Opinionista Sonya Schoeman 4 October 2013

The delicate balance of being ‘flawsome’ – a reply to Anthony Posner

A few years ago I took a friend out for dinner. There was an ulterior motive. He’s an international chef and I wanted him to help me crit the restaurant for the magazine I was editing at the time. Privately, he agreed to give me his opinion on the food, but publicly he flat-out refused.

Why? I asked, surprised. Because, he said, as a chef and restaurateur, he knew that that restaurant was somebody’s life’s work, and no matter how good or bad it was, that person had probably put their life savings into it and was giving their absolute all to build it up. He respected that, and wouldn’t be part of anything that might contribute to its destruction. His own failure had taught him to be humble and careful with other entrepreneurial enterprises.

A lot more recently, I sat across from Ross Douglas at a dinner party. I was very interested in the Jo’burg Art Fair – now called the FNB Art Fair – and the process he’d experienced in building the business.

I’m now an entrepreneur myself and have been rowing my own boat – or in my case, ineptly scrabbling about with the oars, experiencing equal amounts of euphoria and debilitating terror – for 10 months. I was relieved to hear from Douglas that this is simply the reality of building a business. The commonly understood timeline that it takes three years for a business to find direction, hone its purpose and break even is true, he said.

The art fair had been seven years in the making, and it was only now that he was really beginning to experience the breathing space – and enormous satisfaction – that having a good, solid business gives one.

Cut to last week: Douglas’ decision to take down Ayanda Mabulu’s Yakhal’inkomo – Black Man’s Cry was not only a poor decision for freedom of speech, but a very short-sighted one for the fair itself, now in danger of being seen as nothing more than a corporate vehicle forever more.

When I first read about this, I was amazed at the decision. Douglas, in my experience that night, was quite vociferous in his opinions. I hadn’t thought him conservative. In news reports he doggedly maintained the decision was his. He had done it “to balance different interests”, he said. He had a responsibility to the creative economy and the painting could compromise that.

Over the next few days I read scathing reports that painted him as a corporate lackey with a plasticine backbone. The press took the moral high ground – which, as a watchdog for society, it should, but perhaps without some of the balance that I think would engender a far more interesting debate around the matter.

And for this reason, I’d like to put up a hand for Artlogic: I think Douglas’ actions are indicative of something that is pervasive in South Africa – the self-censoring environment exists because of corporate and government bullies, and much of our media is informed by this each and every day.

I’ve been in magazines for over a decade. For the last five years, I edited two consumer titles. By their very nature, these magazines are limited by the parameters put in place by their brands. For the rest, the magazines ran on consumer principles.

We aimed to expose places, people and events that would interest the general public and give our honest opinion. Even in this already controlled environment, I experienced first-hand how other businesses demanded coverage, or a certain type of coverage.

Other editors complained about the same thing. (Interestingly, celebrities often had the same attitude.) Many regularly demanded to see articles before they went to print – which we refused on principle. But to them, the press was merely an extension of their publicity machine.

Unfortunately, the view was justified because their response to our refusal was: other magazines allow it. Many magazines do hold the line, but many don’t stand up to this for fear of the repercussions, which range from advertising being pulled to the destruction of broader relationships. The result is a skewed perception that public expression, of any kind, should only be complimentary (need I mention the word ‘sunshine’?). If it isn’t, the message is not so subtly made, you will pay.

To me, Artlogic operated in the same way that many magazines in this country operate every day. In both cases, the businesses are driven by bottom lines. Artlogic made a decision that was good for its bottom line, but bad for the bigger picture – art and censorship do not go together. It should have seen that.

But I think there are two points worth making here: firstly, to build a business is painstaking. It’s not simply the process of making money, but the hundreds of conversations, tests and incarnations a business goes through before the perfect formula is found, the one that balances effort with expenses and satisfaction.

It’s an exhilarating process, but also fundamentally testing and sometimes damned painful, and a successful company is a life’s work. To have built an enterprise to the point where it’s about to grow into a healthy, independent company, I can understand how deeply protective one must be of that – to the point that one might make a mis-step and err on the side of caution.

Secondly, I have no doubt that if both the government and SA corporates had already assimilated 2012’s business trend of the year, to be ‘flawsome’ – definition: showing flaws and opening them up for debate is what makes a brand awesome (something Obama did very well on his election website mybo.com) – this would not have even needed to be a consideration for Artlogic.

There is a reason the Goodman Gallery made this statement: “As a result of The Spear saga, we have learnt many lessons, and are aware that this incident has engendered a culture of self-censorship, which has become increasingly ubiquitous in the South African art world. It is mournful that the FNB Art Fair is influenced by this undercurrent of fear for economic reasons or otherwise.” The self-censoring environment germinated in the Apartheid era and hasn’t shifted much. As South Africans, we’re used to it. Events like this will start to shift it.

What the brouhaha has overshadowed is the bigger picture that Douglas made mention of – what the art fair is trying to achieve: helping to grow entrepreneurial businesses across Africa. Running prior to the fair was the Angel Fair, an initiative between the art fair and entrepreneurs Jamie Clyde and Eric Osiakwan. It links entrepreneurs and investors from across the continent.

This could have far-reaching positive repercussions for a continent in need of job creation. It’s easy to pillory Douglas in the press, but it must be said the man is part of creating something really inspirational, something Africa needs.

As someone who has experienced a ‘custom’ environment, I can only imagine that where investors are involved, freedom of speech will be difficult to balance. Of course, one should fight for it anyway, but it would be naive to pretend that this isn’t a very difficult thing and that most businesses – from media to entrepreneurs seeking investment – make awkward compromises every day. I know much of our media bows to advertising pressure every day.

As a final word, I’d like to tell the story of Amanda Palmer. The musician and performance artist was part of a massive crowd-funding effort that garnered her group a great deal of money.

They planned a grand tour, but when they asked musicians to join them on stage – for free – it elicited a tsunami of strident criticism. Why wasn’t she paying now she had all this cash? Palmer listened, heard, reconsidered, admitted her flaw, and paid up.

Everyone admitted artists deserve to be paid, and moved on. The Art Fair offers the same opportunity: we can scorn Artlogic or we can understand that the existing environment was fundamental to his decisions and realise it’s time to start pushing back in any way we can. Through incidents like these, governments and corporates will soon see that the damage caused by curtailing freedom of speech is far worse than looking, listening and learning from it.

As for Artlogic, it’s owners Douglas and Labuschagne admitted their fault. For my part, I hope theirs is not a ‘Shakespearian demise’ as suggested by Anthony Posner, but that it and its Angel Fair is around in 2014, when my business concept – and that of a host of other entrepreneurs – is strong enough to take advantage of what they offer. It would be a disservice to us all to allow it to wither. I hope they take – and we the SA public are compassionate enough to allow them to take – the option of being ‘flawsome’. DM


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