Quo vadis, art criticism?
by Michael Smith
December is traditionally a quiet month for the Jo'burg visual arts scene. Many commercial galleries close mid December to reopen only in mid-January. With little to review, I decided to put together a speculative piece along the concept of criticism and its place in the visual art environment. My main concern was to respond to an idea suggested by Brenden Gray, the notion that criticism as a practice in its own right, its vicissitudes and potentialities, required greater focus in arenas such as ArtThrob.
Criticism is what a publication like ArtThrob deals in, and yet seldom are the politics of criticism discussed. I added to Gray's idea the question of how criticism as a practice could work to remedy some of the race-oriented imbalances that still beleaguer the SA art industry. What follows is a loose reconstruction of our meeting, capturing the essence rather than the minutiae.
The feeling that criticism needs to 'fess up to its agenda and politics emerged repeatedly from both Gray and fellow artist/writer Landi Raubenheimer who also took part in the discussion. The real purposes of criticism, of generating illuminating and productively controversial engagements with works or shows, need to be uppermost in the minds of critics.
Furthermore, good criticism should exhibit a willingness to grapple with the real issues of power that surround any given show. While this does happen often, and is certainly more prevalent in Art South Africa since Sean O'Toole took the reins as editor, there is still a sense that the critic's position is vulnerable. The possibility that young critics may censor themselves and adopt a middle ground position to prevent sabotaging their own careers as artists, especially when reviewing work by powerful figures in the local art world, is very real.
This is possibly attributable to the relative lack of autonomy the position of critic suffers. In particular, Raubenheimer was concerned with the small, virtually incestuous nature of the art scenes in SA's major centres. The close personal interactions between various stakeholders at the various levels, i.e. gallery owners, artists, lecturers and critics often rob the reviewing process of the critical distance vital for effective critique. Gray observed that the problem is exacerbated by the multiple roles occupied by many major players in the local art fraternity, that somewhere between being art maker, teacher/lecturer, curator and writer/critic, the critical boundaries of integrity to each discipline become blurred, prey to careerist motives.
He cited the examples of Kendell Geers and Kathryn Smith, whose prominent positions as writers and curators, he contends, created prime conditions for their own work to be favourably received. By playing a key role in defining what constitutes valid contemporary South African art at any one time, an often unassailable loop of power is created which benefits critical perceptions of their own output.
To a degree, the same could be said of Sue Williamson, with her canon-establishing published work and founding of ArtThrob, itself a mainstay of art publishing in SA for more than 10 years now.
Whilst not art makers, similar conflicts of interest arise in the practice of the international art luminaries like Okwui Enwezor and Robert Storr. Their admittedly important writings on contemporary art certainly set the terms and conditions for their critical statements as superstar curators to be consumed. 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.
Yet, in the process, a seemingly inevitable sacrifice of radicality results, as these iconic figures establish themselves as gatekeepers of the secrets of the new orthodoxy. Any possibility of a Situationist-style shifting avant-guardism becomes impossible if the ultimate purpose of radical criticism is to gain entry to the centre, and access to the powerful cultural capital wielded by the international curator. In examples like these, criticism seems to function simply as a prelude to the real business of being in charge.
So what of the notion of art criticism being perceived as a practice in its own right, no longer viewed as the bitchy superego to art's id? In South Africa, the figures of Ivor Powell and Colin Richards emerge as legitimate examples of critical practitioners whose other pursuits do little if anything to dilute the efficacy of their writing. I know of no sense of duality to Powell's position in the 80s and 90s SA art scene (despite his later shift in to investigative work); instead, simply of a sustained desire to contribute to art's development through informed, focused writing. His studied, measured work emerged as the perfect counterpoint to the hyperbolic, frequently careerist shenanigans of Geers' critical writing, with Guy Willoughby surely SA's most visible purveyor of lowest-common-denominator art criticism.
And while Richards has balanced the multiple activities of teaching, making and curating for years now, it seems that his peerless critical writing is central to his value to the SA art scene, rather than just being another thing he does. In particular, I valued his recent willingness to highlight the perceived shortcomings of a book by Terry Kurgan and Jo Ractliffe in a review he wrote for Art South Africa, despite the fact that he works with Ractliffe at Wits University. It is this kind of integrity in the face of difficult circumstances that helps assert and maintain art criticism's crucial autonomy.
And yet Gray, Raubenheimer and myself all expressed dismay at the power of journals like Art South Africa and ArtThrob to direct, virtually unchallenged, the scope, nature and terms of art criticism in SA. Raubenheimer echoed a sentiment I have long held, that in order to remain vital, art criticism needs a publication that is looser, freer from market forces, and thus more impertinent and willing to take chances in a fluid manner. Cape Town antagonists Robert Sloon and others are certainly exploring the subversive potential of humour on Sloon's blog Artheat (artheat.co.za).
Purporting to be like the Heat magazine for the SA art world, it wears its unapologetic Cape Town bias on its trashy sleeve, and trades in DIY aesthetics and guttersnipe sensibilities that make it pure punk. Great examples are the satirical instructions on how to create Do-It-Yourself Berni Searle and Willem Boshoff art works, which send up the formulaic toil of these artists with incisive accuracy, exactly the kind of fluidity we need in art criticism right now.
But what's happening in Jo'burg? Is careerism winning out over any sense of responsibility to the underground? Does an underground even exist? Gray suggests that ArtThrob could occupy a more vital position in this regard, for two major reasons: its frequency (our updates are monthly), and the existence of its Feedback facility, which could allow for lively, open-ended debates for the website�s growing constituency. And yet the Feedback facility remains eerily quiet, having entertained a single submission worth publishing from the Gauteng area in the last 12 months.
The awful conclusion is that, while we know we're being read, our readership finds little reason to respond. Is ArtThrob in danger of becoming yet another monolith?
To end, perhaps a return to a major concern expressed at the beginning of this piece: how to reconfigure art criticism so that it upsets the tenacious racial imbalances in the visual arts industry. The answer surely lies in continued and increased participation by the few black practitioners and critics currently active, and with voices yet unheard adding to the discourse.
Art criticism presents such writers with the possibility of taking ownership of art debates on their own terms, as is being done by critics like Ruth Simbao, Thuthu Lesuthu and Thembinkosi Goniwe. The activism so at the heart of their writings certainly goes a long way to disrupting the seamless continuity of an art community which Gray believes still prefers to locate black practice (written or creative) in the realm of the experiential everyday, and white practice in the realm of the discursive.
Landi Raubenheimer is a Johannesburg-based artist, independent writer and lecturer at the Design Centre in Greenside and Brenden Gray is a Johannesburg-based artist, independent writer and lecturer at the Design Centre in Greenside