Post-struggle art : its vicissitudes and atavisms Reconsidering the political value of Brett Murray's Hail to the Thief works

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Abstract:

This article revisits some of the controversies and debates that arose in 2012 over works by South African artist Brett Murray and his painting The Spear in particular. It aims to offer a more sober, profound and instructive evaluation of the painting and the larger body of works it was part of, displayed in the two-part exhibition titled Hail to the Thief. It undertakes an immanent critique of these works, assessing their appropriateness with regard to the liberatory aims and horizon of Murray’s art practice, as well as staking out the level of analysis most fundamental to such an evaluation. It does so, first, by taking issue with two dominant readings and critiques of Murray’s works in terms of unintended and unconscious messages that are found to be counterrevolutionary and racist respectively. Over and against such content analyses and criticisms, the article closes in on a more properly aesthetic form of politics embedded in the communicative mode, subject position and scenario of interaction performed by Murray’s Hail to the Thief works. Although such aspects were mostly overlooked, the article argues that they are key to determining the liberatory potential of Murray’s political art. In the end, the latter is criticised for still adhering to a rather conventional vanguardist model of art’s political role— postmodern tendencies notwithstanding. The article argues that this is untenable from a liberational perspective mainly because of the maintenance of an epistemic hierarchy between critical art and its publics and the ensuing debilitating agential effects.