News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Sunday February 17th 2019

Opinion: Some art should be burnt


real tragedy was that Samkelo Mangisa who created this work - one of the better ones on exhibition - died during the course of the show. His work was not burnt but given to his grandmother to sell. Photo: Steve Kretzmann

It sounded like it would be an exciting, controversial art event. As a statement on how artists cannot survive without the public buying their work, all the unsold works from a month-long exhibition were to be burnt on the last night. ‘If artworks are not bought we will have no artists and therefore no art. If you don’t buy it we’ll destroy it’, was the message (paraphrased).

There are a number of problems with that message of course.

Firstly, art is not something you create for a client. It is not created for the public, it is created for the artist. Otherwise it is no longer art, it is a product, a commodity, advertising. Whether it is bought or not should not have any bearing on the desire, the need, to create it.

Secondly, just because it is not purchased does not mean it has no value, Van Gogh being the obvious, famous, example.

Thirdly, some art, like some letters, probably deserve to be burnt. Either because it has no merit, now or at any time in the future, or is self-pitying. This, I admit, is a rather subjective statement.

So, intrigued, I went off with my camera and notebook to see whether this would truly be a tragedy of public non-appreciation and creative loss or simply a good bonfire with free wine.

What I found was tragic, but not in the way I expected. There was little to cry about when it came to the destruction of the artwork, even though only two of the eleven pieces were saved by the generous purse of the public. In fact the two pieces that did have little round red stickers on them, well, let’s just say the buyers should have been burnt. Their only excuse besides gross ignorance of aesthetics could be that they did it out of charity and would quietly feed their purchase into the fireplace at some later date.

No, the tragedy was of the mundane, simply sad sort.

In a dark gallery on the tattered edge of the city where the wind blew papers down the street outside while inebriated beggars tried to cadge cigarettes off the smokers who weren’t allowed to find any badly-needed solace from their habit inside, sat exactly 20 people. Probably ten of these were the artists. The others were the coffee shop/gallery owner, friends of the artists. And me.

There was only one person there who vaguely looked like he might have a wallet fat enough to fork out the R2010 for any of those things that hung on the walls.

The R2010 price was the other downer. It was the price of each of the works because…wait for it…this was a 2010-themed exhibition. Something really unoriginal like ‘what is the legacy of the 2010 World Cup for Africa?’

Talk about putting the pressure on a bunch of relatively unknown artists.

Coming up with some unique visual commentary on something that has been kicked to death by so many various guises of the global media is a task even Kentridge would probably shy away from. And no, as you’ve probably already guessed, for the most part they didn’t rise above the weight of expectation. Except for one, an interesting little abstract piece painted on a piece of driftwood. I would have rescued it out of the fire, but on the sly. I wouldn’t have paid for it either. Oh yes, there was also a pleasing woodcut, but its edging of cut-off sucker sticks detracted from the simplicity of it somewhat.

And then, to add to the melancholy of this Friday night gathering scheduled because it was on the 10th day of the month, the promised excitement of a bonfire that was supposed to be significantly lit at 20.10 was to be taken away from us. The city wouldn’t allow a bonfire in an empty lot, the coffee shop/gallery owner told us, after giving a speech about how the Catholic Church used to burn artwork it didn’t agree with in the 1400’s or whenever.

No, the work was to be taken to the Bellville incinerator the next day and all were welcome to bear witness.

Too disheartened to even try concoct a story of controversy around this misdirected scene of creative nihilism, I made my way to the Kimberley Hotel.

There, at least, was a place I could drink AND smoke and lose myself in memories that fitted the occasion.

You know the reflection of the light on the gloss of that old bar counter is really quite something? Maybe someone should paint it. Like a single van Gogh star. – Steve Kretzmann, West Cape News

Tags: art, art event, artworks, controversial art, exhibition, van gogh

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