Thursday, February 16, 2012

My take on the Jane Alexander/Die Antwoord debacle

This public battle between Jane Alexander and Die Antwoord over the use of a Butcher Boy-like figure that appears in a teaser video for the release of the band’s new album Ten$ion came as a surprise to most people in the local art world.  I too was taken aback. Firstly, in this copy-and-paste age of appropriation and pastiche, asserting originality or ownership over cultural property has to some degree become a futile, if not unnecessary activity, though cases of ownership are constantly being tested in courts all the time. It is not just artists or musicians who regurgitate and recycle material; almost everyone who spends anytime on the internet has repurposed imagery.

Does this mean that artists should have no right to assert ownership? No it doesn’t. Or it shouldn’t, but in doing so they do enter into murky territory, which brings me to my second point: Alexander is not the first artist to have envisioned a hybrid human-animal being with horns. Not only is Greek mythology littered with such creatures but a canon of fantasy literature and imagery is devoted to this imagined beast. Given this actuality, Alexander’s work is indebted to this kind of imagery, not just in a visual sense but an ideological one too: it draws its very power from our familiarity and association with such imagery, though it obviously invokes very localised iconography too – like the animal horns colonialists would hang on their walls as trophies. So, yes, she has “made it her own” and placed and exploited the motif within another context but I would argue that Die Antwoord have presumed to do the same.   

A much more important issue underpins this battle – and one which I don’t think has been raised.  As an astute artist Alexander is no doubt fully aware of all the points I have outlined above; what is driving her claim is the fact that her artistic “signature” might be eroded by the repeated circulation and appropriation of the “Butcher Boy” motif. It has to be acknowledged that her signature has considerable monetary value at art auctions; aside from Marlene Dumas and William Kentridge she is one of the only other contemporary South African artists whose work fetches considerable sums.  She clearly believes that if this signature of hers was more widely circulated, it would dilute or erode its fiscal value and therefore her status.

Alexander has chosen to remain out of the public eye; she apparently doesn’t give interviews, nor does she talk about her work – while at one time (I am thinking now of a series of articles on her in Art SA awhile back) this might have suggested a retiring, furtive personality, this fact has supported her enigmatic identity and now, in the context of this debacle, leads you to wonder whether this “distance” was part of an effort to prop up a very dated notion of the mythical artist – genius working in isolation, blah, blah, blah. This may not be true at all, but her resistance towards having her imagery enter mainstream culture, suggests a desire to retain the boundaries between high and low art – to ensure that “the distance” between her and the public remains intact.

In my opinion, I think she may be limiting her work’s potential afterlife, shall we call it. Die Antwoord’s appropriation of Roger Ballen’s “signature” has reinvigorated his work in some ways and extended its life beyond the boundaries of a gallery and in its recontextualisation has offered new readings of it. In other words “the source” has been enriched by the myriad of derivatives emanating from it. And I think that this has always been the case with art; all imitations of Andy Warhol’s portraits haven’t detracted from the value of his “originals” – that they have become ubiquitous has further elevated his status as an artist and the value of his work at auction.

It is somehow ironic that while you have an artist like Candice Breitz trying to insinuate herself into popular culture – her work Extra! at The Standard Bank gallery sees her appearing in Generations – Alexander is resisting the pull. As Breitz observed the other week: “most people don’t’ see art as culture. Culture happens on TV or on computer screens.” Of course, it is preferable that an artist gets to determine the terms in which they present their work in the mainstream but the way in which it “naturally” enters into this stream would obviate the sometimes contrived nature of these “high art/low art” projects, shall we call them.