Archive: Issue No. 73, September 2003

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Robust commentary or rhubarb
by Sean O'Toole

Words often take on an aura of voguish cool, and then become redundant. Robust is one of those words, a word that seems to be enjoying a rather marked currency at the moment. I have heard it used to describe everything from trading volumes on the JSE to the condition of the ANC/SACP/COSATU alliance. A word meaning healthy, forceful or vigorous, it appears many would argue that it enjoys scant use when describing the condition of South African art criticism. Is this a tenable opinion? I think not.

Possibly the discontent felt by some is encapsulated in the recent public statements of a visiting American delegate, at the Impact printmaking conference in Cape Town. Referring explicitly to ArtThrob and Art South Africa, this commentator raised a concern that art criticism in this country is muted and tempered. "He suggested this was connected to the reluctance of critics here to knock local artists down a peg or two because of a kind of vested interest to see local artists admitted into the international fold," I was told by a colleague who attended the presentation.

Accepting that this is (even moderately) true, what is required to inculcate a culture of robust art commentary?

First off, I would venture, we should start by leaving the past exactly where it is, in Trotsky's proverbial dustbin. I often sense that some of the doomsayers tend to look back at the past through rose coloured glasses. Having matured into adult life through the late 1980s and early 1990s, I personally remain unaware of any popular art writing of substance dating from that period, and I emphasise popular. Yes, Kendell Geers wrote interesting commentary in The Star, and true, Ivor Powell and Hazel Friedman enlivened The Weekly Mail for quite a while, but three writers hardly constitutes a canon whose heritage is now being besmirched.

Quite possibly the subtle intent in all this bluster (about the decline in standards) confuses quality with quantity. Art writing lately seems to be proliferating; where the newspapers have left off specialist publications and a growing volume of exhibition catalogues have taken over. Or maybe I'm missing the point; maybe the intention of the rant is far more insidious, and aimed at valorising the editorial hegemony once dictated by a pucker white middle class readership? Standards please, sir.

As to the suggestion that art criticism is dried up, ag nonsense, really! When I read comments such as this I hear echoes of those geriatric incantations one hears on talk radio. Typically an exasperated caller, always with impeccable diction, issues a blanket wail, one that identifies crime and a lack of school uniforms and Zimbabwe and shoddy art criticism as markers of the downfall of South Africa. Nostalgia and hyperbole, when mixed, can be a dangerous thing.

Of course I am all to aware that the partisan spirit of the proudly South African present has the potential to breed a specious brand of parochialism, one that is often averse to criticism. This sort of reactionary spirit must be countered at all instances, without mercy, as too must the pretence and error of artists trading in gimmickry and rickety conceits, not to mention those artists who blandly trumpet (and profitably trade with) the prevailing master narrative of reconstruction and reconciliation.

Lofty statements indeed, you say, all of which I acknowledge could be entirely wrong. I see that noted English art writer JJ Charlesworth says it is not art but criticism that is in crisis. In the September issue of Art Monthly Charlesworth writes, "The slip of terminology from art criticism to mere art writing in recent years is symptomatic of a growing indifference to writing's polemic and contestative potential."

True, but then art critics and academics piloted this demise by becoming all Catholic about criticism, charmed by empty ritual and Latin while the congregation sleeps. (Stuckist I'm not, I might add.) While I personally doubt that all this necessarily means that art criticism is all washed-up, it is salutary to note that we aren't the only nation grappling with these problems. And while on the subject of JJ Charlesworth, I would like to conclude my little non sequitur on this debate by quoting from something Charlesworth wrote last year.

In a review of a group show titled 'Exchange', reprinted in 100 reviews 3 (Alberta Press, 2002), Charlesworth starts out by openly admitting to being critical yet encouraging. "I enjoy being totally mercenary about supporting people I like in print." This gives Charlesworth the cue to launch into a somewhat irrelevant if highly amusing aside that nonetheless lifts the skirt a little on the parasitic profession that is art criticism. Local writers may wish to pay heed to his remarks.

"Art writers who pretend that there should be some mysterious distance between them and artists are self-deluding, and become the lackeys of their editors. The worst species of artwriters (sic) are the professional magazine hacks, who are so cowed by the false pretence of impartiality, though all the while fawning to the private demands of their editorial hierarchy, and the thrall of the media lifestyle, that they become shrivelled and soulless, disconnected from the reality of artists and general questions of culture, and yet ready to abuse what delegated power they hold to parasite and terrorise artists, in order to secure further catalogue essay commissions, invitations to dinner from grateful dealers, and opportunities to appear on TV. These people should be mocked publicly at private views, threatened so that they leave the pub afterwards, hunted down and destroyed."