Archive: Issue No. 114, February 2007

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Feedback is an open forum for readers to share any comments and insights relevant to art practice in South Africa. We reserve the right to edit all submissions.

From: Rat Western
Subject: Quo vadis, Michael Smith? Or rather, Where were you?
Date received: January 31

Dear Mr. Smith,

First, let me congratulate you for your attempt to unpack the politics of criticism. Criticism of criticism is no easy task and one which involves a certain amount of risk for the one writing as one is inevitably bound to tread on a few toes - well, only if one is being honestly critical and not taking the comfortable middle ground of the hypothetical in academic lingo.

However, I can not help feel that there are some gaps in your discussion.

There is, in your opinion piece, the matter of economics with which you do not grapple. When talking about the close and sometimes incestuous group of people who occupy multiple roles in the art world one may point out the imbalance of power inherent in multiple hat-wearing, but it does not change the fact that it is very uncommon for any one individual to make a sufficient income chasing an idealist vision of occupying only one role in the arts community.

Is it then fair of those occupying positions of power to appoint and promote their friends? Shouldn't the question be: Is it unavoidable that they will at some stage appoint or promote their friends however fair the individual in power tries to be? All people prefer to work with other people that they like, and if they work well together they will wish to do so again. Friends like to work with friends and one often becomes friends with people with whom one works. If one does not work well with someone or dislikes them for any reason which may occur during a project, one is unlikely to choose to work with them again.

And so the cycle continues. This cycle is by no means restricted to the incestuous world of art. It is one of those facts of life. Perhaps, that is something unfair to those of us outside the group, but that does not mean that one can not form one's own group and attempt, as that group, to shift a balance in power. This is invariably how power does shift from one generation to the next.

The other problem of imbalance which you refer to is the matter of 'black practice' and 'white practice'. The arena of art making on which most art criticism focuses is the level of 'high art' or 'conceptual art' or 'avant guardism´┐Ż (sic) (choose your term of snobbery). Entry into this elitist group usually, though not always, requires some level of tertiary training. In this country, those who are historically disadvantaged are quite often currently economically disadvantaged and those from this group who are given an opportunity of tertiary education are unlikely to pick a course of training which has little chance of offering them future economic security.

I have found little criticism which tackles this one potential cause for a relative lack of black students choosing to study Fine Art or History of Art at a tertiary level. Those with an interest in visual art are much more likely to pick advertising and design because of its perceived employment opportunities.

I was then entertained by Lisa Littlewort's cartoon posted on artheat - So Few Black Students

Whilst it is a contentious one-liner, the cartoon confronts an issue with which I have yet to see a more serious critic engage.

So what are those who are uncomfortable with these inequalities doing to alter the imbalances? Are we sitting about debating constructs such as 'black practice' or 'white practice'? Or are we actively engaging with high school learners and encouraging them to follow a career in art? Are we vigorously searching for black emerging artists and helping to promote their careers? Then, when it comes to theorising about the expected role of critical writing, one theme which, I feel, you do not explore is the certain amount of responsibility which comes with the role of the critic, particularly when one is writing for a major publication.

In one's own private space, that is a self-published article in print or on one's own website, the author is by no means honour-bound to present, as in the words of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, 'reporting that is accurate or comment that is fair'. This is the joy of free speech - one can say what one likes. This does not mean there are no repercussions or that others may not feel equally free to disagree, but what I am saying, is that the private individual has no responsibility to represent anything other than the perspective of his choosing.

No publication, particularly one whose primary function is criticism, can claim to be objective, yet ArtThrob tries (on some levels) to be representative. There is a section for three major centres of our country and a writer dedicated to each. It is then for the happenings of each of these major centres, that those writers are responsible. This does not require them to report on every happening in these areas, nor are they required to comment on those events favourably. It does, however, mean that the critic is responsible for reporting on the major events occurring in his area for the information of those living elsewhere.

This brings me to the major reason behind my response. I am concerned with how you, as representative for the Johannesburg art scene, represent or, as I see it, misrepresent your constituency. You question a responsibility to a Jo'burg underground or even the existence of an underground. Let me say that I have not seen you at a single opening or event that did not happen in a well established institution or the white cube space of a commercial gallery in a comfortable and easily accessible part of town. Where then is your responsibility to the underground?

Here I will mention a few projects that resonated so loudly that people in Cape Town, Durban and internationally, who had never attended them, wrote about them:

Simon Gush's Parking Gallery; Abrie Fourie's Outlet project space;'s 1st physical exhibition incorporating emerging artists from Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban; the international residency programmes at the Bag Factory and Bie Venter's August House, any number of events at the Drill Hall... the list goes on.

But no comment by you as Johannesburg ArtThrob representative, nor the pleasure of your company at the openings, although I know you are on their mailing lists. Both The Parking Gallery and Outlet played host to not only emerging artists but better known individuals such as Nathaniel Stern, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Nadine Hutton, Marcus Neustetter, Doung Anwaar Jahangeer etc. provides a platform not only for emerging artists but emerging writers as well who might, as you suggest, be nervous to take on the criticism of a more established artist.

I do not think I need to explain the relevance of reporting on international artists on residency here, nor how this documentation extends the scope of their residencies for the benefit of a wider audience. I can not help wondering at your motives for turning a blind eye to the projects that are happening and stating that the space that they fill is, in fact, a gap. Especially when you state: As critics operating from a radical position, they are able to highlight what is absent from or neglected by contemporary art; then as curators can supply precisely the product they have deemed lacking. What are you planning to 'supply' as the 'product deemed lacking'?

Perhaps, you are planning a Sandton 'underground' for the mythical proposed tunnels of the Gautrain where, fully accompanied by Business Improvement District guards, the more discerning art critic may feel braver to tread? My words may be harsh, but your silence is deafening, your absence is delineated and your misinformed and false reporting is downright dangerous. Sue Williamson commented in this month's ArtThrob editorial that Roger Buergel uses the site for research in which he is of course not alone. Your words are the documentation, the history. When you say this history did not happen you rob those who invest their energies in those disregarded projects of their right to a certain amount of recognition. It does not have to be positive recognition, but one can not deny that these events occurred.

Having said that and on another note, I would also like to say that I have enjoyed most of your writing. I understand that it is sometimes frustrating to write and receive no feedback. It feels as if one is writing into a void. But, perhaps, your lack of response is due to you being perceived as a black and white web page and not a face on opening night.

Please do next time, as the invitation cards put it, join us for a drink. We may bite, but we've had our shots.

Rat Western