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The Fine Arts in South Africa: Towards straddling the great divide 0

The fine arts in South Africa are not yet representative of our not-so-new democracy. Nor have they gained their own voice in the broader art world. While South Africa has stamped its imprint on the world of opera and film, with diverse products like U-Carmen eKhayelitsha and District 9, while our theatre and culture has fed the world, the fine arts continue to stagnate in a foetid and untransformed backwater, hemmed in by stale commercial and academic influences abetted by indolent state oversight.

The fine arts inhabit a peculiar space. They revolve not around what is beautiful but what is deemed to be beautiful by a narrow coterie of cognoscenti. This is both a global and a local problem. If art is felt to lie outside the definitions and parameters of the fashion of the time it is immediately sidelined by the gatekeepers of good taste, of faux intellectual discernment.

While South Africa certainly has its luminaries like William Kentridge flying our flag around the world, true transformation and representivity have yet to impact the sector. Some change has come, but far too little. This is not for lack of trying – cri de coeur from people like Sharlene Kahn and her provocative “Doing it for Daddy” article, which exposed how white women had taken over from white men while maintaining the status quo, raised a stink until the old guard closed down that particular thread of discourse before retreating back into their laager. Others have spoken out, yet the power brokers of white privilege remain entrenched.

The old guard, drawn from narrow academic roots allied with an even more limited commercial incestuousness, have restricted the revitalisation of the sector since 1994. The public interface with fine arts is compromised by arts journalism being dominated by sycophantic voices that communicate in an obscure code that, perhaps intentionally, fails to speak to a broader audience. There is an audience out there, despite what the insiders think, capable of embracing art for arts sake and uninterested in worshipping self congratulatory, cerebral and intellectual art dressed up as culture.

The rate of change within the old institutions that have traditionally governed the sector has been glacial. Inbred cross-fertilisation and self-reference continue to exclude. Even the state remains baffled and apparently incapable of dislodging the gatekeepers.

This is all neatly evinced by the continued commercial domination of a troika of galleries: the ostensibly progressive Michael Stevenson and Linda Goodman (Givon) galleries, together with the unapologetically old-school Everard Read. These largely remain the gatekeepers of commercial success and failure. One either toes their line or remains a struggling artist. The auction world is equally narrow and untransformed.

This perpetuates a commercially and intellectually elitist, incestuous art world which feeds upon itself while remaining arcanely impenetrable to most outsiders and emerging artists.

The fate of the SA National Gallery (SANG) is symptomatic. Only recently did it discard its relict (female) apartheid era artistic demagogue in Marilyn Martin and gain a more representative director. Riason Naidoo’s inaugural curatorship at SANG, where he re-hung the fusty, colonial space of the National Gallery was the architectural equivalent of opening up the building to the Cape Doctor that howls around this edifice.

Naidoo’s “Pierneef to Gugulective; 1910 to 2010” introduced the public to a huge amount of largely unknown material borrowed from numerous private collections, galleries and museums to supplement the limited representative work held by SANG.

The reviews of this important shifting of the space of our national gallery were mixed. Progressives loved it, reactionaries hated it. All quite predictable, really. Discussions held around the opening up of this national space highlighted the defensiveness of the old guard and continued isolation of new voices.

The fine arts should reflect the psyche of the nation juxtaposed against its zeitgeist. Instead most mainstream fine art remain either contrived tropes, pretty pictures or incomprehensible abstractions. Where are the representations of us, Africa, the human race, the space we inhabit, here, now? Mainly hidden from view.

But it is not only the fault of the fine arts establishment that it has not managed to change. It is the role of the state to encourage change; this has been absent.

By Glenn Ashton – Read more on Sacsis

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