Word Power

The emotive language used to describe art-world narratives

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Avant Car Guard, AVANT CAR GUARD, construct a subtle metaphor for the ... ah ... Fuck it. 2009. Courtesy: Brodie / Stevenson, Johannesburg.

Avant Car Guard, AVANT CAR GUARD, construct a subtle metaphor for the ... ah ... Fuck it. 2009. Courtesy: Brodie / Stevenson, Johannesburg.

Power: it’s an unavoidable part of the art game. Some have it, while those who don’t – like the painter I once interviewed – paste a grocery list of art world names on their studio wall and, without irony, dream. Mind you, there are also what I call the ‘other-others’, those contemptuous of daydreaming who spend their days obsessing over the sociology that binds an ephemeral community, all the while burnishing ideas which they believe ‘speak truth to power’. You have to be careful of the other-others – they bite.

This summer I sat in on a conversation between a group of curators, critics, art administrators and publishers in Switzerland. At one point someone, an other-other, used the word ‘gatekeeper’ to describe his interlocutor, a well-known somebody who apparently has power. The accusation prompted an angry riposte: ‘I am not this, I am that.’ Well yes, gatekeeping is a menial labour, and in these days of electronic home security it’s also largely symbolic, a courtesy. If anything, this powerful somebody is better characterized as ‘courtesan’ or ‘mandarin’. While outdated, these idiomatic terms usefully point to a privileged position inside – not outside – the gates of power. For a while now, I’ve been obsessed with the idioms and metaphors, fables and clichés that people use to narrate their experience of art. Three years ago, standing in the midst of ‘In Camera’, Kathryn Smith’s photo installation in Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery, waiting for the black light to illuminate her ultraviolet portraits of mass murder victims, a bored wit next to me invoked Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ (1837) to make sense of the apparent nothing on the walls. ‘Just wait,’ I replied. An inconsequential incident, it nonetheless got me thinking.

Then, a few months ago, I read Sylvester Ogbechie’s broadside against the ‘curatorial regime’ of Okwui Enwezor. An associate professor of art history at the University of California Santa Barbara and editor of the journal Critical Interventions, in May this year Ogbechie presented a paper (‘The Curator as Culture Broker’) that likened Enwezor to a hedge-fund manager. ‘In the run up of the economic bubble,’ argued Ogbechie, ‘hedge-fund managers in particular became star figures of pop culture by leveraging financial brokerage to stratospheric levels and manipulating financial information to create newer and more esoteric financial instruments that yielded greater levels of profit.’ Ditto the star curator, whose function in the new economy, according to Ogbechie, is as a culture broker mediating the value of art works in economic and critical discourse.

While conceding that Enwezor’s practice over the past decade ‘is one of the most significant developments in the discourse of contemporary African art’, Ogbechie (who is Nigerian) nonetheless believes that it has produced ‘ahistorical interpretations of contemporary African art in general’ and proposes ‘a self-referential narrative of contemporary practice using a limited number of artists recycled in closed-loop exhibitions’. He also verbally lashed South African dealers and editors for importing diaspora artists and offering them as benchmarks of African practice.

Of course, Ogbechie has his detractors. I recently chatted with a Kenyan dealer, who, in response to a question concerning the apparent exclusion of author and literary scholar Ngugi wa Thiong’o from the ongoing theorizing of post-colonial culture, simply laughed: ‘What do you expect from that Nigerian cabal!’ Still, the argument is out there now. Whether one is necessarily moved by the studied earnestness of Ogbechie’s argument – 4,400 words and not a single joke! – is not the issue; what is intriguing is his attempt to improvise with language to make sense of contemporary realities. We need more of this to account for the oligarchic definition of a landmass far more complicated than the singular noun Africa proposes – and the more ludicrous the analogies and conceits the better. In this I am a proponent of speaking nonsense to power, not truth.

Franz Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’ (1914), a deeply psychological fable of power, and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story-length satire on opportunism and self-belief, ‘The Business Man’ (1850), are good places to start. You could also head straight for the works of the Portuguese writer José Saramago, who died aged 88 in June. In his novel Death at Intervals, published in Portuguese in 2005 and translated into English in 2008, Saramago conjures up a story in which death takes a leave of absence. The story offers the context for Saramago’s thought that: ‘We human beings can’t do much more than stick out our tongue at the executioner about to chop off our head.’ Laugh, in other words.

The Russian author Victor Pelevin offers plenty of queasy laughter in his 1991 short story ‘Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream’. A potential model for speaking nonsense to (and about) power, Pelevin’s story introduces us to an existential toilet cleaner living through the vagaries of perestroika. One day, Vera meets her boss’s boss, a fat, elderly gnome with a big red beard. Printed in bold on his red T-shirt are the words, ‘what i really need is less shit from you people.’ Perhaps all curators should be mandated to wear this T-shirt while working.

Sean O’Toole is a regular frieze columnist and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

Issue 135

First published in Issue 135

Nov – Dec 2010

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