Friday Debate: Can art go too far?

3 min read


You’ve no doubt by now seen, or at least heard about controversial artist Ayanda Mabulu’s latest bit of work. I won’t post it here, but here’s a link to it. Be warned though, that it is very graphic, very definitely not safe for work and will probably be upsetting.

It gratuitously and graphically depicts the president, Jacob Zuma, sodomising Nelson Mandela. It’s the sort of thing made to stir controversy, which is exactly what it’s done.

Mabulu says that with art “There are no boundaries.”

“The victims will be blamed. The oppressor will not be blamed. The focus needs to be on the doer of these things. Nelson Mandela himself is not God. He is not the Messiah and he understood that himself. We‚ the people‚ are the Messiah.”

He says that the depiction of Mandela is a representation of how South African people are treated by our leadership.

“All the people who died before 1994 died in vain. They must be turning in their graves today‚ when they see the oppressor‚ the rapist doing what he does. He is constantly molesting this country.”

While that’s a sentiment that, for many, is hard to disagree with – the way in which it’s been presented is raising both ire and eyebrows.

“In reaction to the painting currently in the public domain by Mr Ayanda Mabulu‚ the Nelson Mandela Foundation notes the public outrage it has caused and appreciates that the public is offended by it‚” The Nelson Mandela Foundation said in a statement. “The Foundation would like to express that it respects Mr Mabulu’s right to freedom of expression. We however find this painting distasteful.”

The furore echoes recent outrage at political cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro, who once again utilised rape imagery in his condemnation of the president and his relationship with the Gupta family.

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In response, Shapiro said he used imagery of that ilk because of its shock value.

“I know that it’s shocking. People have said why use the rape‚ I am using it because it is shocking but I think that you can see‚ any viewer can see the empathy that would be generated by this cartoon for the person who is being raped.”

While I personally find both pieces of art effective, I can’t pretend that I’m enamoured with either of them or the way in which they get their message across. As with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, I do believe in freedom of expression – but wonder just how the boundaries can be pushed.

What do you think? Should artists be able to push these sorts of boundaries to make statements? Does it ever go too far?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: April 21, 2017

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

  • HairyEwok

    To me, art is a form of showing your feelings, expression and communicate what words can’t, so art for me cannot have a limit.

    The artists portrays his thoughts into image and you, the viewer make your own thoughts on what it is. The true freedom of creative thinking.

    • Umar

      I kind of agree. It can, also, be a really destructive weapon, but that is based on the artists intention to be honest, which is more a reflection on that person rather than the art itself.

      • The m an speaks sense! Also, hello stranger 🙂

        • Umar

          Rince long time! I’ve missed my ginger friend.

          • Me too! We may meet up next week. Would be great to see you 🙂 We even got to meet the nana a short while ago!

          • Umar

            Oh shizz. Nana bot became real! lol Nice. Meeting up at fancon?

          • I’m not sure yet. We may have a meet up the night before. Will let you know matey 🙂

      • HairyEwok

        It’s like asking if propaganda posters is art if its made by an artist.

  • Is Zoe’s photoshop work considered art? Then yes 😛

  • I think there is a line. With this piece not so much. But I can easily think of a line that most would agree on.

    • Alien Emperor Trevor

      Is that what you think?

  • Alien Emperor Trevor

    Art has always had boundaries, just like it’s always pushed those boundaries, and we get uncomfortable when we feel hard boundaries are crossed. And those boundaries shift as individuals, and society in general, shift their boundaries over time around what is acceptable to them. Context is king, and both that context and our interpretation of it is incredibly subjective.

    “It’s art” isn’t the airtight defense absolutists would love it to be, but neither is calling something “not art” because you don’t like it. Shock value has its place, but as far as I’m concerned it actually needs to say something to be valuable to me, not just go “oh look, how shocking!”

    • Original Heretic

      Yeah, shock value art is something that doesn’t last through the ages.
      If we look back through history, it’s mostly the works that invoke positive emotions that generally stood the test of time.

  • Cripes, that is something. I *get* the message, but for me it’s seeing Madiba’s image used in this way that makes me want to stand back.

  • Original Heretic

    The debate of “what is art?” has been going on for decades, if not centuries.
    There have been art movements where an “artist” took a toilet and put it on display (pardon the pun there!).
    Blank white canvas or a totally blue one, on display. And then critics eat that shit up.

    Black Mirror episode 1, great example of “art” pushing at the boundaries and breaking right through them into the realm of something that disgusts people.

    Personally, I always feel that art should be more subtle than the Zuma/Madiba thing mentioned above.

    • Umar

      I like this way of thinking. Shock value has its place but I find subtlety leads to deeper thought and better, more constructive discussions.

      • Original Heretic

        Subtlety also leads to more timeless pieces.
        To use a famous albeit obvious example, look at the Mona Lisa. You can still find people debating it today.

        It seems as if these days, the “artists” are just looking to make a quick buck.

      • Lu

        Yep. I find that a message spoken at an even tone sticks far better than the same one delivered by shouting.

        • Umar

          Yup. Like, even with pieces that are in your face and loud, could still have layers, but the initial shock stints your interpretation, whereas something that is softer, more subtle, will have you thinking about it before actually having an opinion about it. The consumption of art is every bit as important as the art itself, and while we’re ultimately the owners of our interpretations, the artist plays a role in this too.

          i mean, look at this Zuma piece. You could look at it in the obvious way, but then there are people that feel, and believe that Mandela screwed this country over too, but you won’t see much of those discussions going around because of the shocking nature of the piece

          • Lu

            Exactly. Much like most Metal. The meaning can be deep and intricate, but if the growling isn’t balanced with clean vocals most people shut off and miss the message entirely

  • konfab

    You can’t stop people from thinking what they want to. You might be able to limit them with laws, shun them on Twitter, pull out their tongues or even threaten them with death.

    Tyrion says it the best.

    This is why I think all speech, including hate speech should be given a platform. Talking about things and debating them in the open is the only way you can change people’s minds.

    That being said, at least this guy had to apply some talent in order to do this. 99% of modern “art” is literally rubbish.

  • MonsterCheddar

    The more fucked up people get, the more fucked up their art gets.

    Look at Shia Lepoef.

  • Jim of the Banana

    As I posted on Facebook:

    Nope, art should make you think. It should push the boundaries of what is acceptable, HOWEVER there is a difference between “good art” and ‘terrible/bad art”. How you make that distinction is purely subjective. Not everyone should agree on what is “good art”. A society that tries to censor (or argues for art to be censored because it might hurt feelings) is one that I don’t want to be a part of.

    As for Mabulu’s latest work, I can understand why some find it offensive, however my interpretation of it is that it’s a pretty on-the-nose commentary of South Africa’s political reality. Jacob Zuma has essentially “sodomised the memory of Nelson Mandela”. He has sullied the idea of the rainbow nation, and his presidency has done harm to this nation. You have to hand it to Mabulu. This is a powerful piece!

  • Kenn Gibson

    No. simply due to the right of free speech. If we start to censor others we go down a slippery slope. The wonderful thing about life is that we dont have to agree with each other. It;s what makes the world such a diverse place. Do we really want 7 billion PC brigade or anyone other archetype of humanity running around. Lets start stopping things that physically hurt people, not their feelings. I dont like the painting, I find it offensive, doesnt mean he cant express his opinion.

  • Guild

    Can Art go to far? No. It’s open to the individuals interpretation of said art.
    Do I like the above 2 examples above? Nope.

  • I echo the Mandela Foundations response… the asshole who painted this should be free to create art as he pleases.

    But this latest piece is insensitive and crass. It’s not clever or thought provoking. He’s an asshole for doing it.

  • miaau

    Some people just, in reality, do things for the shock value. No other reason.

    And yes, art, as any other medium, can indeed go too far. Hard to define how far too far is, but any form of art can go too far.

    The Rite of Spring, 1913 – Igor Stravinsky. Paris.

    • Magoo

      The shock value is a weapon.

  • Magoo

    Again everyone is offended.

    I see art like this as a retaliation. A weapon in a passive war or a rebuttal argument. It’s part of a fight and there are no rules in a fight. If people could stop being offended by the fact that they are looking at genitals or that a respected leader is being defaced and just listen to the message within those discomforts, it could be a powerful weapon in said passive war.

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