This title comes from an essay written by Heinrich Böhmke, titled the ‘Social Movements Hustle’. In it, Böhmke criticised the anticapitalist grassroots movements and their white patrons for a number of reasons. But what I take from the critique is the idea that grassroots social movements and the struggles by black and poor communities are so easily corrupted by, among other things: lack of theoretical depth, lack of commitment to political principles, self-promotion, self-enrichment, and undemocratic practices in those movements by their leaders and usually white academic cohorts. Hopefully, by the end of this presentation it will become more apparent why the term “hustle” might be apt in describing the ways in which public art has been undertaken in this country.

In South Africa, and I believe this is largely true of other parts of the world, public art and public art interventions, what I will call public creative speech, comes in a number of forms, but the two dominant forms are state-sanctioned public art, and corporate-sponsored art which tends to be monumental and seeks to speak in simple, didactic terms.

On the other hand, you have public art interventions and curatorial interventions – often cloaked in critical discourse – that claim to raise debate, create dialogue, and are irreverent and anti-establishment. Both claim to be vectors of social change, but the two often seem to be at odds with each other because art interventions ((which are a sub-section of contemporary art and its pretence at criticality) present themselves as antistatist and sometimes anticorporate. In reality, the two are merely different sides of the same coin, because not only are the artists prone to moving between the two spheres, but they are ultimately funded by state agencies – whether local or foreign – as well as corporate money.

The artist Brett Murray, who caused controversy in 2012 with his painting The Spear, has promoted his work as being critical of the state, and yet he has produced two public art sculptures for the City of Cape Town – one commemorating the 1985 Trojan Horse Massacre  in Athlone and the other, titled Africa, which is located in Adderley Street in the Cape Town CBD. Marco Cianfanelli has produced a number of public sculptures: one marking the spot of Nelson Mandela’s 1963 arrest in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal, and another outside Chancellor House, where Mandela and Oliver Tambo’s law office was located. Cianfanelli has also produced corporate-sponsored public art, including a Pretoria shopping mall called The Fieds. At the same time, Cianfanelli has a thriving career with commercial galleries.

Then there are public-private partnerships, which fund public art and are increasingly a favoured means through which public funds are used to fund private interests that are not bound by the same political imperatives as those of government entities. In Johannesburg, this is exemplified by the Johannesburg Development Agency.

In the case of the statist public art, it is worth remembering that in South Africa, for the most part, apartheid-era public art and memorials were not dismantled. And so new memorials and public art have to compete alongside others that are representative of racial oppression. In the South African experience of public space, public facilities, amenities and social relations, wealth still reflects racial divides. This is not to say there haven’t been measures over the past 20 years to correct these dynamics, but it is also important to question why these racial schematics have remained so stubbornly in place and how they impact on various forms of public creative speech.

One of the many ways in which ideology operates in the neoliberal era is to hide in plain sight. If it were to be revealed as ideology, it would become open to question – and vulnerable. As there is little by way of empirical evidence or even anecdotal evidence to suggest that public art actually changes society for the better, it is useful to interrogate other aspects of the industry. One of the vexing questions I want to ask about forms of public creative speech is: who acts and who is acted upon?

There is a general assumption in the stated objectives of organisations responsible for erecting public art that the work being done is “for the public good”. The idea of the public good is one of the metanarratives of the industry. I find it useful to refer to art production as an industry – it is a powerful reminder that art, like any other industry, is subject to the very same social and economic forces that shape other aspects of the modern economy.

What resources, administrative and legislative procedures, what human as well as cultural capital is required to enable these forms of public creative speech? Whereas there has been much analysis of the content of public interventions, much less effort has been given to the ways of messaging. By using the word messaging I mean the means by which the acts of public creative speech are validated and communicated to the public and for the industry players themselves how consensus is derived and cemented. Some of these aspects I have already discussed in a previous essay, titled ‘The Bureaucratisation of Memory’, which was produced for the catalogue of the exhibition The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. In relation to creative public speech, a number of processes are involved, including grant and proposal writing, monitoring and evaluation, report writing, documentation and publication, mainstream and social media visibility, financial reporting, and so on. The two effects of these other metadiscourses are, firstly, that a certain portion of the time and resources, human and material, must be dedicated not to the production of the actual art but to the production of “evidence”. Secondly,a situation arises where talking about the thing is often as important – and in certain contexts even more important – than the thing itself. After all, performances and ephemeral public interventions are there only for a time, and it is in these other forms that they find longevity and can claim to find a place in history. In the extreme sense, I would argue that public creative speech is a machine for generating metadiscourses.

The performance of a thing is not the same as the thing. Sara Ahmed’s book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life illustrates beautifully how mechanisms to bring racial parity at English universities themselves become a measure of the extent to which diversity is measured. The performance of racial inclusivity becomes evidence of racial inclusivity in itself. In a similar way the manner in which public art is touted and justified has become as important as the public art itself.

What has also received far too little attention are the recipients or perhaps we should say victims of public art interventions. Who are they and why are they, as opposed to other sectors of society, deserving of such interventions? When I was contemplating my personal participation in the Visual Arts Network of South Africa initiative The Revolution Room, which was planned for the settlement called Cosmo City, I took a drive around the area to determine what was exceptional about Cosmo City. The conclusion I arrived at was that it was a low-income neighborhood relative to other areas in the north of Johannesburg. I say relative because as far as black and poor neighborhoods go, the people there seem to enjoy a fairly decent standard of living. It got me thinking why public art in general and certainly in the post-1994 era seems to be concentrated around inner cities and neighborhoods that are either black or poor.

I have deliberately avoided the term “community”, which in South Africa is often used as shorthand for poor and black neighborhoods, but also carries with it the same problem as the use of generic terms such as “the masses” and “the people”. Some of the problems are that the term does not show that black communities are varied in their expectations, aspirations or politics. And that they are often varied in income, profession, class affiliation and the many gendered ways of participation. Phrases such as “community participation” and “community involvement” in the discourse of public art must also be interrogated, not only from the point of view of substance or content, but also from a foundational point of view.

The idea of public space must also be interrogated. Most space in urban areas is either private or privatised. Public art is not necessarily public. How is public space privatised? Firstly, it comes in the guise of neighborhood-watch organisations, residents’ associations, or, as in the case of Newtown in Johannesburg, the Newtown Improvement District which comprises of businesses in Newtown which in part oversees the developmental agenda of the precinct. Secondly, there are cases where public spaces are policed by security guards who act to deflect and control various forms of nonconformist behaviour to keep out “the wrong kind of people”.

The answers I will provide are mostly speculative. For one thing – and this applies to various contexts, be they public education or health and safety campaigns, other social interventions or sporting events – public art tends to focus on communities that are said to be poor. Their poverty enables them to be acted on and for – sometimes with their consent and participation.

That brings me to another problem: does the participation of certain members of a particular neighbourhood necessarily fulfill all the ethical obligations that bear on the cultural managers?  Does mass participation in events absolve the producer of any guilt if the messaging is problematic? The same goes for the much loved and rehearsed criticism deflector called “public consultation”. In Jacob Dlamini’s two books, Native Nostalgia and his more recent Askari, he reiterates an idea I think resonates with what Premesh Lalu has mentioned: unless we rethink apartheid, our attempts to imagine a postapartheid future are doomed to failure. One of the myths about apartheid is that everyone suffered and everyone resisted. Dlamini points out that apartheid would not have succeeded without the complicity of blacks, and that many people in one way or another collaborated with the apartheid regime. This makes it clear that just because a particular community might be “engaged” in public art does not mean that such interventions are necessarily progressive.

Furthermore, the relations between those who have the social capital, the resources, the language, and those who are recipients of public creative speech in the context of South Africa is always going to be unequal, and such projects will always reflect those dynamics. Such projects will continue to reproduce situations where typically black local artists have to attach themselves to influential white artists and cultural producers to get a slice of the public art pie.

This is the public art hustle I am talking about. Such acts and patronage produce relations and works that are in many instances insipid and mask the many forms of anger that exist in poor areas.

But the hustle is mutual. After all, the anthropologist needs the native informant more than the native informant needs the anthropologist. Public art hustles cuts both ways. Careers are made and unmade, depending on how faithfully players keep to the unwritten but commonly understood script.

Having said that, it is not as though black participants in the hustle are merely unwitting victims of an institution over which they have no influence. Rather, it is that there is a toxic relationship of dependency that has developed primarily because of the persistent inequality in the art world, specifically and more generally in the South African political economy.

Without the discourse of social upliftment, social engagement, “taking back” or renewing the city, public participation, consultation and collaboration, social cohesion, relational aesthetics or the language of development, all these acts of public creative speech might be revealed as nothing but a neoliberal project that seeks to enlist public support for the marginalisation of the recipients. Furthermore, they may be revealed as more beneficial to those artists who are well resourced rather than the people who inhabit spaces seen as in need of and deserving of public art.

Some time ago, a friend observed that in the same way that backpackers are the vanguard of bourgeois tourism, public art interventions have become the vanguard of gentrification.


Gif Credit: Dean Hutton

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