Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sessions at Africa Museum

On Saturday I was part of a panel discussion centred on “Education on Contemporary African Art in Schools, Universities and the Media”  - it was part of the SPace exhibition programme. Naturally, I was there to speak about the media’s role in educating the public about contemporary African art. I am not sure that the talk I presented was terribly satisfying for the organisers, particularly as I believe that educating the public about art is not art criticism’s primary goal; as the term implies its main function is to critically appraise art. Is there any point to creating art if no one critically engages with it? Even though some might argue that contemporary practice is characterised by a self-reflexive brand of art that has an inbuilt recognition of its ideological flaws, is it not important that those works too are subject to a close reading that is made available within the public realm?
Mostly my paper - which was entitled Speaking in Tongues: Does the language of art criticism enlighten or obfuscate?  - dealt with the constant struggle to settle on a vocabulary that serves the two contradictory audiences of art criticism; the general public and the art community. Given that many writing about art or editing copy about art in the media have never formally studied art, I suggested that the media is not in the ideal position to educate society about art.
But after my fellow panellists, which included people from various spheres of education, with representatives from universities, township schools and private schools, outlined the gargantuan challenges facing art education in this country it became clear to me that failures in our education system are placing an extra burden on art critics who work in the mainstream media; not only do we have to write copy for a visually illiterate audience but we are expected to bridge the gaps in their knowledge of art which should have been addressed at school level. This burden does not make for great art writing, certainly not one that serves the artist and/or the art community, which demand in-depth analysis not just superficial entertaining copy.  I believe that art critics and writers should be driven to create meaningful documents about art that have long-term value.
I detest that kind of art reporting - I use the term reporting here, as I am referring to a brand of writing which I distinguish from criticism – that evinces a marked emphasis on the biographical nature of the artist and anecdotal information. In this kind of writing the biographical or social context is foregrounded. This strategy often detracts from the work and as Candice Breitz observed during an interview I did with her a couple of week’s ago “is almost a scheme to stall or prevent interpreting it.”

The panel discussion was really illuminating; I had no idea how bad the state of art education was in this country. Once I get through the current features I am working on I intend engaging with this issue more fully in a large-scale feature/expose for the paper. Perhaps the most shocking statistic that emerged on Saturday was the fact that 99 percent of school teachers teaching art in government schools are not qualified to do so. Apparently some have been sent on courses to arm them with knowledge about art but these courses are only THREE DAYS long. This appalling situation affects the size and quality of audiences for art, it affects sponsorship and patronage of the arts.

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