Friday, February 26, 2010

The so-called death of art criticism


For reasons that will become obvious there are two oft repeated statements that really get on my tits. What irritates me about these phrases is not so much that they are true but that people unthinkingly and glibly repeat them without any real understanding of their cultural significance and do so thinking that it demonstrates that they have their finger on the pulse of what is happening in our fluctuating society.

These two sentences are:

1) Print media is dead
2) Art criticism is dead

I believe that these statements are both true and false. Let me explain: people might be preparing its coffin but the print media is not dead. Yet. There are millions of newspapers, magazines et al that are being printed, bought and read. I do not live under the illusion that this state of affairs will continue: it won’t and in fact I believe a shift away from printed media will benefit the likes of me. For you see while printed products might become a thing of the past, content and the need for well-written content will never die. So when people (smugly) turn to me and declare that the print media is dead, I respond with a warm, but patronising smile for they do not know of what they speak. They do not understand that it is of no consequence to me and that ultimately I shall be a beneficiary of this transformation.

As for those, which often include art critics, who declare that art criticism is dead, I would agree, that yes, a dated notion of what art criticism entails has come to end. In fact I would go so far to say that their observation has come fifty or so decades after the fact. Though I am in two minds as to whether Arthur Danto’s declaration that art ended somewhere in the sixties when that cheeky art prankster Andy Warhol exhibited his Brillo box, I do believe that it was around this time, or perhaps earlier, when Duchamp exhibited his urinal (has anyone noticed how that any discourse on contemporary art can never get beyond these two events?) that it became inevitable that art criticism would experience a seismic shift – after all, it does not operate independently from art-making.  For once attention shifted away from the art object and towards the ideas that underpinned its status as an art object, obviously a formalist assessment of art was rendered obsolete. Albeit that some so-called art critics in this country engage with art via the personality of the artist, shifts in critical thinking around authorship, where the society as a whole has become the de facto author, have also seen a kind of criticism centred around the artist’s personality (and one that I would like to point out dates back to the days of Vasari) become irrelevant.  In literary circles a move away from this brand of criticism is appropriately titled: New Criticism.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I have been preparing (writing) for a talk at UCT which I will be giving on Saturday at a colloquim on Performance Art, called Pre-Post-Per-Form - its a bit of a tongue twister. It is hosted by the Gipca (Gordon Institute for performing and Creative Arts). The title of my talk is Mapping Shifting Fields: Exploring the modes and tools of critical analysis for interdisciplinary and performance art. Some of my focus will be on the work of Lerato Shadi, which I have written about recently but I also discuss a host of other artists who use performance or performative aspects in their art.

Here is the press blurb/whatsit:

GORDON INSTITUTE FOR PERFORMING AND CREATIVE ARTS at the University of Cape Town presents: Pre-Post-Per-form A COLLOQUIUM 20-22 FEBRUARY, HIDDINGH HALL, UCT's Hiddingh Campus. Africa Panels, lectures, viewings, discussions, performances and exhibitions.

Sandwiched between the public art festival Infecting the City and Design Indaba, this colloquium on interdisciplinary performance and performance art is a talk/think/do tank of artists, academics, festival directors and curators, journalists and writers.

Conceptualized and convened by Jay Pather, this meeting ground between interdisciplinarity and performance, institution and anarchy, academy and street, brings together international luminaries such as the iconic Mexican American performance artist, Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Trevor Davies, director of the Metropolis Biennale, writer and artist Sue Williamson, curator Melissa Mboweni, award winning architect/visual artist Doung-Anwar Jahangeer, veteran archivist of performance and journalist, Adrienne Sichel and performance diva Mwenya Kabwe.

Gómez-Peña will perform his biographical Multiple Journeys as Keynote Address. Academics Virginia MacKenny and Sarah Nuttal amongst others come together with upstart artists Athi Patra Ruga, Mlu Zondi (Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner), Aja Marneweck and Mamela Nyamza.

Investigating the act of recording the ephemeral moment of performance will be art commentators Sean O’Toole, Mary Corrigall and photographer, John Hodgkiss. Tanner Methvin of Africa Centre, (producer of Pan African Space Station, Spier Contemporary and Infecting the City) will speak on a panel ‘Soliciting and programming anarchy’ with festival and theatre directors and curators, Mboweni, Davies and Lara Foot Newton.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mules and Black Enamel Portraits

I have spent this week working on an abstract and talk to present at a colloquium centred on interdisciplinary and performance art, entitled Pre-Post-Per-Form, which has been instigated by Jay Pather, one of the most prominent interdisciplinary artist’s in the country (read more about it here). These are two fields which I have been writing about quite a bit recently. The challenges related to interdisciplinary work have mostly presented themselves in the context of works either pegged as dance or theatre, and such works I have often read as incursions across the borders of the visual arts or an appropriation of the vocabularies from this field.  It is such a stimulating and interesting topic, which is just as well given that I haven’t seen any good art this week.

Having missed the Sean Slemon exhibition at Brodie/Stevenson I made a quick pit-stop at the gallery to check out Daniel Naudé's exhibition with a view to reviewing the exhibition. I got there only to find that the exhibition only had a week left so I wouldn’t have time to get a review into the Sunday Indy. Nevertheless as I perused the work I felt quite relieved that I wouldn’t be writing about it; the work didn’t really call for a close examination. I don’t think Naudé is ready for a solo and in fact I think there is a tendency in this country to show young artists work long before they are producing ‘solo’ material. There were only one or two images of Naudé’s that I enjoyed and mostly it was because of the hyperreal quality they exuded. I think Naudé is at the beginning of a trajectory that has yet to be resolved or even explored in any real depth. What is also fairly off-putting is the fact that apparently the artist’s intention was to simply photograph animals on his farm. In other words he never set out to  create a body of work that engaged with or related to “an early 19th century folio (of) African scenery and animals by Samuel Daniell, who arrived in the Cape in December 1799 at the age of twenty-five, and was appointed as the secretary and draughtsman for an expedition to Bechuanaland”, as asserted in the bumpf the gallery has put out to frame his work. When I read this, I immediately thought of Andrew Putter’s African Hospitality series. Has Putter’s concepts been appropriated by the Stevenson Gallery crew so as to frame another artist’s work, so as it infuse it with a conceptual impetus that was absent from the start? This is precisely what some well-informed folk think.   I always thought it was the job of art critics to project their own ideas onto art? The question thus remains is Naudé’s art a vacuous piece of photography? Of course, every photograph can elicit a discourse of sorts, that is a given but does his work provide any new insights? I am not sure that photographs of cross-breed animals really says anything new about hybrid identities - except of course that their hybridity is not discernable. But then neither is my hybrid identity marked in my appearance. Hmmm…

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Vári at Goodman

One expects works at a solo exhibition to be part of a focused dialogue but with Parallax the works share a deeper relationship: most of the artworks extend the discourse into unexpected territory or echo one another in such a way that Vári's viewpoint feels well-rounded and solid. This characteristic ties in neatly with the exhibition's main thrust: the shifts in nature and its relationship to humanity and culture, which, through myth, superstition and fantasy gives expression to this complex connection.

Certainly, in a few works there exists an obvious visual synthesis such as between Totem, a digital video artwork, and the series of photographs entitled Dog Star Night. It is the dark silhouette of trees against a fluctuating night sky that forms the central motif in both works. In Totem, the trees are obviously animated and sway and rustle.
In-between these prosaic natural growths is a mutating being that at times appears anthropomorphic and at others simply mirrors the shape of the trees - it vacillates between being different and the same. In this way it moves from signifying a human to an object of human superstition to a natural entity. This object/subject is the totem. In so-called primitive societies the totem generally represented a community of people, thus in a metaphorical sense it should have dynamic, shifting persona.

This is a dry description of this work that doesn't do justice to the fact that it is sensually compelling - a vital aspect . It is the music or rhythmic sounds that Vári has selected - sighs of pleasure - that imply that this confluence between human and nature provides a transcendental experience, allowing humankind to imagine an unseen world or order that makes sense of reality.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

New MacGarry exhibition

It is not often that a photograph of an animal in a rather uncomfortable position and with manmade accoutrements attached to its body gets me all excited but when it comes accompanied by a very comprehensive press release, written by Michael MacGarry, for his up and coming exhibition then I am gripped by a frisson of anticipation. The title of the exhibition does sound like a statement fashioned by an angst-ridden teenager eschewing the society he has been born into: THIS IS YOUR WORLD IN WHICH WE GROW, AND WE WILL GROW TO HATE YOU (must be in upper case for impact). One can almost see it spray-painted across a wall in a schoolyard. And in a sense MacGarry is rallying against a corrupt system or at least is once-again pondering the shady mechanics of political ascendancy. This is not modern-day protest art; based on the statements that Avant Car Guard made around resistance art in their last exhibition I don’t think MacGarry believes in the transformative function of art: art can question systems but not shift their impetus. I have to say that I agree with this viewpoint.  This rather chilling quote from Jean-Luc Godard, Weekend, 1967, which is included in MacGarry’s press release, articulates the lack of agency that the artist experiences and speaks of the only available route an artist can take: 

"I said to myself, what is the good of talking to them?
If they buy knowledge, it is only to resell it.
They want cheap knowledge to sell at a profit.
They want nothing which would stand in the way of their victory.
They don't want to be oppressed, they want to oppress.
They don't want progress, they want to be first.
They will submit to anyone who promises them they can make the laws.
I wondered what I could say to them.
I decided it was that."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Be Very Afraid

It wasn't all good news at  BASA’s (Business and Arts South Africa) presentation of the research they have conducted into corporate sponsorship of the arts. It was presented by Michelle Constant, its CEO, and was surprisingly short: the bulk of their findings can only be gleaned for a fee. I know they need the revenue but not sure how that serves both the business and arts community, especially considering Constant’s observation that there is very little research available on the arts. None of their findings were really surprising either: for example the business community believes that arts organisations are disorganised and not proactive enough – in other words they have a negative view of this industry. Through their research BASA also established that there is a clear division between what corporates view as social responsibility programmes and marketing initiatives (no surprise there either) – Constant believed that corporates could market their brand while sponsoring social responsibility programmes. The main problem that I have observed is that the kind of endeavours that companies consider as social responsibility projects tend not to be “high art” activities for obvious reasons; if they sponsor an event that is simply an art for art’s sake project then it is not seen as uplifting to society. The view that business appears to take is that supporting art and artists is in itself not perceived as being “socially responsible” .