is figure of ridicule because his behavior and performance as president leave him open to it. If there has ever been any doubt that he fails to make the kinds of sensible judgements that lead to good governance, one only need to look at this latest debacle. Had he taken the lead of statesmen throughout history and ignored slights to his personal dignity, he might be able to focus on the real tasks he, as president, has been called to undertake. 
Bill Clinton is not remembered by Banksy’s Pimp. It is unlikely that Stephen Harper will be remembered for his sultry smile in Emporer Haute Couture. I doubt, however, that The Spear will fade into the same obscurity, and I can’t help feel that Zuma brought that legacy upon himself.

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