Parent Category: Saffron Catalogue
Category: Saffron African Art & Society Series
This essay is composed of condensed versions of three papers, writes Ricky Burnett in his contribution to Divisions and Diversions: The Visual Arts in post-Apartheid South Africa (ISBN 9781872843124, Picton et al).
The first was delivered at the SOAS conference in June 1996, the second and third were delivered at the Edinburgh College of Art under the auspices of Africa ’97. These have been published in full by the Centre of African Studies, Edinburgh University as No 69 of their Occasional Papers series, entitled South African Art— A Story of Echo, Narcissus and Blind Tiresias. For structural reasons the papers appear here in reverse order.
My argument begins with a discomfort with the cultural landscape of the so-called post apartheid era and it ends with a challenge. The argument is a personal one— it is about what I think and feel and want— and must be indulged as such. It must also be appreciated for the idealist substratum on which it rests. The much vaunted ‘South African Miracle’— the transition to technical democracy— is a much less difficult and much less enduring liberation than that which can, and must, be wrought culturally. If the technical transition provides the ‘hardware’ then it is the cultural domain which will provide the ‘software.’ If avant gardeness is about extending frontiers then what more vivid frontier can we imagine than that presented by a South Africa at the turn of the millennium? Perhaps this is less of an argument and more of a battle cry!
A congealed chronology of political events is never far from most discussions on South African art. At one time it was fashionable to offer time-charts, recording momentous events, Sharpville, 1976 riots, etc, in exhibition catalogues and books.2 South African art of the pre-liberation era has been dignified with a role in resistance— and it is true that in an inhumane society a dedication to freeing the imagination can be a political act. Most frequently though the label ‘resistance-art’ was applied to imagery which directly referred to, or contained the iconography of, struggle issues— the pass laws, forced removals and so on.
The fact is that the facts, so to speak, of material and social life have always superseded those of the ‘purely’ intellectual, by which I mean issues of, say, style, of ‘advancedness’, of the contemplative and so on. The point I am making here is that the world has always been very much with us. Our challenge and the point of my polemic is to ask which world should now be with us as we move to a new millennium under a new flag with a new constitution?
Private Parts and Public Selves
The mythological figures of Echo and Narcissus are two instances of life trapped in the confines of narrow obsession. Echo, unoriginal, aping, unrequited and deeply misunderstood, has thoughts and, especially, desires but no way of framing and communicating these except in fragments of an already given form. Narcissus, our modern metaphor for vanity, is driven to a frenzy of self-destruction by an ungraspable yet seductive image of self.
The isolation of self from society, from the senses, from original thought; the entrapment of self inside of self; the absence of voice, the absence of a willing listener. These tragic tones I am invoking as a backdrop to a general discussion of South African art—why?
Echo and Narcissus are going to help dramatise the operation of two numbing, even deadening, attributes of advancedness in our contemporary cultural landscape. They stand for a poverty of spirit which occurs when thoughts cannot be framed unless in previously established terms; when discourse supplants experience as the primary ground of image making; when ‘place’ becomes a floating mental operation; and, when interiority and it’s uncertainties supplant exteriority and its assertions.
Is this just an incorrigible cynicism in a time of collective optimism,— a new democracy, a new constitution, a new flag, a now defunct bi-annual biennale? No one dare say that we in South Africa have not lived through atypical times and so for now it may be enough to say along with a Saul Bellow character that, “.....for an atypical foot you need an atypical shoe.”3 Though this begs the question as to what ‘typical times’ may be.
With almost unseemly haste, Johannesburg announced its intention to hold its first biennale in 1995. This was, so the publicity material states, ‘to celebrate South Africa’s re-entry into the international community.’ Given the years of cultural boycott and the longer years of colonial nostalgia this urge to re-emerge is not that surprising. However as principal motivations ‘celebration’ and ‘re-entry’ always seemed to me somewhat trivial, especially in the light of the multiplicity of creatures which haunt our deeper cultural milieu. It was as though the organisers had spotted a moment of redemption, a moment of purity outside of time, no past only a glorious future ahead and this future was global! Herein lies, I think, the seeds of a reactionary fantasy.
This festive liberation, a great intermingling, was to be orchestrated by 50 or more foreign curators— curators whom the organisers clearly thought would bring with them the big and/or the real issues. The South African component, apart from two or three fringe projects, was in the form of a matching or contrapuntal presence of a South African in each of the curators national offerings. The collective African presence was shy, withdrawn, and apologetic. It’s insignificance becoming for me in the long run it’s significance.4
Particulars aside, the biennale project has failed, in my view, to significantly re-charge or positively re-direct South African cultural life and this is due in no small measure to poor ‘place-thinking.’
The ambition and the structure of the project located the centre, the place of origin of originality, quality, authority, and adventurousness outside of Africa and it’s issues. In other words, we ghettoised and provincialised ourselves. To get up to speed with advancedness, especially an advancedness located elsewhere, is to worship at Echo’s shrine. To redefine the rules, however, to be at the centre of your own world, is to find an authentic voice.
Whichever way you look at it we surely had then an opportunity for some imaginative grappling with the prevailing conditions of our continent; social, intellectual, historical, economic, and so on. How do creative people function and contribute to social cohesion in the face of migration, swarms of refugees, civil wars, massacres, grinding poverty, and, importantly, weak cultural infrastructure and lines of communication? My reason understands why there have been more exhibitions of South African art in Europe than there have ever been in the rest of Africa but my instincts are puzzled. Do we have to remain chained to the styles of the successful urban classes of largely European and north American cities?
Not only does our urge to ‘internationalism’ relocate centres of concentration it also switches focus from the collective to the private. The first biennale released much ‘private-life’ into the Johannesburg ethos. There is a big and qualitative difference between questions like, ‘who is my god?’, ‘what is my faith?’, ‘what place is this?’, ‘what is the human animal?’, ‘what is consciousness?’, ‘what is sensation?’ and so on, and, questions like, ‘who has my genitals?’, ‘why can’t I use them more often?’, ‘would I be different if Mom hadn’t spanked me?’, and, ‘who am I anyway?’
What rises to the surface, through this self absorption, is an inflation of the subjective domain from a legitimate ?substrata substrate for public life to a necessity. Or put another way; the collective life of images becomes an assemblage of disclosures and confessions and privacies.
I am not now, and I want to stress this, making an argument for the monumental, the ideological, and the programmatic. Programmes of public art are not known for their subtly. Bombast is no substitute. However re-framing the social functioning of the arts in Africa is no small matter and this I believe is our challenge.
The artistic director of the second biennale, Okwui Enwezor , a Nigerian by birth but now resident of New York and editor of the magazine Nka, would probably not like to be called a champion of the subjective but he provoked a cultural skirmish with some ill-directed remarks in this regard.
In a catalogue for a South African exhibition (?Title) held in Oslo, Enwezor published an article entitled Re-framing the black subject: Ideology and Fantasy in Contemporary South African art.5 In it he roundly, if unsoundly, denounces, amongst others, several white female South African artists. It would appear that Enwezor takes the view that the inclusion of, reference to and engagement with a black subject necessarily leads to an oppression of that subject or, as he would have it the ‘abject subject.’ In particular, white artists who engage with a black subject or employ iconography of black origin or reference are, he suggests, resisting a compromise to their whiteness by depicting blacks as voiceless, silent, passive, and as sources of entertainment. This oppression occurs through representation which renders the subject mute. In as much as the images speak on behalf of the subject the subject is disempowered.
This denunciation was then picked up by artist and critic Kendall Geers who compresses Enwezor's argument with charged rhetoric— “He (Enwezor) points out that there are artists like Pippa Skotnes, Lien Botha and Candice Breitz who continue to exploit the perceived silence of black Africans by speaking out on their behalf, an action that is as patronising as it is essentially racist.”6 Some time later Geers adds to the political charge by accusing a young artist engaged with issues of homosexuality of ‘colonising’ the bodies of anonymous men by using fifty year old military photographs of them in an installation.
I want to use the skirmish to raise but one issue—that of a retreat into subjectivity. A social history of South African art could be written using the issue of representation, of both the self and of the other, as a primary motif. Who employs what iconography and to what end? Given the dangers of naïveté and carelessness with regard to how we ‘represent’ the world, especially other people, and given that the relationship between the artist and his or her subject can be framed in moral and ethical terms, notes of caution and appeals for precision are worth heeding. However, whenever a strong assertion is made its contrary is, more often than not, lurking not far behind— whenever a strong light falls a darkish shadow is also present. There is a shadow cast by the denunciations.
The key notion around which the skirmish revolves is, of course, “representation” and this word represents, in my view, various kinds of human acts: to present again; to present again in altered form; to stand for in the sense of surrogacy; to act as metaphor by way of compressing complexity and so on; and to stand for in the sense of advocacy.
Enwezor and Geers seem only to acknowledge this latter implication.
Three dire consequences of limiting the notion of representation to only an advocacy role are: firstly, that images are credited with enormous, awe-inspiring powers ie they may render entire communities mute; secondly, that entire communities are rendered irredeemably and pathetically vulnerable; and thirdly, that if authentic representation is restricted only to those icons to which you have claim by birth, by skin colour; by gender and so on then the primary ground for art making moves away from engagement with a complex exterior world and moves towards interiority and manufactured complexity.
Narcissus entranced by the curl of his own lip
In the name of advancedness, through the 1995 biennale, we orchestrated a relocation of the centre from our own society to a construct called the international community. And now in the name of the same demon we are locating the ground of art making in the interior of isolated individuals.
What happens when the other becomes taboo? One of the answers is that we in South Africa have been there done that and got more than the T shirt— thank you very much. Another, is that if all representation can be reduced to abuse then autobiography and the exploration of self soon becomes self-abuse. All this further compounded by fears of transgression and inflations of power.
If the world of experience, the sensual and the intellectual can be carved up into no-go zones then each of these zones must be occupied by citizens, so to speak, with natural and exclusive rights. So, take the construct black-women’s-bodies, a notion particularly abused, according to Enwezor, by Penny Siopis, who owns this construct? Who are its indigenous inhabitants, or, who are its God-given bearers or carries? ?carriers Does the construct belong to aged black women who have acquired by the experiences of labour, motherhood and separation some archetypal and peculiar wisdom? Does it belong to the young black pubescent and pre-pubescent girls who will explore and reshape its outlines in a future time? Does it belong to those who are attached to ‘traditional’ customs, or, is it more a construct that adheres to the emerging urban black woman, familiar with Hermes and Versace? Does it belong to the most recent Miss South Africas, to the social workers who fret over the cycles of recidivism within which sex workers are caught, or does it belong to the sex workers themselves? One can have fun labouring this point.
To whom do mental constructs belong and to whom does human plight and predicament belong? I am not Jewish— may I then not speak out against the Holocaust; I am not Japanese— may I not grapple with Hiroshima? I am not black does that mean that the majority of my fellow citizens are now, in the name of avant gardism, a cultural taboo?
The further invention of cultural taboos is yet another expression of walls and boundaries and borders. To deny right of access across these boundaries is to drive the adventurous psyche inward, downward and possibly away from the world raising, again, anxiety about the public life of images.
Within a context of increasing complexity, or better, decreasing simplicities, a difficult but entirely pertinent question arises and it is this – ’When does the other cease to be other and become part of the fabric out of which self is constructed?’
Which art for which Africa?
Not all of the simplicities of apartheid ideology were officially prescribed and not all were generated by the state.
One of the simplicities with which we lived was that images belonged to the city, were generated from the city and found their highest calling in the city. This is one of the enduring, some might even say natural, facts of history, from Machu Pichu to Babylon, from Babylon to Athens, from Athens to Florence, from Florence to Paris, from Paris to New York and so on. In the modernist world the image is denied in the country-side and further, within the city, it is denied in the ghettos! Bohemia is an epi-phenomenon of the bourgeoisie, not an institution of the ghetto.
This global urbanisation of the image, this locking of the image behind city walls, perhaps unwittingly but nevertheless with devastating effect, neatly dovetailed with official apartheid simplicities. If the rural peasant and the urban ghetto dweller are denied the ‘image’, ?they are in effect denied imagination, and, if all your rural peasants and urban ghetto dwellers are black then, ergo, no blacks have the image, have imagination. They have no art. This sort of reasoning is not unrelated to late Victorian fears of the primitive, the irrational, the unschooled, and, I suppose, the unevolved or the ‘late-evolving’.
The Johannesburg Art Gallery, established through the efforts of ?one Lady Phillips and officially opened in 1915, acquired its first work by a black artist in the year 1940. It was a painting by the late Gerard Sekoto. Thirty-two years were to elapse before the institution was to acquire another work by a black artist! Within the same minutes as the resolution to make the 1940 purchase, indeed on the same page, the following observations, made by one Councillor Freeman, are recorded, “...it should be realised,” he says, “that there was a very strong feeling against natives being admitted at any time to the Art Gallery for the purpose of inspecting pictures and particularly pictures of European women.”7
Against this historically entrenched poverty of the spirit an eclectic, iconoclastic exhibition called Tributaries of 19858 was well received by the South African cultural community. In short, Tributaries looked beyond the pale— outside of the city walls. As I noted in the catalogue at the time, the exhibition was constructed around the idea of ‘qualities’— plural, not ‘quality’— singular. The resulting exhibition included art made in villages, townships (or, more universally, ghettos), and universities, and middle-class backyards.
Only three years after Tributaries it was possible for the Johannesburg Art Gallery to become the home of a fine collection of 'traditional' South African material now known as the Brenthurst collection.9 Of course it would be improper and imprecise to say that Tributaries was solely responsible for the shifts of thinking that occurred in the eighties, but, where it was not directly influential it was a part, and a very visible part, of a broader process.
In particular, though, an engagement with rural artists, more especially carvers, was one the exhibition’s prime attractions and one of it’s most enduring legacies. It is something of a delicious irony to ponder that it may well have been the sudden visibility of the contemporary rural carver and a recognition of their qualities that allowed the august Johannesburg Art Gallery to embrace the Brenthurst collection of 'traditional' material. The past being somehow redeemed by the present.
Jackson Hlungwani was one of these rural carvers who received his first exposure as an artist-in-the-city in the Tributaries exhibition. Later, a 1989 retrospective of his work established him as one the most charismatic figures in our cultural community.10
Included in this retrospective were two large altars composed of some twenty individual sculptures. These were originally located on a hillside in his home village. These altars were to find new homes at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Standard Bank collection housed at the Galleries of the University of the Witwatersrand.
The black peasant has begun to breach the city walls!
They had now, he said, done their work at Mbhokota, his home village, and must continue to do their work before a new and wider audience. They must continue to proselytise, must continue to claim new space for his vision— must continue, in effect, to colonise the city.
This movement across the city walls did not come without it’s complications and difficulties. There was some sadness even some outrage and gnashing of teeth that continued for some time after these transactions were effected. There was a loss at Mbhokota. A numinous place was dismantled. And so some dissatisfaction was entirely appropriate— though none was expressed by the people of the village, the maker’s family, or the maker himself — on the contrary, it was what he wanted.
In part the expression of loss, in my view, was predicated on the assumption that Hlungwani simply could not possess the will or self possession to agree to such transactions let alone initiate them. Therefore, being a weak peasant, he must have been manipulated. (I want you to understand the word ‘peasant’ without prejudice— just a word describing rural subsistence village life.)
So first the modernist city decides that peasants have no art and when proven wrong, they decide they can have no will. But the failure of the transition, of the relocation of the altars, and it was in my view a failure, lies on a more subtle, more complex, more deeply cultural plane. And this of course is why I’m telling this particular story. Ironically the cultural community have generally cooled over this issue. It is no longer the subject of much debate implying an acceptance of the change. After all, it happened eight years ago and in the late twentieth century that’s enough time for the birth and death of several new movements, the rise and fall of a handful of high income stars and the waxing and waning of a plethora of styles and fashions.
When the altars relocated to the city they relocated as a cluster of objects. They are relocated as sculpture, they become objects of interest and curiosity and of study. In other words they were reduced to art.
This is, of course, a provocative remark. And I mean it to be— because somewhere inside the collective mind of those that handle and arrange and store and label and release art to the public eye, there lies one of the most impenetrable of all city walls.
The urban sociologist Richard Sennett has remarked that, “The ancient Greek could use his or her eyes to see the complexities of life. The temples, markets, playing fields, meeting places, walls, public statuary, and paintings of the ancient city represented the culture’s values in religion, politics, and family life. It would be difficult to know,” he goes on, ”where in particular to go in modern London or New York to experience, say, remorse.”11
One can imagine that the people of Mbhokota in need of the charismatic, or of the visionary, or of the cautionary tale, or in need of communion knew where to go. Do the people of Johannesburg know where to go? And if not, is this a condition of mind, or, is it a consequence of ‘place’?
My judgement tells me that it is a failure of place; a failure of ‘place-making’; a failure that can be simply stated. The “New Jerusalem”, the Mbhokota village shrine was made by the altars. The Johannesburg Art Gallery, on the other hand, confident of it’s prefabricated authority is, as it were, a ‘ready-made. The status of place, it’s character, nuance and it’s social cum spiritual charge never in doubt or question.
The idea is worth repeating in slightly different words; the village shrine, the New Jerusalem was a consequence of the altars— the place, it’s unique identity, it’s detailed specificity was one of the larger effects and affects of the sculpture. The ‘whole’, here, being an experience greater than the sum of the parts but dependant upon them. The Johannesburg Art Gallery as place (a place, note, not a space)— as place with qualities exists a priori, prior to the altar. Additions are made to this place but changes are not. The ‘whole’ here while emphatically larger than the sum of the parts is not dependant upon them. When the whole is dependent on the parts we think of democracy. When the whole is independent or indifferent to the parts we think of tyranny.
This is strong language and in defence of the institution it must be said that in traditional terms it has done its job well. In terms of accepted norms and practices the Johannesburg Art Gallery is a more than respectable institution. I am, however, questioning those accepted norms and practices, styles of thinking, that have their precedent in Victorian imperialism and which pervade the museological world -and not just in South Africa.
The spirit of the altar, and I appreciate the difficulty of this concept, is not relocated. The sculptures eminent place making energies are neither released nor used. The altar becomes a shadow of it’s former self. It acts as a reminder of another place and indeed of another time. It becomes a momento.
Ironic, isn’t it, that in an age of installation where the commonplace is often re-sited to evoke the extraordinary that in galleries and museums the extraordinary can be reduced to the commonplace? I make this point not with specific recipes or programmes in mind but rather to introduce the thought that in our new democracy as the people are said to form the government, as the people are said to have made the constitution, what are the implications of suggesting that the objects, the art, should make the institutions.
I wish to raise the thought that images physically could and morally should start to make new and charismatic places especially complex public places— that the art could be less dependent on the endorsement of the institutions and the institutions should be more dependant on the art. This is an argument that is initiated with reference to art institutions but it has far reaching implications for the urban environment as a whole. Richard Sennett, again, says this,
To care about what one sees in the world leads to mobilising one’s creative powers. In the modern city, these creative powers ought to take on a particular and humane form, turning people outward. Our culture is in need of an art of exposure; this art will not make us one another’s victims, but rather more balanced adults, capable of coping with and learning from complexity.
Hlungwani’s advance from the village of Mbhokoto up to and through the city walls of Johannesburg brings more layers of complexity into that city yet it’s penetration is not yet complete. The Trojan horse, if you will excuse the dramatic image, has yet to release it’s troops— has yet to charge the inner city with it’s spiritual energy. The Johannesburg Art Gallery, by these lights, can be said to be an impermeable, though unwitting, last boundary.
If Hlungwani can be said to advance upon the city walls from, as it were, a state of nature,— the rural village. David Nthubu Koloane makes his encroachment from the inside— from the ghetto.
It has been argued, and, for many years it was a common wisdom, that the black experiment with abstraction had failed. Without doubt this was a premature judgement. By travelling to workshops in America, by engaging in workshops at home sometimes as host, by travelling to workshops in England, India, Ghana, Koloane becomes too big for the role of ‘township artist’. He knows too much, has seen too much, has tried too much. His sense of scale, literally and metaphorically, has changed.
This more global vision ,however, relocates him into the body of the city: it relocates him in the densely urban experience of his youth and, importantly, now the grit and grime and despair and humiliation, the motor cars and the pavements, the ramshackle shelters and the looming skyscrapers find a voice. So too do the lovers, the devout and the dancing. The open ended strategies of abstraction, of loosening paint upon a surface, of drawing with paint, the dialogue in the process, the interlocking of process and product, has given him a means to grasp the multiple layers of his sense of place, it’s light and it’s structures and it’s pathologies. A revelatory, if smoggy, effulgence.
For my money, David is quintessentially, as no other, the artist of Johannesburg. Hlungwani epitomises the phenomenon of place-making, Koloane the phenomenon of place-reflection and the city wall can be said to hold them both at bay.
My point here is not to be accusatory. I choose to comment on both Hlungwani and Koloane in the light of the Johannesburg Art Gallery because I want to raise thoughts about the public life of images and the art gallery is a prominent and therefore convenient public icon. These observations should not be seen simply as a reflection of differences of opinion between myself and the curators concerned. I raise the issue out of a genuine interest.
With the exception of a single purchase, just over a year ago of a not particularly remarkable piece and despite Koloane’s remarkable personal journey, his achievements find thus far no place in the collection of that venerable institution.
Koloane is not poorly represented in the official gallery of the city that haunts his dreams because he is black. There are many black artists now represented in the gallery, indeed since the late eighties that institution has been falling over itself to make up for a negligent past (hosting an exhibition with the title The Neglected Tradition). I am also not going to allow that it is question of objective quality however much this may be used to dissemble and evade the issue by the custodians.
The Johannesburg Art Gallery currently occupies the liminal zones. I mean this to be understood literally. Its southern facade looks onto a clutch of railway lines, the fences are crammed with waste across the lines there is a huge taxi rank — (Taxi’s of the mini-bus kind are unlike anything you would be familiar with. They have a social history too complex to enter into here but are associated with violence and clutter; shambles and danger). Beyond the rank, pink fronted massage parlours. The western edge and visitor entrance is crowded with these taxis and with street traders capitalising on the commuter traffic. The northern face looks across a smallish park notorious for muggers and vagrants. The eastern edge is the periphery of a high rise, low cost over crowded, rapid turnover inner city residential area. I repeat, the Johannesburg Art Gallery occupies the liminal zones— grey, twilit, shifting, informal, transient. The very streets which border the gallery epitomise the city which Koloane reveals. My question, and it is not a rhetorical question, is this; “Is this just too much?”. The ghetto has finally come to town and is this very special city wall something like ‘the custodians last stand’? In the same way that fastidious body denies scatological mind and puritan mind denies prurient body so the metaphorical city wall cannot allow for mad dogs rooting in waste, for smog and gloom, for clutter and chaos. I don’t think that this a matter of policy. I think it’s a matter of limitation and despite the best of liberal thinking these are limitations that inhibit complex Africas from engaging with a complex Africaness.
The idea that images can make places, as distinct from simply occupying space, is not a particularly new one. A recognition of the power of imagery to act in the phenomenal world surely impelled mankind’s earliest creative acts. You paint the cave to change the cave. So I am suggesting that by following a faith, the faith that images can and should inform their places, we can begin to imagine a new form of social life for these images. And recognise that it is not just possible, but necessary! It is possible that images can play a new role in the social life of our city. I am further suggesting that this is entirely appropriate to our times. That in searching for a new society, a new order, or better, new orders, a radical re-application of imagery to social life could be a primary method for the development of a democratic culture.
If city is psyche then…
Psycho-analyst and author James Hillman has for many years argued for the primacy of images and imagery in the formulation of psychological theory and development of therapeutic practice. He has also argued for the importance of the aesthetics of everyday life and especially he has argued for a sense of beauty in the city. 12
Essentially Hillman’s argument is this: Psychology and psycho-therapy have for years, and I quote “...identified interiority with reflexive experience..”, and, “By stressing the interior we are constantly asserting the Cartesian view that the world out there is dead matter and the world inside is living.”
Hundreds of years of rationalist philosophy have separated psyche from matter!
Totemism and animism are viewed by the western mind as demonic and heretical— primitive superstitions. And so, because only the inside can respond to the world, only the inside can feel and think, the outside is deprived of life. The world does not carry its own symptoms for it cannot feel the pain. Internal, psychic reality, the realm of private experience ends up carrying the can for what happens in the objective, social, physical and public realms.
What psychology has previously called projection we should now, he suggests, call animation. We need to develop a language that helps us to deal with the world-as-it-feels as distinct from the world-as-it-feels-to-me. Note the difference in emphasis with the dropping of the ‘to-me’. After all, he suggests, the world is bearing witness to itself all the time in the images that it offers. Each object the subject of its self- presentation.
How do we get to know this? How do we come to read the face that the world presents? Being a psycho-analyst Hillman suggests that symptoms and/or pathology are the keys, or a least one set of keys, to unlocking the heart beat of the world behind its’ dead masks. And the sensibility required to use these keys is aesthetic— an aesthetic sense which is akin to what he calls a common animal nose.
Hillman himself says:
We awaken daily in fear of the things we live with, eat drink and breathe.....The closest environment has become hostile ....alar on your apples; asbestos around your heating pipes; lead in the paint on the schoolroom ceiling; mercury in your fish; preservatives in your hot dogs; cigarette smoke in the diner; rays from the micro-wave; sprays, mothballs, radon, feathers, disinfectants, perfumes, exhaust gases; the glue and synthetics in your couch; antibiotics and hormones in your beef....To live, I must be alert, constantly suspicious on guard at the caves mouth. But it’s not sabre toothed tiger that’ll get me and my clan, it’s the family fridge ruining the ozone.....
…If I were in a different culture: we would say: spells have been cast, bad magic.....an alien power to be wary of or propitiate .....don’t stand too close to the microwave, only ingest foods after reading the labels; throw away in special containers..... You see what I am driving at: my suspicions and my precautionary rituals announce that I am living in an animated world.”
The fact of the threat becomes the same as the fact of aliveness.
And so I think we come to a central idea: each and everything in our constructed urban life has psychological import.— “ The world’s alive— my god! It’s having an effect on us.” He exclaims.
By way of illustration he quotes a colleague Robert Sardello as follows:
The individual presented himself in the therapy room of the nineteenth century, and during the twentieth the patient suffering the breakdown is the world itself.... The new symptoms are fragmentation, specialization, expertise, depression, inflation, loss of energy, jargoneze, and violence. Our buildings are anorexic, our business paranoid, our technology manic.
Hillman goes so far as to suggest if the ‘ugly’ can make us neurotic then the task of psychotherapy becomes noticing noxious forms— the spotting of bad shape!
All of a sudden there seems hardly any difference between depth psychology and design.
Like most of us he is aware of the numbing effects of so called ‘good design’, ‘good taste’, ‘pleasing unity’, and ‘harmonious balance.’ Hillman’s idea of design includes depth in a psychological sense and this incorporates death, dirt, demons, darkness and disorder and other, what he calls industrial strength ‘d’ words like dysfunction, drives, drugs, defence, disease and despair. In other words pathology. Terror has to be included in our sense of beauty. And in proselytizing his aesthetic revolution he says to other analysts, “..for me the greatest moral choice we have to make today, if we are truly concerned with the oppressed and stressed lives of our clients’ souls, is to sharpen their sense of beauty.”
Beauty is elevated to an epistemological necessity— how you come to know the world; how you come to participate in and develop an awareness of an imaginative, polytheistic, animated world of stuff. A world cursed, since the time of Christ, into demonism and heresy!
With regard to psychotherapy the aesthetic response would shift focus from saving the personal soul of the patient to the resurrection of the world, the celebration of creation before the redemption of creativity in the individual. Even deep ecology begins in our aesthetic responses, and the citizens reentry into political participation starts in his or her declarations of taste.
Hillman would, simply put, probably argue that we should stop making art to explore ourselves and start making art to change the world— literally, physically, make the world an animated living place. Resurrect the tortured screaming uncared for stuff of the world. Re-locate life and all that that little word implies back into a shared complexity rather than a private complex.
And so a not quite last word from Hillman, “I urge that the tradition to which we must turn in the face of the fantasies of cataclysm lies not in the Himalayas, not on Mount Athis, or the far planets of space, nor does it live in the nihilistic terror that foreshadows the cataclysm; it dwells in the imaging heart of the Renaissance city, in its streets in its language its things— in the city of the heart of the world.”
After all, says Hillman, providing me with one of the pivots of my argument, “city is psyche”. In other words, you are where you are, and I quote,
.. It took the last several decades for therapy to learn that body is psyche, that what the body does, how it moves what it senses is psyche. More recently, therapy is learning that the psyche exists wholly in relational systems. It is not a free radical, a monad, self determined. The next step is to realise that the city, where the body lives and moves, and where the relational network is woven, is also psyche.
The city is an artefact. And as an artefact it is the product of the manipulation of matter. It is a product of the human imagination— the city is, perhaps, also scuplture.
This suggests that the manipulation of space, place and matter carries potent redemptive powers. It allows that the sculptor could be relocated from the margins as an esoteric, self-absorbed dabbler of no fixed function or abode to prime place as maker of the world. For if city is psyche and psyche is sculpture then city is sculpture!
1. It is estimated that by the turn of the century there will be 21 ‘megacities’ with populations of 10 million or more. Of these, 18 will be in developing countries, including some of the poorest nations in the world. Mexico City a few years ago was estimated to have 20 million people and Calcutta 12 million. Soon, like in a year or so, for the first time in human history more people will live in and around cities than in rural areas. 13
2. A recent survey revealed that in the USA, a country of some 265 million people, around 2,000 were artists regularly affiliated to galleries — or .0075%— or 1 artist for every 135,000 people. (Art Newspaper May 1995). Also in the USA around 35,000 painters, sculptors, potters, art historians and so forth graduate from art schools every year. This means, says Robert Hughes, “....that every two years this culture produces as many art related professionals as there were people in Florence at the end of the quattrocento.” 14
The image that these two notes (for want of better word) generates in me is of a crushing proliferation of the urban desperate on the one hand and the narrow constriction of the creative on the other— the artist is in quarantine— in sterile seclusion.
Where is the artist in the modern city. And where will he or she be in the next century?
How can an idea of advancedness relocate back into the city ? How might an avant garde in a third world city be less about the deconstruction of meaning and more about the reconstruction of place.
One of the dangers of a siteless culture, of an unanchored universalism, is that experience of place becomes a floating mental operation— ideas without physicality, materiality, sensation, or body, and when body goes the soul is not far behind. In urging an engagement with exteriority over interiority I am not asking that the authenticity of the artist, the uniqueness of individual insight be swapped for conformity. On the contrary our public life requires, for an even partial success of the democratic agenda, a greater degree of complexity, density and diversity.
What about an experience of life in the public arena of the streets? Can the design of the streets become slang too? Is it possible that by exploring what Sennett has called ‘an art of exposure’ that the urban world can become an arena for culture— or an aesthetised place — this as distinct from and contrary to anaesthetised, numbing space?
In a downtown area of Johannesburg is a district appropriately enough called Newtown. The Market Theatre having been there for some 17 years and having had a style opposed to that of the previous government had created something of a liberated zone there. This encouraged city management to declare the area a cultural district and to render available some not inconsiderable old buildings for cultural use. The project has been a dismal failure.
Given the vitality of our times, given the vitality and imagination of the people, given the considerable political challenge that lies in the cultural domain— why? Why did a cultural district not work? Those who conceived and managed the exercise would either not concede that it has failed or would argue that their good intentions were victim to the inner-city blight which has forced some conglomerates to disinvest and caused Johannesburg to earn the title of crime capital of the world.
There are a number of reasons that I could give for the failure of the project and this is not the place to list them, suffice it to say that both methodology and conception were to blame. And misconception was the primary fault and I will address only one element of it here.
On a hill overlooking the village of Mbhokoto, Jackson Hlungwani made sculptures; with these he then made an altar; and then with these altars he made a place— a zone of charged specificity. The Johannesburg Art Gallery, on the other hand, in re-housing the sculptures, is unable to act beyond the siting of objects in space. They fail to re-animate the altar’s place making energies. The Newtown Cultural Precinct suffers from precisely the same philosophical blindness. Cultural activity is housed in entities and enclaves— spaces in other words— and the vital, essentially urban, zones between remain untouched. Culture with its intelligence and complexity has not been allowed to act in the world.
If culture is about animation, and I think that it is— the animation of matter, space, language, thought and so on, then a cultural zone might well be a place of animation, imaginative aliveness. I earlier stated that re-framing the social functioning of the arts in Africa is no small matter. This would be especially true if it were to accept the city as its canvas.
There are many imaginative people in Johannesburg yet the personality of the city seems not be informed by them. More imaginative people from Africa are arriving everyday bringing new experiences, new aesthetics— new antidotes to anaesthesia.
We need a great deal more absorbent social tissue to take up our creativity— a revisioning of the city from the city as gold-mine and garbage dump to the city as sculpture. The museums and the privileged bourgeoisie are, as social organs too thin to digest the possibilities.
The first step we need to make in this direction is to recognise that the frontiers which we must explore are unique and place specific. An avant garde which works for all places at the same time is not in advance of anything— it is a consolidation into orthodoxy. An idea of advancedness is important because it redeems the local from second-rateness. We share a world where being in front is important but we need the wisdom to be in front at the right frontier. It is important to recognise that all walls are not equal.
Here then are some principles on which a new idea of advancedness could be developed.
Firstly, it must identify and declare a frontier unique to itself. This frontier will be place specific and will be understood as being part of the wider social fabric. This frontier is not the frontier, or anything like the frontier, of the sciences which can proclaim a mental or ideational geography. American physics is a lot like Japanese physics! In the sciences the discipline is the place. For my code and for culture the place is the discipline.
Secondly, it will embrace paradox for it will understand that having identified place, impermeable walls would also be anathema to it’s ambitions. One can have a regional appreciation of global questions and visa versa.
Thirdly, it will celebrate complexity and diversity rather than simplicity and homogeneity.
Fourth, it will have an ambiguous attitude to time for while it explores a frontier, appearing to look ahead its ambition is to deepen the experience of time, to enable the past to retain its grip on the present. In so far as we are interested in place-making we would be interested in making places full of time.
Fifth, it would recognise that aesthetics, a word rarely used these days whose meaning is lost and imprecise (to some the word even causes embarrassment), would best be understood in opposition to something we all understand, an experience we can easily identify— anaesthesia.
Sixth, it would recognise that a deadening or numbing of the sensibilities can occur any and everywhere but most especially and with political consequences it can occur in public places.
Seventh, it would recognise that culture-as-enclave is a recent invention and that culture-as-habitat has a far more respectable history.
Eighth, it would recognise that the third world city and Johannesburg in particular are new sites for newness in that they condense and contain all the necessary contradictions and the paradoxes (these may be similar to those that propelled the emergence of modernism in the 19th century European city).
Indulge a caricature:
A Tsonga lady is engaged in making pots for distribution in her local village. Both the method and the decoration are derived from and are extensions of a tradition handed on from past generations. The economy of her village changes however and her customers come to prefer plastic buckets. A small curio market may develop and fine examples of her early work may find their way into museums and some art galleries. Her ‘mass’ market has now become an elite or specialist market and one which becomes quite soon saturated. How does she invent an escape from uselessness. How does her creativity survive?
Or put another way, how do we retain as part of our collective sensibility the particular sensibility resident with her? How do we open up the opportunities for her to become a fully fledged, grown-up and growing contributor to our and her society? How do we rescue her from quarantine and a lonely death? Or, in the wider frame of global history is it okay for the skill, vision and sensibility which has produced some of the finest murals in Africa and textured some of the finest walls to be reduced to trivial curiosity or occasional ethnic quotation? I repeat a proper grown up functioning role.
In other words we have in the world resources, treasures, assets, call them human or social if you will and among these cowering in isolated individuals is an aesthetic, an aesthetic nose, a way of knowing the world and a way of making the world available for knowing— antidotes to anaesthesia!
Is it not one of the great cultural tragedies of our century that development strategies in the third world have done little to retrieve or cherish the multiplicity of sensibilities that have coalesced into great traditions over the millennia— the cultures-of-habitat? Is this maybe one of the great flaws in our thinking that has resulted in the awful famines, and catastrophes, the desperate disempowerment of the third world through debt and disease and poverty? Is it conceivable that an emasculation of the imagination results in an emasculation of the world?
Is it possible that the imagination can be employed to breach the widening dichotomies that exist in our cities; between the made and the manufactured; and between the downward tending and the resolutely polished? Is it possible, therefore, that through an art of exposure we can shape not only the nature of shared physical space but the nature of shared psychic space as well? Does our new democracy, to some extent, not depend on this?
In my first presentation I quoted the sociologist Richard Sennett and I’d like to do so again, this time a little fuller. This is from the introduction to 'Conscience of the Eye,' he writes: 'The way cities look reflects a great unreckoned fear of exposure.....We need to see differences on the streets or in other people neither as threats nor as sentimental invitations, rather as necessary visions. They are necessary for us to learn how to navigate life with balance, both individually and collectively. To care about what one sees in the world leads to mobilising one’s creative powers. In the modern city, these creative powers ought to take on a particular and humane form, turning people outward. Our culture is in need of an art of exposure; this art will not make us one anothers victims, rather more balanced adults, capable of coping with and learning from complexity.”15
Is it just possible that my Tsonga lady can be rescued from being a struggling peasant of no contemporary relevance to a carrier of valued history— and therefore also an active player in imagining a new society and its physical and psychological traits? What if she were building the Newtown Cultural Precinct?