Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Earlier this year I decided I had experienced once too often the inaccessible language of the seminars offered by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), which was established at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2001.

As the music writer Gwen Ansell recently told me, the occasional word or phrase for which there is no substitute is okay, but language which consists mainly of discipline-specific jargon is like a dog marking his territory by pissing on every single tree.

I wish to challenge the over-use of in-speak in public and interdisciplinary forums which, at best, shows insensitivity to those who may not belong to the in-speak discipline and, at worst, is little more than an attempt to mark and preserve one’s own territory. I mention WISER simply because I regularly attend its programmes and a critique of them offers a way of engaging with the topic here. But WISER is not the only culprit; many discipline devotees who operate in publicly accountable and interdisciplinary spheres are guilty of jargon.

I acknowledge that specialist language and writing within a discipline, like much contemporary art, may not be easy to access. But I also wish to acknowledge — to assert — the right of the average person to understand communications across disciplines, particularly when such communications take place in interdisciplinary forums, or spaces where the public is invited to interact with academia. My frequent experience in academic forums beyond and often within the visual arts, where I have attempted to interact outside my sphere of expertise, has been one of alienation. There is often little mediation or explanation of what is unfamiliar to an outsider, and seemingly no perception that such communication may be important. In public display terms, that means no label, no text panel, no museum guide. A curator would soon be out of a job if that were her standard exhibition policy.

At the same time, and this is the ambivalent crux of interdisciplinarity, the right to understand across disciplines carries within it the right to have the expertise of one’s own discipline respected, and vice versa. I am not advocating a flattening of difference, a dumbing-down of expertise. On the contrary, my expectation that I should understand and be empowered to critique, for example, a scientific display or a legal document, has the flip-slide awareness that I am not competent to curate the display or draw up the document myself.

I often find, however, that the disciplinary independence of art history and visual culture is ignored or sidelined — because, I believe, art objects operate in public spaces. They encourage non-expert and personal interpretation, and they validate judgements by way of purchases. (I know all about it because I own it.) But personal taste and buying power do not necessarily result in theoretical expertise, although they could produce very good collections.

Since its inception, one of WISER’s central objectives has been “to create new sites of public conversation and exchange within Wits … to contribute to the process of drawing large and varied audiences back to the campus, to grapple with topical issues”, and “to shape WISER as a public intellectual space”. WISER organises some of the most exciting seminars and conferences in South Africa, it encourages people beyond Wits to attend its programmes, and its commitment to public engagement reached a new level when it recently published The WISER Review (July, 2004), as a supplement in the Mail & Guardian. This is a significant step in deepening public debates and, to quote Deborah Posel, Director of WISER, creates “a new genre of writing in this country, which is intellectual without being exclusively academic”.

Since WISER opened I have tried to attend as many of its programmes as possible, including its superb ongoing seminar series on the origins of contemporary theoretical debates, which began in 2002 for its doctoral fellows but soon attracted a wider audience. But I blew it in February when I decided I was tired of attending seminars where, yet again, I was made to feel like a disempowered outsider who knows nothing.

My experience with WISER has been that of a supplicant begging for crumbs from the table. I may have learnt much from WISER’s offerings, but I have usually struggled to decode the jargon, perceived this to be a fault within me, and felt too diffident to enter into meaningful interchanges as I might say something utterly stupid. Plus, my particular discipline of the visual arts was noticeably absent from WISER’s forums.

Only artists and their artworks seem to be of value to WISER. Thus artists of the stature of William Kentridge are invited to contribute to the Public Positions lectures, or to design the WISER offices and publications (Clive van den Berg), or to have their works displayed in the WISER offices (Christine Dixie, Colbert Mashile, Penny Siopis and others). It’s great to see such concrete appreciation of the visual arts, and looking afresh at an object without mediation is essential to developing original insights. But all look and no theory severely limits contributions to public intellectual space.

This insight again asserted itself when WISER hosted another international public programme as part of Wits’s celebrations of South Africa’s ten years of freedom, titled The promise of freedom and its practice: global perspectives on South Africa’s decade of democracy. Speakers included international scholars like Jean Comaroff and Paul Gilroy, former urban activists now in power like Edgar Pieterse, as well as Graeme Reid of the Johannesburg Development Agency. It was a very good series, succeeding in its intention of shifting the debate on South Africa’s ten years of democracy from an inward focus to a wider view, reminding South Africans of the global significance of their recent history.

It seems petty, in view of the success of this series, to carp on about alienating language and marginalised visual arts. But I certainly found the evidence. I sat next to a member of the public who was taking copious notes. I later discovered she used to be an editor and found much of the language pretentiously obscure. Her notes consisted mainly of choice examples of jargon of which, she said, the best was Jean Comaroff’s “metonyms of polity”. I notice this has been edited out of Comaroff’s published essay.

As far as the visual arts are concerned, my gripe is more serious. They were marginalised yet again, but in an insidious way that seemed to undermine the relevance of critical theory and art history as a distinct discipline. An image from the South African National Gallery’s current exhibition on ten years of democracy — Tracey Rose’s The kiss — was analysed by Steven Robins, a social anthropologist, under the title Race, class and the promise of an inclusive society.

It was a fascinating paper from a different perspective, but it had a disturbing undercurrent akin to tabloid press commentaries on the Tate’s Turner Prize nominees. The implication was that specialist art critics and historians are irrelevant; we social science practitioners can manage very well without them. The close working relationship WISER has with the artist Clive van den Berg also seems to cut art theoreticians out of the equation. Van den Berg designed WISER’s premises, has artworks installed there, and designed the images for past conferences, The Promise of Freedom programme and The WISER Review. It is wonderful to see contemporary art accorded such space and respect. But the simultaneous exclusion from WISER programmes of commentaries on art says all too clearly that WISER considers art important, but not the discourses around it.

Despite its stated commitment to interdisciplinarity, the WISER forum — at least in my experience — has not dismantled its discipline barriers. At a simple level I see this as a barrier of language, where alienating and abstruse language tends to obscure meaning and act as a ring-fence. At a more serious level I see this as a decision by an influential and well-funded research body to engage only those disciplines that it considers relevant. On both levels I do not think WISER has yet fulfilled its interdisciplinary brief.

Dr Jillian Carman is an independent art historian, curator and consultant based in Johannesburg


left to right details from WISER entrance, designed by Clive van den Berg. WISER is on the sixth floor, Richard Ward Building, East Campus, Wits University

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