Defend Truth


Finding the artist’s way in a contemporary Facebookpolitan selfie space

Rodney Place is a South African inter-media artist and director. He studied at the Architectural Association School in London in the 70s, before moving to the USA. He returned to South Africa in 1996. Hes lived and worked in over 20 countries, presenting his work to a variety of theatre, art and film audiences. His interests often lie in urban inductions through performance, installation and architecture. unSUNg CITY (2000) was an urban opera set in a disused car park in central Johannesburg. Most recently in Through the glass, darkly, he explored with students the narrative potentials of Facebook and Shop Fronts in Vienna and Brussels.

Contemporary art is a sophisticated Western space that combines bubble economics with synthetic multiculturalism. It’s another miracle rainbow with a pot of gold at the end of it, for some. The FNB Joburg Art Fair reflects this.


Well… the Art Mob’s out tonight

Yeah… the Art Mob’s out tonight

Ahhh… you better look good

Yeah… you better act right


The Art Mob’s out tonight (repeat)


Terry Allen Collector (and the Art Mob) (1979)

My sister and I dressed up smart when we came to Joburg from Benoni in the late ‘50s. Only native metropolitans dressed down. When we moved to Joburg I shelved my Elvis dark shirts and light ties and donned Mick Jagger Bretagne fisherman stripes. But I soon discovered Motown-Sophiatown in Joburg; so I was glad I hadn’t chucked out my Elvis gear. It turned out Benoni was so behind it was ahead.

There are many versions of metropolitan, depending on where you are on the planet or, in Joburg, where you are in the city. There are also many versions of seeing and being seen, and the swag that goes with them. It all boils down to metro ownership, that trending word.

Mark Zuckerberg was feeling unWASPopolitan at Harvard when the woman of his desire gave him the cold shoulder or no shoulder at all. He took revenge in his love you, hate you, try me portal called Facebook, now with 2-billion inhabitants.

Artists are exemplary opportunists ever since we first started messing around drawing in caves instead of doing something useful like chasing buck. Gazing is our trade, hoping people will gaze back and put money where their gaze is.

So it’s not surprising that Facebookpolitan has become the oeuvre of contemporary art. It’s an artist-as-selfie space. The artist is now a self-brand. On the highway off-ramps in the rich northern suburbs shop-less traders and their Chinese goodies make up a Christmas tree-like assemblage. If they can’t sell their goodies through car window portals, they sell their stories. Double marketing is a necessity in our seismic gap economy.

Since contemporary art has appropriated the Facebookpolitan selfie space, it’s interesting to see who can dress down and who needs to dress up in this contemporary space.

English Tracy Emin dresses down in a teen-sluttish kind of way and shows her unmade bed as an object of assumed public fascination. African and Other artists dress up in stylish clothing, not that confident about public fascination unless they don the enemy’s attire. So I think we can conclude that contemporary art is a western metro-space that Other artists can play dress-up in, but not own?

In his novel Pornografia, Witold Gombrowicz writes that when we have youth we don’t deserve it, and when we deserve it we don’t have it. This is hardly a Sartre-scale conundrum. It’s more an open invitation about where – between experience and knowledge – we can choose to draw lines that keep changing, as societies tend to. This is reassuring in a country where over half the population is under 35.

South African youth took ownership of the political space in seven short months in 2014. They left the ruling party; formed a political party; contested a national election; won 10% of the metropolitan vote and 6% of the national vote; and took their seats in Parliament where they’ve been the President’s daymare ever since. Now they help govern big metros. Oh yes, they also made a fashion statement that caused havoc with the older MP generation. One generation’s music is another generation’s noise, as Dave Hickey once remarked.

It would be worthwhile to invite EFF spokesperson Dr Mbuyiseni Ndlozi to the 10th Edition of the FNB Joburg Art Fair. He can offer some pointers to young artists on how to own artistic space, instead of paying heed to liberal translations and bogus careers.

Contemporary art is a sophisticated western space that combines bubble economics with synthetic multiculturalism. It’s another miracle rainbow with a pot of gold at the end of it, for some.

The FNB Joburg Art Fair reflects this. The ground plan is commercial; galleries pay the rent. The sound system is post-modern. It’s the ingenious collusion that Harold Rosenberg predicted in 1959; that the advertising industry and academia would combine to not only alienate the artist from his or her own work, but also the viewer. We now need a vast array of clever intermediaries to tell us what we should be making, and what we should be looking at, thinking about and valuing in the Freeloader’s Guide to the Art Universe.

The western contemporary art space warrants deconstructing, interrogating, unbundling, unpacking, disentangling, disemboweling, or in plain English, taking a closer look before our world class, now continental Sandton art hub drowns in it.

You can’t teach South Africa about Bubbles or Laundromats.

By controlling marketing and the supply chain globally, De Beers invented the Bubble called diamonds are forever that turned a hard stone that everyone could have for not that much, into a gem that few could have for a lot. They even paid Marylin Monroe to sing their Girl’s Best Friend campaign song. That’s world class before it was Two Words.

As far as laundromats go, apartheid’s stringent exchange controls made ambiguous art an attractive way of getting money out of the country. South Africa was like Little Big Man; it had an art market disproportionate to the size of its economy. Although the ANC forgivingly opened the floodgates for capital flight in 1994, art is still a pretty good hedge against the falling rand in a country that doesn’t make much else.

By the mid-80s, Bubbles and Laundromats abounded. Money itself made more money by not being tied to things or to manufacturing things. Casinos were trending. Junk Bond King Michael Milken ripped the guts out of US manufacturing by convincing shareholders there was hidden value in US companies that could be unleashed by offloading assets and getting rid of expensive things like skilled labour and middle management.

Art was a serious part of the Bubble and Laundromat miracle. Central American drug money flooded into Miami in the ‘80s and needed to be legitimised. Art was perfect and prices soared. Art has no intrinsic value; it’s given value by viewer affection or professional connoisseurship. The flow was so significant that the prototype Laundromat, Switzerland, opened a branch of Art Basel in Miami.

The effect of this was to destabilise the intricate structure of commercial galleries in New York that used their blue chip artist earnings to re-invest in new artists and, in corp-speak, new art product. Pace Gallery head-hunted other galleries’ blue chip artists with offers of higher percentages, guaranteed sales and aggressive marketing. Auction houses meanwhile entered living artist space; they’d traditionally dealt with dead artists. The word on the art street was whether an artist was bankable. The financial structure of the selfie was put in place.

Instead of playing mere value brokers, ad-men Saatchi and Saatchi – they’d marketed Margaret Thatcher into power – entered the art space in the UK. They made and broke artists, cashing in on the artist bubbles they created. One of their bubbles, Damien Hirst, decided to play the Saatchi Art Casino, using his own art at auctions. He did well until he got sentimental about making art again, as artists tend to. 

As a result of all this, fewer so-called contemporary artists are now making a professional living than during what’s called modern art. Curators and meaning brokers are raking it in.

Africa also plays in this space. Angola not only owns half of Portugal but has the largest Contemporary African Art collection in the world, which it bought back from Germany and adds to.

The post-modern world is designed for the rich to get richer, and the poor to get poorer, hoping to get rich by buying Lottery tickets. The next smart move in art, like the big English Premier League clubs, is to engage with what west of the Iron Curtain are called Tycoons and east, Oligarchs. They’re one notch below Gates-types, now known as a philanthropists, a term that hasn’t been used much since the 19th Century.     

In its critical nostalgia and end of history convolutions, post-modernism has operatically reinstated 19th Century regal hierarchy as corporate hierarchy, a sovereign state in itself. The lumpen proletariat has become the lumpen electorate.

The sound system at FNB Joburg Art Fair amplifies a European aria, apparently different from the Heavy Metal commercial ground plan. Like philanthropists, the soprano’s voice is pure; who cares where her money came from?

We hear a lot about the Scandinavian model, but there’s been a resounding silence from the Swedes after ’94. They not only recognised the ANC as the legitimate South African government in the ‘60s, but also pioneered what Robert Hughes in the 80s dubbed political correctness, distinct from moral correctness.

Sweden’s massively profitable sale of SAAB fighter aircraft to South Africa after 1994 at the expense of our own fiscal necessities, revealed the Scandinavian model’s workings. Western liberal education is the smokescreen for continuing intellectual, political and economic hegemony that Roland Huntford described in his 1971 book on Sweden, The New Totalitarians. Huntford tracks the pacification of the Swedish people by the state through the patronising instrument of education after World War ll. In the 1960s, Swedish TV was wrested away from entertainment and put into their Ministry of Education. Art is now incarcerated in Sweden’s newly named Ministry of Culture and Democracy.

Sweden is the benchmark that other European countries, including exit-UK, follow in their cultural diplomacy, quite separate from professional arts in their own countries. Ageing Europe, like Dracula, resists mortality by sucking the blood of young Africans.

Somerset Maugham confessed that if, as a writer, he was asked to choose between entertaining and educating his readers, he would always choose to entertain them.

In European political-cultural condescension, it’s somehow forgotten that the African diaspora produced most of the popular music the world listened to in the 20th Century and still does.

In South Africa we live in a state of art schizophrenia in line with our fractured society and economy. The free market takes care of the minority best and the government takes care of the majority rest, and never the twain shall meet.

Although the percentages are falling, the best are financed in Western Europe by 80% government art production, presentation and export subsidies. We can forget 80% art subsidies in our wildest fiscal dreams; the majority of South Africans are without proper dwellings and basic services.

European cultural agencies help with what they decide are our best, but the numbers are very different. R60,000 is tops for European subsidy of art or theatre production in SA. In Netherlands 60,000 euros is the usual state subsidy for producing a theatre work.

It’s time to turn down the distracting po-mo (post-modern) piped music, get real, and concentrate instead on our commercial galleries and the role they play in art production. Admittedly this is optimistic in a country that’s marketing and life-style obsessed.

South Africa sadly perpetuates that after World War ll communism and capitalism were just brand names for systems that sustained elites on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Salman Rushdie pointed out that revolutions have seven years to get with it, or lose their courage.

Manufacturing should be a country’s core business, if it wants to own its own resources, both human and mineral. In successful economies at least 30% of GDP lies in the manufacturing sector, and 80% of manufacturing usually focuses on local demand. In South Africa manufacturing is now at 12% and falling ever since the 1960s when apartheid job discrimination forced companies to import sub-standard skilled labour at top dollar rates.

As for local demand, after ’94 SA linked the wealthy suburbs of Gauteng to ORT International with Gautrain, instead of speed-linking apartheid township dormitories like Soweto with the existing industrial and commercial spine of Johannesburg-to-Tshwane. In South Africa, there’s still Caucasian time and African time.

Although entrepreneurship is now the buzzword in SA, it has a bleak record, faced with Corporate and National Socialist monopolies, particularly since World War ll. Entrepreneurship and manufacturing tangible and intangible products are like a sliver of cheese or scrape of fish paste between two over-thick slices of white bread. Changing the colour of the bread isn’t guaranteed to spur entrepreneurship and start-ups, as the ANC recently admitted, leaving white off their monopoly capital hit list.

Artists anyway know this; we only have work, not jobs. There’s no other option than be self-employed entrepreneurs.

During World War l, the Germans and Russians underwent regime change. Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Alexander were overthrown to give birth to new democratic and equitable countries.

In art practice in both countries, the academy was overthrown to give rise to the Bauhaus in Germany and the Constructivist – descent into the street – movement in the Soviet Union. Artists responded immediately to their societies’ needs and expectations, rather than the exclusive space of the Academy that had distinguished High Art from mere design and craft. The Academy had created the 19th Century Bourgeois Salon, a space post-modernism has reinstated.

In the modernisation of these revolutionary societies – socially, politically and economically – all art was worthwhile and flew as high as a kite. Artists were part of their societies, not patronised misfits. This didn’t affect that art could be both expressive and practical; it just leveled the creative playing field and indeed the market place. The US followed suit during the Great Depression with their automobile-meets-agrarian Parkways and the Rockefeller Centre in New York that included communist Diego Rivera’s mural, as well as other crafts on every square inch. The Rockefeller Centre was designed to keep artists working.

After independence in the 1960s Tanzania recognised the need for a similar revolutionary educational space of interdisciplinary knowledge and the public intellectual that rejected the Western Academy.

The Department of Trade and Industry took a booth at the Joburg Art Fair a few years back. Did the government recognise that art was a successful skill-intensive manufacturing sector in South Africa that warranted government investment? Or was art a successful export that should be funded on more international trade platforms?

The DTI decided instead to compete in the symbolic space of contemporary art that the Europeans and SA liberals own as Black-ish – Series 1-10.

Culture is dynamic, influenced and changing, not an endangered species in a zoo, particularly in Africa that survived colonialism through the power of its cultures.

Harold Rosenberg wrote that good art makes its audience; it doesn’t already have one. Like the Motown houses that became the Supremes and the Jacksons, and the Seattle garage bands that became Nirvana, audiences and markets begin locally. Nigeria knows this well; it’s created the most productive film industry on the planet.

New York galleries have traditionally developed their businesses along Rosenberg lines. Art is a long-term mind, sweat equity, and venture capital enterprise.  There were 7,000 collectors of European Modernist-oriented Abstract Expressionist works in New York in the late ‘50s. Within two years of fashion-designer-turned-artist Andy Warhol coming onto the New York art scene in the early ‘60s, there were 40, 000 collectors. Domestic markets respond to domestic subject matter that may then synch with similar international experience. World class is earned; it’s not an ad-line.

Like the broader United States that relates to generational rather than familial social structures, New York art came in generational waves of artists, galleries, writers/ critics, viewers and buyers. This precluded over-capitalizing gallery spaces upfront, a habit in South Africa. Art and artists were the long-term investment focus that built galleries, audiences and commerce.

Metropolitans like to discover new things otherwise they might as well have stayed in Indianapolis, printing record covers for His Master’s Voice. The viewer is a creative part of art in Metropolitan cities. The furniture-shop-like-galleries on Manhattan’s Upper Eastside aren’t taken seriously; they’re about charm, not art. Their customers order the same Brooks Brothers shirts they’ve worn for 30 years.

With generations, the New York commercial art space shifted from grungy areas like the garment district of 57th Street, to the warehouse district of SoHo, to the meatpacking district on the Lower West Side. New Yorkers with some disposable income expect to walk on the wild side to find new art. Artists, artisans, hookers, veg and meat markets are crucial in the mix of Manhattan that’s now run out. The metropolitan audience first goes to artists, not the other way around.

In the long-term venture capital economy of art and its sanctification by critics and museums, artists are also the missionaries that colonize cheap urban space for the subsequent development of high-earning space. Artists attract property developer stalkers.

The artsy parasite eventually kills its host. We saw this first in Newtown and now in Johannesburg’s fast-track Maboneng development. Spaza shops, shebeens, niche crafts-people, hookers and artists can’t compete financially with the lifestyle mall experience.

Because Johannesburg has a historically exaggerated art market, it also has a legacy and neglected legacy of commercial and quasi-public art space since the 60s.

Three generations of Everard Reads – like the Upper East Side Guggenheims who concentrate on architecture – have added a beautiful building with each new wave of SA artgeist.

Intrepid Linda Givon found the closest thing to grunge in the Northern Suburbs in the late ‘60s. She put the Goodman in the basement of a strip mall in Dunkeld, and then filled it with Walter Battiss and friends’ Fook Island show.

In the genealogy of inventive gallery-induced art production in South Africa, William Kentridge – in line with other local initiatives – has now re-invested his Western blue chip earnings in setting up the Dada-esque, Theatre of Wrong Decisions, a production space in Maboneng.

ROOM Gallery hasn’t surrendered to over-capitalised life-style narcissism. Although their po-mo arias are a bit shrill sometimes, women-run ROOM has invested in a few good young artists and a clean, well-lit grunge space, within mortar-lobbing distance of Maboneng.

On the neglected side of legacy, the wrong-side-of-the-tracks Bag Factory should now be Jo’burg’s fully endowed MoMA. MoMA, south of Manhattan’s Northern Bourgeois safe zone, is a monument to the artists and galleries that risked on Modernism in the US, and then took over the commerce of Modern art from the Europeans.

An art fair is a trade fair – a way of reading a country’s commercial and industrial priorities and pocket. Johannesburg already had the Rand Easter Show back then. Although severely limited because of apartheid, the Rand Easter Show in the ‘60s was a broad cross section through commercial South Africa that included countries wanting to do business here.

Before the FNB JoburgArtFair goes Eyes Wide Shut into another neo-lib continental marketing escapade – saving Africa from itself by turning artists into po-mo selfies – it would be worthwhile to concentrate first on Jo’burg’s art-as-manufacturing capacities. FNB – eager to do business in Africa — sponsors the JoburgArtFair. Luckily for them Jo’burg has an enormous continental immigrant population.

Piped meaning and bubbles aside, art was, is, and will always be about the curious eye – the artist’s eye, the viewer’s eye, and the gallery’s eye.   

You don’t need art knowledge to look at, like, or even buy art. In the ‘80s my old-hand New York gallerist told me that what he looked for in art was an experience he’d never had before. He knew so much about art, but tried not let it interfere with his caveman instincts. He just had to look much harder to find new experiences. DM

Rodney Place is an inter-media artist who lives and works in Johannesburg

The FNB JoburgArtFair takes place at the Sandton Convention Centre from 8-10 September.


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