A few years ago one arts reporter wrote a review applauding a local kwaito album by an all dancing popular group of the day. She, however, dared to question the use of Zulu language in one song. The strapping young artists gave her social (phone) call to advance an offer to aid loosening her bowels.
This story is not unique. In fact, arts critiquing/reviewing is the most uncomfortable aspect of arts journalism. A bright-eyed young wannabe singer enthusiastically hands you a rashly done album that exhibits lacklustre talent, or you are invited out to a theatre play so terrible…
What do you do? At visual art exhibitions, some have resorted to copying out the artists’ press statements and dressing them up as ‘reviews.’ This is to the detriment of the arts industry as cited in an article headlined ‘Praise singing is not critiquing arts,’ published in the January 28, 2007 issue of The Sunday Standard. Thapong Visual Arts Centre’s coordinator, Reginald Bakwena, let it be known that a South African professor from Tshwane University of Technology was invited by the Centre to facilitate an art criticism workshop.
The visiting professor, Ingrid Stevens, former artist herself, has also written art critiques for the Pretoria News in South Africa. She began the three-day art criticism workshop at the Thapong Centre by explaining that art critiquing is instrumental in the growing of an arts fraternity because an art critic is the link between an artwork and the viewers.
Arts reporters, visual artists and representatives from other arts institutions attended the workshop that started on April 16th. Art criticism dates as far back as 1760 in Paris, France, at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Artists in Europe started creating art for themselves and not exclusively for churches and the aristocrat society’s portraits.
It was during this time that artists first held public exhibitions, and Denis Diderot, a philosopher and writer, became a highly influential art critic. Diderot sought to explain the art to the public because it was no longer serving well-known communal purposes but the artists’ personal agendas.
As art movements came and went, different schools of art criticism also formed, each using different criteria for judging art. These include the Marxist, Post-colonial, Psychoanalytic and Feminist art criticism. These varying evaluation systems make for a variation of interpretations.
The Sunday Standard spoke to two visual arts practitioners who attended the art critiquing workshop to find out how they felt about their artwork being evaluated under different systems of thought.
“I have never had a run with negative art criticism,” Isaac Chibua, a painter who was present at the workshop said. “Profiles are normally done on artists but reviews have been more or less non existent.”
Though he would like to see more art reviews, Chibua is wary of destructive criticism.
“Criticism that is politically and/or religiously inclined is selfish, as the critic imposes a lot on the artist,” said Chibua.
Thapong’s 2006 Artist of the Year, Otsetswe ‘OT’ Bogosibokae, also attended the workshop and feels that it is high time the media tuned up their critiquing.
“Art critiquing is a very necessary link between the artist and the viewer. When art critics aren’t being destructive and/or advocating certain art movements over others, reviews serve to educate and interest viewers, in turn separating quality from quantity.”
Bogosibokae, however, does not entertain politically themed art criticism either because he believes that “art is art, it does not mix with politics.”
“It all depends on what purpose the review serves. Scholarly critics are very appropriate in an academic context but newspaper reviews must be digestible to the general public, who aren’t necessarily interested in art.”
During the workshop, Bogosibokae campaigned for dialogue between artists.
“I have heard artists (including musicians) claiming to have ‘produced a masterpiece’ and they still cannot take constructive criticism from fellow artists, because they are not very secure in being questioned about their art.”
As the quote extracted by the workshop facilitator offers, ‘All arts live by words. Each work of art demands its response… May not the prime motive of any work be the wish to give rise to discussion…?’ Paul Valery, French poet and philosopher.