Writing Art History Since 2002

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The book One Million and Forty-four Years (and Sixty Days) consists mainly of email contributions by a broad range of artists, writers, curators and thinkers who were asked to respond to the question: “Is the avant-garde still a viable and/or tenable notion in the current contemporary moment?” Conceived as a companion to an exhibition by Cape Town-based artists Douglas Gimberg, Christian Nerf, Ruth Sacks and Ed Young, the book aims “‘to take the temperature’ of contemporary attitudes towards avant-gardism, both as praxis and historical conceit”.In the introduction to this “not-a-catalogue”, editor Kathryn Smith declares that “the quality and quantity of the responses received still startles” her. This is surely a case of editorial disingenuousness. With the exception of meaningful contributions by Colin Richards, Sylvester Ogbechie and Candice Breitz, the majority of texts and fragments featured in this volume startle only by virtue of their remarkable superficiality, opportunism, and glibness. Would it be rear guard to expect more?In his essay ‘Histories of avant-gardism in South Africa’, Richards presents the reader with a succinct insight into the various avant-gardisms imported to South Africa from Europe and America, in early to mid-modernism. Focusing on the prickly relationship between ideology, politics and “critical” avant-garde art, Richards sheds light on the internal aporia of much art-as-critique. Sometimes anti-form, other times formalistic; sometimes cerebral, other times virulently anti-intellectual and “expressionistic”; Richards shows that avant-garde art in South Africa has been nothing if not phantasmagorical. (Here I am taking recourse to neo-Marxist Louis Althusser who equated ideology with phantasmagoria.)Richards goes on to question the “fractured complicity” of art-as-critique with the very political and economic institutions it purportedly aims to explode from within (perhaps Kendell Geers’s provocative bluster notwithstanding). Lamenting the surfeit of “dandyism” and the dearth of “criminality” in our avant-gardist inclinations, Richards suggests that “we need to restore senses of criminality and violence in our notion of avant-garde art”. This begs the question: Does a violent society such as South Africa genuinely have use for more violence? Or is it perhaps the case that only the South African intelligentsia can see the art/design in crime?Ogbechie’s contribution, which reprints a paper he first read at the 94th annual meeting of the College Arts Association in February 2006, elegantly evaluates narratives of the African avant-garde. He traces the avant-garde in African art back to Senegalese poet and politician Leopold Sedar Senghor’s First World Festival of Negro Arts (Dakar, 1966), which aimed to promote the culture of Negritude as “a framework for postcolonial African engagement with issues of political and cultural identity”. Initially successful, the event was later criticised by a younger generation of African avant-garde intellectuals, for defining African identity according to “western models of subjectivity”. Observing “the diachronic nature of cultural development,” Ogbechie asks: “What then was the promise of the African avant-garde at Senghor’s gathering? Is there a chance to recover their incomplete project of political engagement and cultural affirmation for the visual politics of 21st century contemporary African art?”In her contribution to this volume, South African-born, Berlin-based artist Candice Breitz asks: “Why have there been no avant-garde African artists?” Breitz’s text, which was first published in 1995 and operates as a theoretical accompaniment to her visual practice, deconstructs the constructed nature of the “Africa” that, she argues, has “been accepted uncritically by western purveyors of knowledge”. She calls for “the necessity to challenge the distinction that has been made between a ‘European’ sensibility and an ‘African’ sensibility within this construct, rather than accepting this distinction as unproblematic”. Breitz questions the idea of an African avant-garde wholesale, given the dubious characterisation of African objects according to “preconceived idea[s] of sophistication, as embodied in the appropriating, Western culture”. The three contributions by Richards, Ogbechie, and Breitz anticipate the scope of the forthcoming art history conference at Wits, titled “South African Art History in Africa”. Most of the other contributions to this vexatious book, which concludes with the “theoretical” posturing of Cape Town guru Andrew Lamprecht, unwittingly prove Karl Marx right: the avant-garde in Africa occurs “once as tragedy, and again as farce.”Gerhard Schoeman is a lecturer in the Department of Art History and Visual Culture Studies, University of the Free State

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