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Michael Smith responds to Rat Western's letter published in last month's Feedback, criticising, his Landi Raubenheimer and Brenden Gray's discussion of art criticism in South Africa.
From: Michael Smith
Subject: Response to Rat Western
Date received: February 21
Dear Rat Western,
Thanks for your entertaining letter in response to January's Opinion piece.
You certainly raise a number of interesting issues, albeit in a fairly roundabout fashion. I will use this opportunity to try and respond to a few of your more salient points.
Quite early on in your letter, you make a fairly good point about the economics that govern the art scene in SA necessitating multi-tasking. While this is a point well taken, I originally felt that this issue was not within the scope of my/our opinion piece, but rather could quite comfortably be the subject of an entire feature-length article and/or thesis elsewhere.
The issue of artists, writers and curators promoting their friends, or choosing to work with only a select group of people based on personal preference, which you linked to the previous point, was not really our concern when putting this opinion piece together. This sort of practice is low-level, and for the most part is its own punishment: choosing to work only with those one gets along with certainly doesn't suggest taking the whole business of art terribly seriously, and only fuels accusations of myopic nepotism. Our interest was rather the potential danger specifically for young critics (who are, in other spaces within the art world, at the mercy of powerful players) of delivering honest and forthright criticism. As Brenden Gray said in discussion, would the young critic feel comfortable or even able to give a harsh but fair criticism of work by one of her/his old lecturers, or someone who may later serve on a judging panel of a competition where her/his work may appear?
You then lapse into a fairly diverting but ultimately direction-free soliloquy about 'facts of life', etc, nonetheless making the valid point that power shifts from one generation or group to another through activity on the periphery. Thanks for clearing that up. Till now I only had the writings of Homie Bhabha and Edward Said to go on.
I'm uncertain about your fuzzy employment of the term 'conceptual art' (could you be talking about 'contemporary practice'?). 'Conceptual art' is a fairly specific art language, some would argue, beginning with Robert Rauschenberg's telegram Portrait of Iris Clert or even his Erased De Kooning Drawing, and your rather quaint choice to term this and avant-gardism (which you misspell) as forms of 'snobbery', is interesting. Silly me, I still believed that visual art could and did actively change the way people viewed the world. Guess I'll have to give it all up now, lest I lapse into some awful snobbish hell of speculative art and sophistry.
You then move into a section where you term ideas like black practice and white practice as 'constructs'. Sure, existentially speaking everything is a construct, but to use a Phil 101 argument like this to invalidate these crucial notions is dangerous. Why dangerous? Because such an argument seeks to erase difference. Whenever people in the art world seek to erase difference, or at least undersell it, I get very nervous. As I've heard Penny Siopis say a number of times, subject position is vitally important, and a sensitivity to it underpins much of what postmodern contemporary theory and practice are about. The extremely sophisticated practices of artists like Johannes Phokela, Moshekwa Langa, Yinka Shonibare etc. rely on subject position for much of their power and relevance.
Later on you raise the very important issue of education, as it functions (or maybe fails to function) to solve the perceived crisis of the scarcity of black undergraduates pursuing fine arts. A good point, but you should be careful where you infer blame in this regard: as it turns out, all three of the people involved in the discussion which generated the offending opinion piece are in fact educators. According to your logic, that at least confers upon us the right to debate this topic� I think. Your suggestion that there is somehow a necessary separation between 'debate' and 'doing something about it', is surely a disingenuous point. The proud political history of South Africa as it emerged from the strictures of apartheid is only the most immediate proof that debate informs action: to suggest that debate is somehow indulgent or at very least counterproductive is, frankly, laughable.
Your choice of words, that I 'misrepresent' my 'constituency' seems culled from a DA pamphlet: I was not elected into this position, I was hired, and my job description was given to me by someone other than you or the constituency you seem intent on representing. Nonetheless, as a critic, I am governed by a morality, and this lies not in the geographical location of the shows I cover, but rather in the issues I choose to elucidate from them, and the relevance of these for this city and/or country. For examples of this, see my review of Mikhael Subotzky's 2006 show at Goodman, my review of Anton Kannemeyer's 2006 show at Art on Paper, and my take on the February 2007 survey show of Santu Mofokeng's work.
Furthermore, my coverage of the 'New Painting: A Selection of Contemporary South African Painting' show at the JAG (itself hardly the most comfortably placed building, wouldn't you agree?) took as its focus the manner in which specifically black artists are reconfiguring the practice of painting. The review considered how current global debates around the value of painting are being adapted on-the-trot by young black SA painters. Far from servicing an elite, this review revealed an interest in how African realities can productively rework historically Western debates. We're not talking Artists Under the Sun-type stuff here, Rat, we're talking serious engagement with issue-driven work. Your denial, or at best exclusion of these nuances of my writing seem, in turn, to misrepresent what I'm about.
Furthermore, your facts are inaccurate. In October last year I covered the work produced in SA by visiting Swiss artists Philip Gasser and Bruno Tremblay. I never made it to the opening at the Parking Gallery, but at my request they hosted me in their residency apartment in August House, in the east of the CBD, where I engaged with them and the work. Is this address edgy enough for you? And does this, in part at least, deal with your accusations that any and all foreign artists have been roundly ignored by Gauteng ArtThrob?
That month, I also covered a show of work by young artist Brenden Gray, whose work hung in the experimental space The Project Room @ gordart Gallery, a venue co-curated by recent graduate and up-and-comer Mary Sibande. Hardly the boutique gallery experience you are inferring; what really mattered though were the quality of the curation and the power of the show. Should I really get into a process of checking the geographical credentials of the shows I cover, as seems to be your suggestion?
Oh, and by the way, when I went to an opening in Parkwood in JHB a few Saturdays ago, some guy tried to sell me a stolen cellphone: does that count as uncomfortable?
Your synopsis of the SA Arts Emerging website is great, as it enlightens me and I'm sure many other ArtThrob readers. It's good that the SA Arts Emerging website fulfils a function that ArtThrob as yet does not. What I will willingly concede in relation to my December opinion piece is not mentioning SA Arts Emerging: this was an oversight that you and Bronwyn Lace, (a JHB artist and writer closely involved, with yourself, in the production of the site) have pointed out to me, and one which I regret. I do not, however, regret mentioning artheat, as Lace seemed to think I should; what I was talking about with artheat was a crucial fluidity, something I still believe this blog has over many publications. I do, however, regret not mentioning the SA Arts Emerging website in the same vein.
As for a number of your other statements, particularly the one about me searching for a 'Sandton underground in the tunnels of the Gautrain': brain farts like this do more damage to you than they do to me, as they reveal the extent of your social biases. As I have gone to great lengths to point out, my writing does have a social conscience; I'm not sure that Sue Williamson, Founding Editor of ArtThrob, would have hired me should this not have been the case. To suggest that my presence at art events and writing exist solely for the benefit of the moneyed power brokers of the Northern Suburbs is not only insulting, it is patently inaccurate.
Nonetheless, in a professional capacity I value your response, and eagerly await your inevitable rebuttal.
Gauteng ArtThrob Editor
From: Alvaro Silva
Subject: Barend de Wet
Date received: February 23
My name is Alvaro Silva and I work for the Berardo Foundation, Portugal. We have in our collection a work by the artist Barend de Wet. Can you, please, send me more information about the artist, like CV and picture? At this moment I'm compiling our data base, and this information is very important.
Perhaps Barend de Wet will read this or someone will alert him to it and he can get hold of you himself.