Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Contemporary Art: Kill and Go

Visitor at Johannesburg Art Fair 2009. Image by Cobi Labuscagne

In the late 80’s I was nosing around a gallery in Dallas which at that time was making a play against more established Houston as the art capital of the South West USA. Several Dallas galleries had tied into Cologne – then the hot bed of commercially recognized Avant-Garde - presumably trying to transcend JR Ewing stereotypes and pictures of cowboys on horses.

I stopped at a beautiful work. The artist had drilled hundreds of matches into a wall, and then lit them to make a drawing of smoky black lines. The well-dressed guy next to me, similarly transfixed, suddenly got angry and said: “How in the hell am I meant to buy this for my house?” The role of galleries after all was to turn fascination into possession. I told him he should speak to the gallery owner. It seemed to me he could either buy the whole wall, or commission the artist to do another one in his house. He said: “That’s interesting; so art is kind of like the construction industry now?” “Sure”, I said, “you don’t have to take home the bathtub in the showroom, just order one and have the plumber fit it; nowadays art is more like the Sistine Chapel than Dutch easel painting - artists make house calls”.

In the late 60’s Harold Rosenberg wrote that the alienation of the artist happened not because the artist couldn’t be understood by anyone, but rather because, through the disseminations of Academia and Advertising, art could be understood by everyone, but not necessarily in the way an artist might understand his or her own work. Dissemination caused a gap between the artist and the work, much as Freud was not a Freudian, or Marx, a Marxist.

In the sense that art had begun to precede itself as speculative information, Rosenberg’s essay probably marked something like a beginning of what we now call Contemporary Art, as opposed to Art or Modern Art which implied an expectation of the thing in front of your eyes as an experience - what you see is what you get, like it or lump it, “looks like an explosion in a shingles factory”, hang out or move on, kind of thing.

This tendency roughly corresponded with the US State Department assertion in the 70’s that since they could understand history, they could therefore shape history and this would be the end of history itself. Shortly after this universities began to replace art history with art theory as a way of determining output in which academics would play a crucial role.

As a result Contemporary Art operates more like a referencing or indexing system, usually to stronger time-based forms like film, theatre, literature or more ambiguously architecture – the 9-second film loop; the hint of a scene performed; the homily in neon; the landscape-or-urban-art work-space, etc.

Time-based forms have tended to remain more resistant to this tendency because of their make-or-break connection with a reader or an audience. In time-based forms the audience agrees a priori to surrender to the time of the work – often by buying a ticket - so the artist usually feels obliged to live up to the commitment and try to make it worthwhile.

Contemporary Art is generally befuddled by ideas of whom exactly its audience is, or who looks at it other than people with glasses of wine nattering at openings. Art criticism and theory have generally discouraged the idea that a history of compelling and changing beauty was reason enough to both want to make a work and want to look at it. Ideas like “the gaze” and “objectification” went further to suggest that visual art was an historically immoral activity that needed to be under some kind of ideological supervision - an interesting word come to think of it, like superego.

Probably trying to overcome these immoral feelings, Contemporary Art is now also a referencing system to well-trodden social issues, as if these issues rendered art and the artist more meaningful if filled with remorse. The artist gets redemption from immoral pursuits if he or she acknowledges, say, the problems facing health departments or in the case of Africa, whole countries – a bit like a social service sentence - even though art is ineffectual in curing societal ailments and no longer an effective means of mass communication.

Paradoxically, in the hands of Western European and American supervisors saving “other continents” from the immorality of art, Contemporary Art has embarked on the most strident set of classifications based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual preference, since the Nazis. Attention has swayed completely from the art object or art action, in order to objectify artists themselves as the “rescued”.

Certainly art deals with all kinds of things including catastrophes. In the 19th Century novel a character might die from prevalent TB, but TB was contextual in the narrative, not the prime reason for writing the book. But things fall apart and other centers seem to hold.
Last year I remarked to an artist friend in Amsterdam, that art was the cheapest way of doing nothing about real problems, as many European “other world” funding agencies know too well. To give money to help “develop African art and culture” as a liberal-lefty ideological gesture is a lot easier, say, than persuading European farmers to drop barriers on African agricultural produce.

The European Left wing is under siege enough without taking on the really difficult issues of the uneven global playing field. Fortunately for the liberal-lefties who seem to have fled to softer Ministries like Art and Culture or their sub-sections in Foreign Affairs, the idea of patronage is so endemic to art that art avoids the scrutiny applied to trade and economics. You don’t see William Kentridge’s work having quotas applied because it uses up too much Western art money and causes a trade deficit that might put Western artists out of work. Well, not yet you don’t; but the Europeans have a strange self-interested way of acting in crises, as we know from the 1930’s.
Central to Contemporary Art for the last 20 years have been the new breed of quasi-academic curators – intermediaries or brokers who made themselves indispensable in the proposition that the new value of art, intellectually and monetarily, is achieved through dissemination – art conducted through words - rather than direct confrontation with art itself by both the artist and the public.

Contemporary Art operates in a very similar way to speculative capitalist investment. It has value by being given value. Value is not intrinsic; it is a marketing process in which the value pundits play the most important role. The art object is more like a chip at a Casino – a token to show the buyers have become Playas-with-Value, a bourgeois thrill in itself. Curators, like croupiers, create the atmosphere of expectation, the lights focused on the game and the hushed talk that goes with importance.

The debate about whether photography has earned value enough to be included as Contemporary Art is ridiculous. Of course not. Photography as a form absorbed Contemporary Art as one of its many sub-species quite some time ago. Photography is still a complex form that needs little explanation. Like 19th Century painting, it includes everything from family snap shots, to news and magazine pictures, to tough formal and subjective ideas. Serious writers on many topics like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes have turned their attention to photography, as good writers tend to turn their attention to difficult and lifelike things. Contemporary Art attracts trade writers stirring the same pot of words.

At the Havana Biennale in 2003 Paris-based curator, Nicolas Bourriaud, declared that documentary photography – from the “other world” of course – was the “new modernism”. He seemed to be saying that the primacy of the Contemporary Art curator was so firmly established that he could redeploy African photography much as Picasso had appropriated African masks, as raw elements in a Casablanca-like arrangement in which the curator did the thinking for artists too dumbstruck or grateful to do their own.

It’s foolish to believe that because of Contemporary Art, art could transcend the expectation of resemblances, objectifications, imaginations and ideas that lay at the very core of its being, skill and history, no matter what theorists, curators or funding agencies say. Photography has continued to engage these expectations - as a more convincing lie - so a lot of contemporary artists with something to say have taken to photography to contribute to the field of its vision, just as good performance artists like Laurie Anderson eventually became rock stars.

If photography now engenders the expectation of resemblances and implied or explicit visual narratives in art, then, in the last 20 or more years, architecture has continued the material, spatial and conceptual experiment that was the leitmotiv of Modern Art. Paradoxically, in museums for Contemporary Art, architecture found a project for its own astonishing and visible development – not as the presence of absence, but more like the presence making up for absence.

By Rodney Place

From revolution to rights in South Africa?

Public Debate at JWTC

Azapo's Mosibudi Mangena has recently questioned whether the current service delivery protests are a sign of political consciousness or depoliticisation (Cape Times, 27th July, 2009). For Mangena, post-apartheid state promises of free water, electricity and housing can only lead to citizens becoming passive and dependent clients of a paternalistic state. Mangena argues that this is not a sign of freedom but rather 'a prison called delivery.' So has the heroic anti-apartheid struggle for freedom morphed into this poverty of politics?

The post-Cold War era that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union also led to profound skepticism about all grand narratives of politics, progress and development. Without these meta-narratives to believe in, many progressive scholars and activists despaired about the direction that politics was taking. For some it seemed as if the triumphalism of neoliberal capitalism had ushered in conspicuous consumerism and the downsizing of the welfare state alongside deeply entrenched forms of structural unemployment, inequality and poverty. Many critical commentators in the West also claimed that 'we' were now doomed to live in a post-political world characterized by the demise of the collective, class-based politics of trade unions and revolutionary movements.

These critics were also deeply suspicious of what they regarded as the meaningless electoral rituals of liberal democracies. Citizens, they argued, had, not surprisingly, become apathetic and cynical about politics and politicians. At the same time, scholars such as Wendy Brown (1995) argued that recourse to the courts was becoming the only remedy in situations of social injury. For Brown and others, the problem with litigation was that it contributed towards individualizing, depoliticizing and fragmenting social and economic issues. Or, as some have put it, class action had replaced class struggle.

But is it such a zero-sum game between litigation and collection action? Are citizens the passive victims of these depoliticising processes, or is there something potentially progressive and empowering about 'rights talk' and 'the Law'?

South Africa's Constitution has been widely praised for being one of the most progressive on the planet. Its promotion of sexual and gender equality, as well as its recognition of cultural, linguistic and socio-economic rights has been lauded inside as well as outside the country. Many South Africans take enormous pride in the Constitution and zealously protect it from perceived threats. Nonetheless it has become increasingly clear that Constitutionally- enshrined rights can be very hard to realise. This is especially the case for poor people, for whom “rights'' and 'the Law' seem to be particularly remote and elusive.

Over the past couple of weeks there has been a lively debate over the merits and disadvantages of communities and social movements resorting to litigation in their struggles over access to basic services. Mike Muller, the former Director General of Water Affairs and Forestry, recently argued that the resort to water rights litigation by NGOs and communities opposing prepaid water meters and automatic disconnections undermined possibilities for effective political action. This view was challenged by Jackie Dugard, the Wits University researcher and member of the legal team representing the Mazibuko community in their water rights case against the City of Johannesburg. Dugard argued that, contrary to Muller's dismissal of rights-based approaches, in contexts of unaccountable and inefficient local government structures litigation can be effective in compelling the government to provide adequate services to the poor. Litigation, in other words, may be necessary where other forms of political engagement are less likely to succeed. However, she acknowledged that recourse to the courts requires resources and institutional support. Dugard's analysis implies that under certain conditions 'lawfare' may be more strategic than popular protest and public violence, which she refers to as political 'warfare.'
During the past decade, South Africa has witnessed a proliferation of “service delivery” protests in poor communities. During this period, there has also been the emergence of new social movements that use both mass mobilisation and litigation to address problems of access to basic services. For example, civic organisations such as the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), the Anti-Evictions Campaign (AEC), AbahlalibaseMjondolo, and the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) have taken to the courts and the streets to challenge water and electricity disconnections and evictions. During the same period, the Treatment Action Campaign's (TAC) has fought struggles for AIDS treatment in the Constitutional Court as well as in the townships, universities, workplaces, and the media.

Unlike the 'Big Politics' of revolutionary socialism and labour movements, new social movements such as the TAC aspire to smaller political acts and less monumental victories. In many cases these movements simultaneously use the courts and the streets to shame, lobby, and pressure the state to respond more effectively towards improving the lives of the poor. This pragmatic rights-based politics blurs and implodes the conventional political binaries of Left and Right, socialism and neoliberalism, revolution and rights. But does it offer possibilities for progressive politics?

The extraordinary achievements of the TAC in recent years illustrate how litigation and rights-based approaches can, under certain conditions, contribute towards addressing broader questions of social justice. One has only to reflect on the successes of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) during the anti-apartheid struggle to recognize that rights-based approaches can, along with mass mobilisation, contribute to progressive political outcomes. Yet, it also cannot be denied that the groundbreaking Grootboom Constitutional Court ruling that recognized socio-economic rights to housing, ended up being a pyrrhic victory for the primary litigant, Irene Grootboom, who died last year while still living in a shack in Wallacedene, Cape Town. In other words, socio-economic rights and litigation can mean very little without a responsive and capacitated state and mobilized citizens.

Legal solutions can also have unintended consequences. For instance, in a 1995 study of the impact of agricultural labour courts that were introduced in terms of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act , Andries du Toit and I found that this progressive labour law initiative resulted in the eviction of large numbers of Western Cape farm workers. As soon as farm workers laid a complaint against a particular farmer they were summarily evicted and blacklisted by local white farmers in the area, making it extremely difficult to find work. Clearly, rights and litigation do not always produce the anticipated progressive outcomes.

Activists are often quick to learn when legal strategies work and when other methods are required. For instance, the young Nelson Mandela's training as a lawyer, and his respect for the rule of law, did not prevent him from resorting to militant trade unionism and armed struggle. He was able to combine rights based politics with philosophical and political influences ranging from Gandhi, to Nehru, to Fanon. This eclecticism has in fact been part of the ANC political culture for many decades, notwithstanding the predominance of Africanist and socialist ideological orientations within the organisation.

TAC has successfully used the courts, the media, global support networks, and grassroots mobilisation in the townships to lobby and pressure global pharmaceutical giants and the South African government to put measures in place for the provision of AIDS treatment in the public health system. In these David and Goliath battles, TAC operated simultaneously on local, national and global scales. Its tactical use of both litigation and mass mobilisation was also reminiscent of popular struggles against apartheid's influx control laws and forced removals. Whereas critics of rights-based social movements accuse these organisations of depoliticising and individualising social causes, TAC has been capable of deploying 'rights talk' and litigation alongside grassroots mobilisation with remarkable success. TAC's engagement with a devastating AIDS crisis in South Africa is very instructive. It reveals a highly contingent and improvisational politics that refuses to get bogged down in conventional oppositions and antagonisms between Left and Right, revolution and rights, state and civil society. For example, at one moment TAC partnered the South African government in a legal challenge to the global pharmaceutical industry over the question of ARV generics and intellectual property rights; the next moment TAC was in court challenging government for failing to implement ARV treatment within the public health sector. And now, TAC is back to working together with the Post-Polokwane ANC government in order to monitor and pressure the government to expand and improve ARV treatment and conditions in the broader public health system. The TAC's rights-based approach not only challenged the state and the global pharmaceutical industry in the quest for HIV treatment for poor and working class people, it also involved profound transformations of the identities of its members. In many cases TAC has managed to transform the potentially lethal stigma of AIDS into a badge of courage. Life after diagnosis with HIV seemed to have more meaning for many activists than it did before they tested. Rather than producing docile patients and biomedical subjects, the organisation created highly politicised activists who understood their role as the foot soldiers of a globally connected, working class health movement.

Ideas, practices and technologies - for instance, development, liberal democracy, rights and 'the Law' - can be put to many purposes, sometimes progressive and sometimes not. There is nothing inherent in these ideas and technologies that preordain particular outcomes. For TAC activists, this has meant that litigation in the highest courts has had to be accompanied by mass mobilisation in the streets. For housing activists, however, the Grootboom Constitutional Court victory was clearly insufficient and the Irene Grootbooms of the world continue to live and die in shacks without adequate basic services. Yet, it is equally unclear whether popular protests and public violence on their own will achieve better outcomes in terms of service delivery. Litigation and mass mobilization need to be analyzed in terms of their particular conditions of possibility; only this will reveal whether particular rights based approaches and modes of collective action lead to successful and progressive outcomes or not.

Steven Robins
Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch.