Archive: Issue No. 126, February 2008

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From: Landi Raubenheimer
Date received: November 26
Subject: In response to the responses to September's Willem Boshoff review

The twin responses by Ms. Allan and Preller to my review of Willem Boshoff's exhibition at the Standard Bank Art Gallery seem to warrant further discussion. They raise some interesting points that I would like to elaborate on here.

Reviews are intrinsically (like all published texts) written for a response. To ignore this potential seems pointless, and as such the abovementioned review did raise some more contentious issues around the exhibition. To my mind, response to a text can take many forms and, as Ms. Allan points out, rigorous and critical debate is certainly a desirable form of response in this case. Regrettably Ms. Allan's criticism of the review, that it is blatantly provocative, is reflected by her and Ms. Preller's own letters of response.

The problem here is not just the review format however, but the ambiguous status that writers have within South African Art criticism. The vague consensus seems to be that such critics should be clever and pithy but also diplomatic and kind to artists, since they are most likely to be artists themselves. Why this is the case I cannot understand. I would like to believe that individual voices are as important in art criticism as they are in art. This may be idealistic as the evidently more jaded Ms. Preller points out, but why bother to critique if one will settle for anything? Unfortunately Ms. Allan and Preller both glibly refused to take issue with Boshoff's work and launched into a personal attack on the review, which leaves one a little disappointed.

Far from being an overview of all of Boshoff's work, the review focused on some of his more recent work. Much of his work is celebrated, and rightly so, as was acknowledged. In such a short format one is forced to isolate pertinent works, however. Most of the issues raised in response to the review were related to the interpretation of War and Peace. In this work Boshoff seems self-righteous and callous in his representation of the Middle East crisis. One asks for some sensitivity to the difficulty of addressing these issues. If the mass media is in fact the most suitable source of political information, then one would expect an ideology critical artwork such as War and Peace to reflect some cognisance of the media's relationship to ideology.

How can one possibly argue that an artist only has the tools of hegemony itself to critically deconstruct current ideologies? This does not mean that the artist must experience every situation for himself in order to warrant an opinion (or in fact be 'embedded' in the problem). A more self-reflexive stance with regards to one's own position within and relationship to hegemony is perhaps called for. Such positions are always fraught with difficulty, but it is this complexity that is lacking in War and Peace.

Ms. Allan raises several more issues, one of which is the reviewer's apparent lack of understanding of ideology theory. Why should the writer think herself less deceived by ideology? This was rather clumsily acknowledged in the review as being an inherent danger in ideology critique. Simply turning the argument around and challenging a writer to trump the artist seems circular and pointless. What is the difference between critical positions and ideological positions? In this context Ms. Allan's question sounds like a trick question. However, one may presume that critical positions are self-reflexive and ideological positions are often not. As such we may all (artists, critics and their critics) fall prey to both positions.

I would also like to elucidate the term 'subaltern classes'. This is a reference to Antonio Gramsci, and possibly his close and established reading of Marx is not understood by all as part of 'Marxist terminology'. The term refers to 'classes' that are at the mercy of ideological power. Perhaps in modern society these classes were clearly distinguishable, but in Ms. Preller's post post-modern society, economic class structure is fraught with paradox. What I am suggesting, and I do simplify, is that viewers of mass media and notably 'the news' are often in a position comparable to the subaltern and bourgeois classes (as Gramsci interpreted them), since there is an illusion of agreement and power (hegemony). Boshoff fails to acknowledge this in many of his recent artworks, but particularly in War and Peace, which is not a matter of simplification or reduction as much as of omission.

Describing Boshoff's modus operandi as pseudo-scientific was not a reference to Marxist theory. His work carries authority because of its reference to statistics and its relation to social systems such as ideology. The interpretation of this 'data' seems lacking in that he never takes it further than that, however. Yes, puzzles are intrinsically interesting and complex in meaning, but using numerical and literary systems as sole bases for artworks strikes me as formulaic. It also seems formulaic and sure to resonate with corporate investors, to refer to political situations by quoting political statistics.

Artists are part of the economy and corporate art collections are valuable as a support structure, but using ideology critique in a facile manner creates the illusion of an artistic moral higher ground. It is arguably this moral higher ground that investors attain from the investments they make in the art world. This tenuous relationship between art and commerce is what Adorno addresses, and although Ms. Preller may yet accuse him of being idealistic or outdated, his thoughts seem preferable to blind allegiance to systems of art consumption.

Many critics have said before that Boshoff is more persona than artist, and there are moments in his exhibition where I found it to be disappointingly accurate. In the light of ideology critique it seems prudent to question what one sees, even if it is established art. It seems that all artists have at least one or two devotees who have no such inclination however.

From: Karin Preller
Subject: Landi Raubenheimer's review of Willem Boshoff show
Date received: 30.10.07

While criticality in reviews should be welcomed, as it is so often absent, Landi Raubenheimer's review of Willem Boshoff's exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery is such an easy dismissal of the practice of one of South Africa's most successful conceptual artists (one who has, according to Raubenheimer, 'even' attained international acclaim) that it cannot go unanswered.

Raubenheimer's main point of criticism seems to centre on the 'extent of ideological criticism in [Boshoff's] artistic practice', or, at least, on his lack of consideration of the complexities and nuances of ideology, and on his apparent lack of integrity by naïvely assuming a critical ideological stance from 'the viewpoint his living room affords him'. Thrown into this is the fact that Boshoff's art is included in most corporate collections, the implication being that this somehow instantly disqualifies and discredits him and his artistic practice.

This, surely, is a debate that is ultimately just pointless, circular and, quite frankly, extremely dated (especially in this (post) postmodern world). It is just so easy to accuse any artist of the calibre of Boshoff of this complicity with some of the power structures which he might also be challenging. However, how exactly does an artist circumvent this? This irony has befallen almost every major 'subversive' artist and artwork since Duchamp and conceptual art's challenges to the definition of the artist and art object itself. The argument is indicative of nothing except naïvete on the part of the reviewer.

Boshoff's alleged failure to deal with ideology's complexities is simply not well founded. The reviewer's reference to Marxism seems reductive in itself. Furthermore, Raubenheimer seems to suggest that, on one level, Boshoff's work is 'intangible and alienating to the viewer' while at the same time arguing (albeit in relation to specific earlier works) that 'everything is far too obvious'. It is just too easy to isolate specific works to suit one's argument.

Boshoff is further accused of not communicating the human suffering he alludes to, and of an 'irritating' tendency (mainly in his 2004 work) to deal with issues in a clinical, tidy manner ('the works are just too neat and tidily resolved'). The reviewer clearly still has extremely optimistic ideas about the power of art. In a world in which we are constantly, visually and otherwise, reminded of acts of violence against humanity, is it not exactly in the absence of overtly dealing with the atrocities of human suffering where the strength and the impact of his work lies? His exploration of language as a powerful tool which informs, constructs, distorts, simplifies and obfuscates means that one is engaged exactly 'on levels other than just the visual'.

To blithely use phrases like 'matric level artwork', 'clichéd and naïve', and 'contrived' in relation to some of the 2004 works, and then to ignore the nuanced complexities of the body of work as a whole, smacks of a patronising arrogance, and, worse, it is not founded on convincing arguments. So, with an easy dismissal of one or two of Boshoff's works, Raubenheimer has 'yet to be persuaded by some of his artworks'. 'Persuasive' is unfortunately not a term that springs to mind when reading this review. The review leaves this writer unconvinced, and yet to be persuaded.

From: Lisa Allan
Subject: Landi Raubenheimer's review of Willem Boshoff show
Date received: 28.10.07

There are several issues I would like to respond to in Landi Raubenheimer's review of Willem Boshoff's midlife retrospective, (ArtThrob October 2007). I would like to make it clear that this response is to Raubenheimer's review as opposed to my own reading of Boshoff's exhibition.

Rigorous debate and critical responses to artists' exhibitions in forums such as ArtThrob should be welcomed. It is something that is singularly missing in 'the insular art world in South Africa', but unnecessarily provocative and insulting statements should not be conflated with critique. Provocation as a conceit in this instance seems to be more about the reviewer's desire for a response, or to be perceived as the fearless avant garde critic rather than adding any particular merit to the review. Presumably adding 'insult to injury' can work both ways.

Is Raubenheimer truly accusing Boshoff of insulting his viewers? It would be enlightening to the reader - and to Boshoff - to be informed of the alternative position the artist should take other than the 'view from his living room'. Is Raubenheimer suggesting that Boshoff needs to be an 'embedded' artist in order to effectively comment on, or condemn political actions? What 'knowledge' of political actions does Raubenheimer have other than the view from her living room? Unless she is suggesting that artists can only make work about things that they 'know' which assumes that the experience of knowing is unmediated, how else can artists comment on political or social acts with insight and 'moral objectivity' other than through 'knowledge' gleaned from the mass media?

Raubenheimer argues that ideology functions through deception but does not make it clear why she, the reviewer, should be less deceived than the artist, Boshoff. Raubenheimer claims that ideology deceives the bourgeois and 'subaltern' (?) classes and situates Boshoff's subject position within one or the other of these classes. Quite how she arrives at this conclusion is not explained and further prompts the question of how the reviewer herself is positioned vis a vis these two class positions. (Not to mention that Marxist terminology does not utilize the concept of a subaltern class).

It is also unclear why Raubenheimer sees Boshoff's 'use of systems and bodies of knowledge' as echoing 'the system of ideas that constitute ideology in the Western world'. What might these overwhelmingly general systems of ideas consist of? Earlier in the review Raubenheimer comments that 'ideology is complex and nuanced', a statement that is certainly not carried through in the reviewer's characterisation of the ideology of Boshoff or of the Western world. Raubenheimer then proceeds with the astonishing statement: 'at the risk of exposing my own unconscious ideological prejudices', an act she should not be able to perform if her ideological prejudices were in fact, unconscious. Furthermore this statement prompts the question of why any particular critical position with regard to artworks has to be informed by an ideological position at all. On the contrary, Raubenheimer exposes a tendency to reduce every critical move to the machinations of ideology, something she accuses Boshoff of practicing in his recent political work.

It is the last paragraph of the review in which Raubenheimer seems to be most ardently practicing a kind of avant garde provocation. Not only does she accuse Boshoff of being self-righteous, a state of being that seems contradictory given that she accuses Boshoff earlier on of producing works which 'turn out like clinical abstractions'. Is it possible to be self-righteous and clinically abstract at the same time? But the most baffling claim is Raubenheimer's statement that Boshoff's approach to ideological critique is 'pseudo-scientific'. Does Raubenheimer mean that Boshoff, like Marx, sees economic critique as a 'science'? This seems hard to reconcile with an artist who is 'wrapped up in self-righteous explorations of his own beliefs and pre-occupations'. Moreover, Raubenheimer never explains why she sees Boshoff's pseudo-scientific approach to ideology as dubious, to herself or the reader. Nor does the reviewer make clear the link between Boshoff's mythical persona and his supposed lack of artistic integrity. Is the reader simply meant to presume that because of the caricature (by Raubenheimer) of Boshoff as artistic genius, that as a result his work is equally a caricature of artistic integrity?