To Touch Lightly
Is it time to eschew the word 'criticism'?
Over the past decade there has been a flourishing of art-interested magazines, journals and presses across anglophone Africa. In Nigeria, there is Omenka magazine and Cassava Republic, an Abuja-based press that published Teju Cole’s novella, Every Day is for the Thief (2007). In South Africa, Jacana Media and Fourthwall Books, both based in Johannesburg, produce consistently good monographs and photobooks, while in Cape Town, Art Africa magazine and Chimurenga/The Chronic family of publications have achieved something rare amongst little magazines on the continent: regularity of output. Chimurenga’s publisher, Ntone Edjabe, has been especially dynamic in connecting with producers elsewhere, notably the Nairobi-based journal and press Kwani?. Collectively, these publishing outlets and collaborations are underwriting a home-grown narrative that has the potential to disrupt the supremacy of a greying male cohort of us-based art historians and Europe-based curators over the narrative of Africa’s transnational, transcontinental and deeply transactional art practices.
Potentially, let’s agree. While artists are being reviewed and reputations undergirded in book form in Africa, there is an uneven character to this supporting narrative. The default way of addressing this is to invoke a ‘crisis of criticism’. In 1996, Nigerian-born, American art historian Olu Oguibe remarked that the ‘institution of criticism develops, inevitably, as both the foundation and an extension, of the republican spirit’. He was directing his thoughts at South Africa, then recently liberated and still drunk on its post-racial promise, now lapsed. Commenting on the role of public debate, Oguibe speculated that the ‘establishment and consolidation of a true republican environment’ where neither criticism nor its critique is prohibited might result in the promotion of an ‘effervescent and vigorous critical establishment’ through the practice of ‘serious art criticism’.
But what is serious art criticism? And what might its freighted African form resemble? If I had to speculate, I would say it should – as it already does – read like the writing in this magazine. Varied. The taxonomic heterogeneity of contemporary art criticism has prompted James Elkins to describe the practice as ‘hopelessly trackless’ and Hal Foster to speak of a ‘crisis of the arbitrary’. Where academic positivists see randomness, I detect generative potential. Generative in the sense that, as Oguibe suggests in his ranging book of essays, The Culture Game (2004), this improper writing might offer strategies for resisting the formalist dominion of contemporary criticism, a hegemony aimed at domesticating and quarantining opinion.
There are many ways to resist this top-down imposition. Writing quickly and messily for ephemeral digital audiences is one option. Another is to eschew the word ‘criticism’ entirely and embrace the potentialities of translation. It is truer to the fundamental act of cognition at stake. ‘The world enters us through our eyes, but we cannot make sense of it until it descends into our mouths,’ offers a character in Paul Auster’s novel Moon Palace (1989). But can this work – of stilling and amplifying an encounter, of verbally distilling it – really be construed as translation? Not in the view of Umberto Eco, who in Mouse or Rat? (2003) describes this species of work as ‘intersemiotic translation or transmutation’.
I prefer Walter Benjamin’s take. ‘Just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at but one point,’ writes Benjamin in his well-known essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ (1923), ‘a translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux.’ To touch only lightly: it is a concise statement of the core gesture of criticism. It also informs the working method of two contemporary and art-interested African writers: the Nigerian-American Teju Cole and the Johannesburg fiction writer Ivan Vladislavić, both 2015 recipients of the prestigious us-based Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction. Neither is identified as an art critic, which, in a precarious post-colonial world, is a good starting point for writing a new kind of criticism.
First published in Issue 175