Defend Truth


The South African arts conundrum: No one cares

Andrew Miller is a poet and freelance writer. He is also a founder of Unity Design, a socially orientated arts space operating in Newtown, Johannesburg.

One of my favourite artworks is a commercially valueless piece created by an unknown miner. It underlines the total indifference to the plight of our country’s most vulnerable. But the trouble, as the painting itself articulates, is that the art market hasn’t yet learnt to reward critical thinking. In short, we haven’t learnt to care.

Over a decade ago, my wife and I attended an exhibition launch of art created by mine workers and others (children, family etc.) living in mining communities. The event was packed. Suited waiters buzzed around. Mini burgers, kebabs and other finger snacks circulated. The Minister of What What gave a speech about important things. 

There was a certain picture we couldn’t resist, and so at the end of evening we pinned down the event chick and bought it. Which sounds easy, but which was actually suprisingly complicated. Despite the throngs and the BMWs and the fine wines, sales were not a big part of the evening’s agenda. Our purchase, when it was eventually concluded, was about number 12 on the list – and was also quite clearly the last of the night. 

The piece still hangs in our house, and, conceptually, has outshone most of the art we have (and we have a lot). It shows a solo miner sitting, waiting. The line No One Cares is writ in yellow above the figure. 

Initially, we loved the painting for its powerful expression of life at the bottom of a flexible labour market. We loved it even more having finally pushed the reluctant organiser through the till (the piece cost all of R150, hence the reluctance). Although the entire exhibition was developed around the idea of giving mine workers a voice, no one at the show really cared enough about that voice to facilitate a sale. We even had to tear the price tag off the front of the work, damaging it for all time. Truly, no one cared. The irony was rich. 

Now, post-Marikana, the piece says even more. Its line of text has gained portenuous power. 

And yet, in market terms, this piece of art is completely valueless.

We talk all the time about the art market and the market value of art, as if art has value in the way a house does. It doesn’t. Art has the value everyone says it has. If enough people say an artist is worth something, you slap the price tag on and wait for someone with a cheque book to agree. The pyramid scheme is revealed when the buyer takes their thirty grand piece to an art gallery and is offered five hundred bucks – for the frame. But there’s an escape hatch at the top of the pyramid: once an artist is listed in the auction catalouges at a certain value, they become genuinely tradable, and their work is bought and sold like oil, coffee or weather futures. 

Getting into the auction catalouges is a life long endeavour, and the vast majority of artists fail at it (several achieve it after their penniless death, of course). There is much fun to be had in the attempt, however, and legion are the artists who have made a very good living in the process. 

Life and creativity at this intersection of art and commerce can, nonetheless, be extremely uncomfortable, conceptually and aesthetically. As the recently deceased art critic Robert Hughes put it, “What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture.” For who, really, is to say that an Irma Stern still life (most of which look like work from the winner of the Grade 10 art prize at Blikkiesdorp High), priced in the tens of millions, has more artistic merit than a No One Cares painting, created by a nameless miner? Does a bowl of fruit truly have millions and millions of times more value (commercially, creatively, aesthetically) than the piece we bought? I would say most definitely not. But then, I’m not the guy deciding what value goes on the price tags at the auction house.

Of course, the whole argument unravels fast. Irma Stern didn’t only create awful still lives, and our miner probably couldn’t keep on creating singular bits of political magic on demand. Which is exactly why, the auctioneer will tell you, you’ll need a bank load to pay for Irma, or Kentridge (you’ll need an especially big loan to pay for the scraps of personal and political reflection the big names casually knock off in their late years – we value the late life reflections of famous artists above all else). 

In the art business, logic is defied at almost every step. When working with younger artists, who have all the skill in the world, and who dream – as we all do – of that rise to prominence, one of the biggest challenges is narrative. Young artists have to work hard to tap into their own life experiences and to start to tell highly personal stories, in the way the No One Cares artist did. It’s not something that always comes naturally. If an emerging artist discovers the continuum between their personal experience, the universal experience and the art viewer, their career can jump forward pretty quickly. But many never discover it all, preferring, for whatever reason, to continue creating generic community snapshot imagery that the tourists (from Sandton and Sweden) go for. Townships scenes, rural landscapes, football…

Art is one of the areas where it is obvious just how young our democracy is. Indeed, our inability to look beyond the ANC at the polls is often reflected in the work of our emerging artists. We are not ready, or we do not yet know how, to critique. How to raise important questions. Last year it was particularly interesting to note that none of the young artists in Newtown, to my knowledge anyway, chose to try to capture what happened only metres up the road at Luthuli House, when the Juju mob tore the place up. It’s as if the subject was simply outside their realm of operation. 

My hope is that our new generation of artists will slowly start to get more personal. Will begin to tell more heartfelt, direct South African stories about their immediate lives and experiences and politics. 

I don’t believe our creative youth are genuinely that distant from politics. I don’t believe none of them care. But it does seem that there is a commercial and political naivety at play which has our young creatives caught motionless in the sociopolitical headlights. As such, when the aliens dig up our creative rubble, the chances are strong that they’ll frame and keep a R150 piece from a nameless miner, while ignoring a great deal of the rest. DM


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