Friday, May 25, 2012

Rodney Place on Brett Murray show

City press image - 24 May 2012

I had wanted to write about Brett Murray’s show, Hail to the Thief II, wondering what happened to Pop Art in South Africa. But the security cordon around the Goodman Gallery, protecting “free speech” against the ANC Government and general black South African outrage, has obscured, or more like dramatically contextualised the art.  Pop Politics and Pop Art seem to be readily available in the Star (R6.20), The Independent (R15.50), City Press (R13.00) and The Mail and Guardian (R24.50 in SA, US$2 in Zimbabwe and US$7.50 in Angola) to name just four.  Andy Warhol might be impressed.
Nevertheless freedom is still a complex word in SA, isn’t it?  Our Constitution might have come down from a liberal Northern mountain thanks largely to the international experience of our political exiles, thoughtful prisoners, and organised popular forces on the ground who worked at creating reliable civil alternatives during apartheid. Our Constitution seems to be written in stone but, like other durable art materials, stone is not necessarily symbolically convincing in a place where it was also thrown at tanks. The USA lost nearly a million people during their Civil War, arguing about their symbolic stone. Perhaps finding out what freedom actually means in our drastically uneven social context is more important right now than the International post-Modern Contemporary Art Market, reliably predicted to crash within two years like the speculative global banking system on which it is based?
We don’t have a democracy yet; we’re trying to make one. We’re pre-modern, not post-Modern; so freedom is a relative word that has yet to take a definite shape in the collective South African mind.
As an “aspiring artist” I was urged to read Delacroix’s Journals.  He was a rare beast – a good artist and a good (honest) writer working during the tumultuous period following the French Revolution.  As the illegitimate son of Talleyrand, an aristocrat who managed to keep both his head and an important job in successive post-Revolutionary tyrannies and governments in France, Delacroix was protected and could get on with his work.
Delacroix often used the word “taste” in describing his attitude to making art.  Taste was a difficult word to come to grips with in the 1970’s.  The Bauhaus Modernist project in the 1920’s - a utopian cohesion of art, furniture and architecture - had finally been packaged as “Middle Class Lifestyle” in interior decor shops like Habitat, and Warhol had produced Trash, a heroin-kitchen-sink-and-lavatory film that got up the noses of New Yorkers eager to act “European” and avoid the tasteless Americans on the other side of the Hudson. The word taste, good or bad, was then as now concentrated more on the public receipt of art than on the making of it.  
To Delacroix taste was more intimately and thoughtfully tied to the relationship between the artist and his subject matter. His was a novelist’s approach that called for empathy with, or displacement into a character or situation rather than a Judgment, whether formal or moral.  Likewise, Flaubert later abandoned the satirical novel in which he ridiculed faux bourgeois Madame Bovary, and decided instead, as author, to marry her for better or, in this case, for much worse, right up to her agonising, self-inflicted death. This must have been hard for him to write as a natural satirist.
In Liberty leading the People, often called the first political painting in history, Delacroix demonstrated his attitude.  Although Liberty is heroic, she doesn’t look it; she’s a somewhat burly working class woman, a bit shabbily dressed with her tits exposed, holding the Tricolor. The painting is an untidy composition about an untidy time with an untidy group of Parisian participants on a regular street. It must have filled rival artist David and his neo-classical model agency and decorating company with revulsion. Interestingly Delacroix appears in the painting although this has been disputed by art historians more recently. It doesn’t really matter who the look-alike model was; the “artist” is an over-serious and over-dressed guy holding a gun he looks as if he doesn’t know how to use. It’s a problem with artists; we want revolutions but we usually prefer being left alone to make art.  
The French Government of the time under “citizen king” Louis-Philippe rejected the picture because it concentrated more on the freedom of the individuals than reconstructing an exemplary occasion that the “citizen king” could take credit for. Politicians in power can’t stand ambiguity; they need straight-forward symbols. But Delacroix’s decentralisations of freedom were vindicated and inspired further works by others. Victor Hugo borrowed the boy as a character in Les Miserables; they covered Liberty’s tits with a nicer dress and stuck her in New York harbour, holding up a torch; and cartoonist, Zapiro, recently bought her used clothes, probably in a shop on Louis Botha Avenue, and forced a black woman to wear them in one of his cartoons about the black man, an African President, as the assumed rapist.  
Delacroix’s characters were not ready-mades or stereotypes. He gave credible life to them and they went on to have other credible lives. Such is the power of the “ordinary” in art to define politics without depicting politicians.
During difficult and often bloody times in the making of the modern republic called France, both Delacroix and Flaubert seemed to be looking, as artists, for an alternative to Judgement and its expression often as satire. They seemed to favour a more modest repositioning that made them vulnerable to the fray, no matter how difficult it was to read France’s passage into the future at that time.
Judgement is a particularly difficult thing in South Africa, as we know. Ordinary life was criminalised during apartheid, and judgements even haunted sexuality and intimacy. The bedroom was state controlled. Not even Stalin attempted that. Apartheid made explicit implicit Western attitudes about racial superiority and went on to cast them in catatonic legislation until the mental disease of racism had spread to every body, every object and every place. South Africa was a racist asylum. To think this mental disease has been cured because of the willing and generous suspension of disbelief by people like Nelson Mandela in 1994 is a delusion that white South Africans cannot afford.    
Murray’s show comes on the heels of what seems like a resurgence of old-time judgements coming out of Cape Town. Sure these can be attributed to the rivalry of political parties with the opposition Democratic Alliance holding onto the Western Cape, trying desperately to make it exemplary; this is just the usual pretension of politicians who, unlike artists, cannot afford to express doubt. But since these judgements are also coming from a hegemony of art managers, critics and ex-museum directors there as well, they speak of a more serious failure of nerve and imagination. These judgements seem to be based on the idea that the past was somehow better and more stable and that art practices should continue as if ’94 never happened. In Midnight’s Children, Salmon Rushdie writes of a similar situation in India seven years after independence, when the certainties of colonialism suddenly seemed more reliable than the difficulties of the future.
My sense, though, is that these judgements could be deeply engrained in Cape Town’s mental geography.
Approaching Cape Town from the North it looks very like a beautiful island where African boat people – what DA opposition leader, Helen Zille, calls “refugees” - got stranded on the sandy flats when the tide went out. Like Gibraltar and Hong Kong it was protected by the British fleet and gained reassurance that the tyrannies of Franco, Mao and Vorster would never muddle in the affairs of a world painted pink that was somehow “free”; you could even smoke weed and buy Led Zeppelin records there in the late 60’s.
The British have no taste for politics or manual work; their world is made of enduring power and privilege and like the DA they relate better to (fellow) judges than the messy negotiations of parliament and electing temporary presidents. They keep state secrets for centuries. As the current Duke of Westminster once said in a BBC interview in the 1980’s, His Family regarded democracy as just a passing phase. British Prime Minister Cameron was visibly bemused last year when he failed to convince a single European country that the privileged bankers in the City of London should be immune from tedious EU regulation that got in the way of excessive wealth.
In the enduring British sense of the world, power and aesthetics are closely allied. The Royal Navy nestled under some of the most gorgeous, photographable rocks in the world, in Africa, China and Europe. Every day the photographable British army marches down the streets of central London. In any other country this would be treated as an alarming sign of militarism designed to intimidate citizens, which of course it is. But if you give the soldiers cute hats and snappy red uniforms their real business in Iraq, or Argentina, or Zululand will be over-looked. This sense of self-assuredness still manifests in British magazines like The Economist which feel completely free to judge the world and tell mere Presidents like Barrack Obama what to do.   
The role of the artist in Britain, as Evelyn Waugh pointed out in Brideshead Revisited, is to charm not to change. Damien Hirst is the most recent example of the British artist as a desirable dinner guest of wealthy London bankers, skilfully adopting their techniques. Oscar Wilde, an Irishman, paid dearly for his naiveté in thinking that his ready wit at Aristocratic dining tables in London would allow him to reveal the homosexual truths about his fellow diners. He was given a lengthy spell in Reading Jail in order to grow up; he died while doing so. If a British artist delved into what lay beneath Queen Elizabeth’s knickers and dared to reveal her pussy, to show she had one like any other woman, he or she would also spend a lengthy time in Wormwood Scrubs Prison in order to grow up. Children, like Africans according to ex-President Sarkozy who always seemed more British than French, have to learn manners as the order of things before they are allowed to sit at the dining table called History.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all you know on earth and all you need to know, the English poet Keats wrote in the United Kingdom around the time of Delacroix. Delacroix, dealing with the grotty business of making art in mere Republics where everything is always up for grabs, might have written less surely, truth might be beautiful, but hang on a minute and let’s see......  
What makes Cape Town different from Gibraltar or Hong Kong - especially after claims of island freedom against mainland tyranny have become less convincing as they are increasingly left in a past gone by - is that Cape Town is still the site of the parliament of the South African mainland. Even during apartheid times, the Boers had to trek back to the Cape Town they had left in a huff, to enact their ghastly “democratic” laws under the unnerving eye of the Royal Navy. The charm (and value) of Cape Town’s aesthetic beauty has been further assured by Kaiser Wilhelm’s people who found they could get a place in the sun using cheque books instead of guns. In any kind of equitable land redistribution, gorgeous Clifton Beach alone would bankrupt the mainland Treasury. As a result, it’s difficult for Cape Town to treat mainlanders as serious players in “History”; it’s as if Africans are only allowed temporary visas as super-models or Ministers, to be in glossy magazines or in the reliable Old Parliament.
Perhaps it’s because of the collusion between Art Queens and Pompous Diplomats in Cape Town that Hail to the Thief II meant little on the island but hit a nerve as it ventured North into the rough and tumble mainland where everything is up for grabs? In satirising ANC Politicians acquiring the Trappings of Power - in order to be taken seriously when they entered the Old Parliament? – so the Artist satirises Pop Art with sumptuous materials, converting the Model T Ford made for everyone into a Rolls Royce made for a few – in order to be taken seriously by the Art Queens? It’s become a confrontation between the corruptions of “popular” in art as well as politics. 
In the furious defensiveness that Murray’s show has caused on the South African mainland, Hail to the Thief II has revealed the paucity of the idea of post- in both art and politics, whether post-modern, post-colonial, post-apartheid or post-communist. All post-s rely on the merely symbolic to make their case. It’s a game of cards that simply goes round and round in which nothing new is added in the Casino of Inheritance. In the post-World the rich simply stay rich and the poor simply stay poor.
Isn’t it time for South Africa to acknowledge its realities and join the pre-s in the rest of the world that have nothing to inherit, but a lot to make?  
Rodney Place
 Johannesburg, May 2012