Archive: Issue No. 126, February 2008

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The writer, the hatchet job and the politics of inflammatory language
by Michael Smith

By now, if you're an ArtHeat regular, you'll know that City Press art journalist Carl Collison published in that paper's print edition and on its website a strong critique of artist and ArtThrob writer Ed Young's recent (November 2007) work in Miami. The specific works by Young make use of overtly inflammatory terms, as contained in a phrase like 'Niggers can't be choosers', proposed but not accepted for a site-specific series at Miami's Locust Projects.

In what at first looks like a well-constructed focus on a topical artist, Collison takes issue with Young's 'making art out of racist offence and profanity, and of riling black people in particular'. Yet factual inaccuracies soon undermine what turns out to be an only occasionally compelling polemic.

Collison takes great pains to present an expansive argument, replete with cited examples and theoretical backing for his grudge against Young. What the writer fails to mention is that numerous proposals were made for the project: according to Young, a number of them did not have anything to do with race. The only one of the four accepted proposals that had race-based content was I'll Be Black in Five Minutes. Other accepted works were I Love New Work, 666 and It Was Only a Blowjob.

Collison's default to personal attack (he derides Young's 'almost forced attempt at being insolent and disaffected') has little place in writing that purports to be serious criticism. But what ultimately sits uneasily with me is the inherent conservatism of the piece. Not political or racial conservatism, but the fairly reactionary suggestion that Young, who deals in undeniably difficult and potentially divisive content, should stay away from the hard stuff.

Collison correctly identifies the major trope of Young's process as that of a trickster. Young's penchant for lassoing media hype and scandal is fairly notorious by now. Strippers at openings, self-publicised hard drinking and an almost compulsive desire to expose the private and ruin friendships through his monthly ArtThrob diary - it's all there in Young's work, which seems to emanate quite directly from his life. Yet Collison's tone in using the term 'trickster' is pejorative, signalling that he has missed the boat.

He fails to register that Young is operating within a tradition of similar deliberate charlatanism, one that has always had as its main thrust a critique of the structures and mechanisms of the art world. The stellar career of Marcel Duchamp is only the most obvious example of this: more recently, Maurizio Cattelan's profile as international art's self-appointed court jester often works to subvert the art business' power through humour and offence. Though responsible for many notorious works, Cattelan's 2004 Hanging Kids, shown in Milan, and the attendant furore it created, is arguably the most memorable in its infamy.

It seems that the more global culture becomes bound up with notions of celebrity and spectacle, the more art or creative practice is going to unpack the mechanisms through which this spectacle is purveyed. Offence as a concept is certainly part of this - you try sell a rap record without a 'Parental Advisory' sticker � so Young's engagement with it is certainly not irrelevant.

Quite fortuitously, Jozi gallerist David Brodie of Art Extra is currently hosting a group show he curated under the title 'The Trickster'. The exhibition considers how the role of the trickster, the 'prankster' (as Collison calls Young), is important in that it transcends the nebulous musings of postmodernism's soft-focus notion of 'play', and strategically directs incisive humour at relevant targets.

But what are Young's targets? Collison's chief misunderstanding of Young's work surrounds this, and becomes the central weak link in his argument. The writer operates from the assumption that Young's attempt to use the word 'nigger' in a public space would be aimed at black people. Collison cites other examples from the series, works like I'll Be Black in Five Minutes and We Are All So Fucking African, (another proposal that remains an unrealised concept), as operating with a similarly 'racist' imperative. Collison conveniently forgets that almost all of Young's mature work to date interrogates the machinations of the art world: his presence in the USA as some form of South African representative and its art seems to be at issue here. The humour in a proposal like Niggers Can't be Choosers derives more from an institutional critique of large-scale international shows that invite artists from the periphery in displays of what often feels like cold charity, than any cynical enjoyment of 'racist invective'.

Collison also elides (or simply avoids) the fact that Young's use of offence has significant precedents within art history. American Vito Acconci and South African Steven Cohen alike, have both used a non-contractual (unlike movies with age restriction) sexual offensiveness as means by which to unpack the hypocrisy of Western social mores. In a similar vein, prodigal and prodigious SA son Kendell Geers frequently uses visual samples from pornography alongside images of extreme violence to question the double standards of the 'moral majority' when controlling media output.

In fact, when viewed along this trajectory, Young's use of offensive rhetoric seems almost mandated within contemporary art. One thinks here of the example of conceptualist Richard Prince, who said once about his 'joke paintings' that the jokes were funny, the paintings were not: Young's content of questioning perceptions of African-ness abroad, especially in the context of such a racially fraught social climate as the USA, should not be confused with the means through which he does this. To do so is to fall victim to the same reductionism of which Collison accuses Young.