Opinionista J Brooks Spector 9 October 2013

Left hanging

The 2013 Johannesburg Art Fair has been over for nearly a fortnight. The exhibitioners’ stalls have been disassembled, the buyers have received the works they have purchased, and the remainder of the unsold works are now back with the galleries they came from. But we're still thinking about what it meant because this year’s festival will be remembered for years – for all the wrong reasons.

Going forward, the fair now gets to be labelled as simply the latest of a trio of events that speak to the chilling effect of increased censorship – or threat of censorship – confronting South Africa’s creative universe. Censorship comes most obviously in the form of the grim faced injunction, “cut that speech” or “don’t play that music,” “don’t hang that art,” or, even more bluntly, “you will not publish that book.”

But it comes in more insidiously still when the hand of the censor never has to be revealed at all, as others – the curators, impresarios, and festival directors – do his work for him. Of course the final stage of censorship is reached when the painter, writer or playwright has so internalised the censor’s desired social controls that the creatives give up even producing the kinds of works that will tantalise, challenge or torment their audiences, viewers or readers.

Years ago, philosopher Herbert Marcuse had argued that in a really  authoritarian society, the government allows a little bit of freedom in order to mask the iron fist that really is inside that velvet glove after all. But what does one call the situation when the iron fist is actually hardwired inside the minds of those who would have otherwise been serving as intellectual and artistic agents provocateur?

Unfortunately for this year’s art fair, one well-publicised, and modestly controversial work in the Commune.1 gallery’s exhibition space – Ayanda Mabulu’s “Yakhal’inkomo –Black Man’s Cry” – ended up receiving a more polite version of the treatment dealt to Brett Murray’s “The Spear” a year ago, but without the physical destruction. Murray’s work, of course, had been defaced and slapped by officialdom with an age restriction on who was allowed to even look at it, once the baying crowds had attacked it for its purported affront to the president’s dignity. Coming in between these two moments was the SA Film and Publications Board’s refusal to even classify Jahmil Qubeka’s film, Of Good Report. Without a classification, it was illegal to allow viewing by anyone, this on the spurious grounds it constituted child pornography, rather than just being the imperfect art house film that it was.

Mabulu’s painting, depicting the president with his foot on the neck of a Marikana miner while various dignitaries and big wigs look on, had been infamously withdrawn from the art fair by festival organiser Ross Douglas, even before the fair had truly begun. Despite growing expressions of disbelief in media reports, on Internet social media chatter, and among the artistic community more generally, Douglas insisted to incredulous reporters and artists that he had done this to head off any form of public controversy, and to avoid any recriminations by his sponsors – a major bank, FNB, and various economic development agencies of the provincial and national governments. Not very surprisingly, Douglas’ action provoked a response by renowned photographer David Goldblatt to take down his own widely heralded photographic display at the Goodman Gallery’s booth at the art fair – that is until Douglas eventually reinstalled Mabulu’s painting, whereupon Goldblatt allowed his work to go back up on the Goodman Gallery’s exhibition walls.

Before Mabulu’s work was restored to its wall and Goldblatt’s photographs were back up as well, the Goodman Gallery had released a statement in support of Goldblatt’s decision that said, “The Goodman Gallery is dedicated to upholding the South African constitution, and the freedom of expression that it allows. 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.”

When we met for coffee after this debacle, Ross Douglas was in a suitably chastened mood by the whole unexpected misadventure. Up until this event, the Johannesburg Art Fair had quickly become a perennial of Johannesburg arts and culture calendar. Taking up a serious chunk of the Sandton Convention Centre for three days and pulling in the country’s biggest galleries and others from abroad including dozen exhibitors, Ross’ goal has been to make this fair as big a deal in the art world as much bigger, older, and more prestigious fairs such as the one held yearly in Basel, Switzerland. Such a fair would help take Johannesburg and South Africa into the higher altitudes of the international art market, providing a real stimulus to what is now so often called “the creative economy.”

But there is something of the taste of ashes about it now as far as Douglas is concerned. Next year, stories about this annual Johannesburg Art Fair are almost certainly going to begin with a sentence that reads like, “Last year, the art fair was plagued by cries of self-censorship when a controversial painting by Ayanda Mabulu was removed by the organiser and famed photographer David Goldblatt protested this by removing his own work….”

There actually are two very different, opposing ideas about what any artistic activity should be about – and they most definitely do not meet in the middle. On the one hand is the idea artists almost inevitably stand in opposition to authority (and that they should be there); that they gain their power and potency by rearranging the world’s mental furniture; and that they point the way towards a new way of thinking or looking at things. In short, they are something like the cultural version of the canary in a coal mine. The canary’s task was to sense coal gas before the gas became too concentrated, thereby killing the miners before they know what has happened. The artist is supposed to sense things beyond the powers of normal men, calling attention to crucially important things, even before the rest of us can sense the changes in the atmosphere.

The other opposing idea – and the one it seems Douglas has been espousing – is this mysterious thing called the “creative economy”. Rather than seeing art and culture as something special beyond quotidian commerce – this view holds that they are just like any other form of productive activity. The crucial work to be done is to marshal inputs – capital, increasingly skilled producers, better organised marketing, more connections to other market structures, even creative finance – in order to build a bigger, stronger, “creative economy”-style industrial sector. Bigger equals better. And anything that hinders such a development represents a danger that must be excised. Contra wise, anything that makes things work more smoothly demands support.

South Africa, when looked at from this point of view, Douglas explains, needs help with its creative economy. It remains a net importer of the products of the creative economy, rather than net exporter – that is if you include all those assembly line paintings made in some factory in central China for hotels and conference rooms. Douglas argues that he has made it his life’s goal to turn that equation around the other way and make South Africa a powerhouse in the creative economy export winners’ circle.

Of course, from the perspective of the artist as a professional tormentor of the status quo, preventing Mabulu’s work from being seen was just one more steep step down that slippery slope towards authoritarianism – or worse. From the position of the economic planner seeking to goose that creative economy forward, anything that prevents more sales, bigger markets and more production threatens to kill that artistic golden goose that can produce jobs and turnover. From the perspective of the artist, of course, this economic position is both unprincipled and entirely opportunistic. From the perspective of the arts entrepreneur-businessman, however, the artist just a particularly difficult troublemaker, hell-bent on upsetting the good times at the buffet table, just as everyone is poised to start to eat.

Douglas swears he had originally had hoped to return Mabulu’s work to its place on the wall by the second day, to avoid creating a further controversy, once the initial media horde and the fair’s sponsors had swept through the exhibition during its gala opening night. Even now, Douglas insists he had an obligation to the other exhibitors and sponsors not to envelop them in a controversial fair that crushed sales and generated negative media coverage. As a result, his interests were simply in a collision with an artist’s interest in getting the biggest possible amount of publicity for his work – and thereby the best possible price for it. In response, of course, there is the argument that removing a painting from an exhibition was like waving that proverbial red flag in front of the bull, that it virtually guaranteed the largest possible coverage about the one work’s removal, rather than any thoughtful commentary of the artistic quality of all of the other works on exhibition. In effect, the removal and then the swirling controversy became its very own giant performance work, continually changing in response to each new twist or turn in the story.

Douglas insists it took a moment for him to realise he was now being accused of imposing an odious brand self-censorship on the proceedings and that he and his decision had become the story of the fair, especially given the level of anger against Jacob Zuma among the cultural elite. He says he only realised the depth of the anger that his action had tapped into when he removed Mabulu’s painting from the wall. (He notes, parenthetically, that this was not a unique event. He has actually had to impose forms of censorship before, once with a performance artist making an explicit, sexually related demonstration out of his body, and then, a year later, to remove a work deemed anti-Islamic.) But with the removal of Mabulu’s work, Douglas says he now understands rather better that he had moved well beyond the simple economic calculations central to his view of the creative economy and his goals for it – and into a whole other realm.

As far as lessons learned, Douglas argues he has realised this art fair is now firmly in the international realm and thus it may well need the kinds of juries, panels and adjudications for future editions, rather than the loose, informal determinations he has been used to making so far. He says he has also learned that the Johannesburg Art Fair is no longer simply his own project; it has passed into the public realm, even though it ostensibly remains a private event.

Douglas insists that – putting aside that little contretemps over Mabulu’s Marikana picture – it actually was a good fair this year. But it is also true that next year, the stories about the Johannesburg Art Fair will almost inevitably begin with references to Douglas’ ham-handed effort to avoid controversy by creating one.

And were there real lessons he’s learned from all this?  Once the controversy about a work that is on display begins, an art fair owner is caught between a very sharp rock and an equally hard place. Moreover, it is very difficult, once something has been done that takes on the label of being anti-democratic, anti-free speech; one has very little room to manoeuvre. On the other hand, if one wants to move forward into that creative economy, governments and businesses must figure out how to work with those famously prickly creative types.

Douglas adds that what Johannesburg really needs, now, is a first-class modern art museum (although what would actually go on its walls if controversy was to be assiduously avoided would itself seem to be a very real, very contentious question, all on its own).

Finally, Douglas adds that the government is still too defensive about artistic criticism (and presumably arts entrepreneurs in interpreting those tender sensibilities of government are being even more oversensitive). It needs, somehow, to become more blasé about the messages contained in those controversial works created by the country’s artists.

But artists, in surveying the results of the Johannesburg Art Fair events (as well the debacles of “The Spear” and “Of Good Report”) also have something to learn – all over again. Mabulu said, for example, after his painting had come down on Saturday, “It’s not the first time that I’ve been censored. I find it difficult to witness the same thing that was happening during the apartheid era happening today. It makes it difficult to understand in which direction we are going as South Africans, and artists, if we are going to allow the minority, two people, to decide what’s palatable for you people.” Artists may need to be even more sensitive to the possibilities others will try to tame artists’ works for them – unless the creative types can be convinced to do it to themselves – if they are to be permitted to enter the supposed promised land of the creative economy. DM

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