Lloyd Pollak's letter to Artthrob has inspired a variety of responses both for and against his criticisms of Artthrob's editorial policy. To follow the debate, you may want to read his letter first. Last week, Michaelis lecturer Malcolm Payne joined the fray, in turn eliciting further responses. Letters are ordered by date from most to least recent. Thanks to all for the passionate and considered contributions. Please email the editor to add your comments.
From: Brad Hammond
Date: March 26
Subject: left of centre and to the right, one, two, three, four
The Arthrob people have fashioned something out of nothing (like artists do) so why shouldn't they choose the work they think is relevant to their site? They do not have a responsibility to represent everyone. Sure, you don't have to like the work they like - I know I don't always and sometimes I get bored stiff with art-speak - but the spirit and tenacity they've shown in breathing life into the contemporary art scene in South Africa is very likeable indeed. Thanks to Artthrob, we can actually feel a pulse. Surely they are worthy of a far more constructive approach than that which is being offered by the critics of Artthrob in this debate.
Who else has produced a long-running publication on art in South Africa with a growing readership both local and international? I think you'll find that your options are a bit limited. Artthrob has emerged mainly from the initiative and commitment of its writers. It does not fill a pre-existing space in South Africa. It has created a space of its own, and perhaps that could inspire others to do the same, rather than try to damage it in the same way that kids smash other kids' sand castles and take their lunch.
The irony is that this is probably the only place where these issues can be raised and debated and anyone would actually give a stuff, which in itself is a tribute to this site. To speak of Artthrob as mainstream and "epitomising the status quo" as Mr Payne does seems a bit of an exaggeration. Rugby and Big Brother probably fit that description better than an artist-powered publication on contemporary South African art.
From: Maggie Gresson
Date: March 24
Subject: Artthrob debate
I have had a brief look at the debate currently raging in the Artthrob feedback section. I am envious. All those people with opinions and not afraid to express them. I am the Executive Director of Artists Alliance which was established 11 years ago to represent and advance the professional interests of visual artists in Aotearoa/New Zealand. One of my many tasks is to produce a bi-monthly print magazine which goes out to members and subscribers. Oh to have a dialogue section such as Artthrob does! I am a frequent visitor to the site. I think it is excellent and I recommend it to many people - as an example of a successful site, but also as a great way to find out what is happening in the South African art sector. And it is all good stuff. Artists Alliance does not have a website of its own - due to financial constraints. We do contribute to the visual arts section of the website called www.thebigidea.co.nz which is new and still in its testing phase, but has a very promising future.
Best wishes to you all
Maggie Gresson, Executive Director, Artists Alliance, Aotearoa/New Zealand
From: Malcolm Payne
Date: March 23
Subject: Feedback - Pollak Edmunds Video
The writer who needs taking deadly seriously in this debate is moralist Paul
Edmonds. He has nose. He tells us why Pollak's letter appeared in the first
place - a spat with Sue Williamson. In Pollak's case this might be true. I
have not asked him.
Edmonds employs similar induction to suggest my joining the debate is not
simply a straightforward response to Roper and Smith's quarrel with Pollak,
but rather motivated by Artthrob's review of Video (curated by Tom van
Vliet, not Payne) held at the Michaelis Galleries. He pads this with bizarre
conjecture about the curatorial process.
So, Edmonds' dreamy deviation from the main debate must be responded to, if
only for denouncing his calumniations.
It is true I communicated with the arts editor of the M&G. There is nothing
politically dodgy about suggesting they review an exhibition. Getting
reviews for art exhibitions in the print media is not easy. We felt the show
important. Of course we wanted maximum coverage, favourable or not is hardly
the issue. It's the luck of the draw in this business and anyway if M&G did
not wish to pressure Edmonds to review the show they were quite at liberty
to do so.
He boasts his misgivings about the premise of the exhibition. He sanctimoniously views it flawed from the outset.
A show of this sort, on my initiation, has been in the planning since 1998
after discussions in Amsterdam and reinforced in 2000 when I last exhibited
on the festival. Tom van Vliet's (WWVF director) eventual visit to South
Africa in February 2001 was to secure the presence of African artists for
the festival that year. On the day of his arrival he was delighted to meet
Sue Williamson and Robert Weinek who were helpful in introducing him to
local artists. Later, some were specifically commissioned to produce new
work for the core exhibition. At the time we discussed bringing festival
works to Cape Town.
Our new gallery policy to feature media art was made possible in part by
Thomas Mulcaire's fine reconstruction of our main gallery for Steve McQueen.
Hiddingh Hall was avaliable. WWVF were in a position to supply beams,
players and burn the DVD material. The show finally seemed possible. From
the outset my work was to be included in the show and anyway what does that
matter. Sure other artists from South Africa were on last year's and other
WWVF shows. However Tom van Vliet as curator and WWVF as major sponsor
selected only those commissioned works from 2001 plus my new work for
exhibition in Cape Town. (See World Wide Video Festival website for
Edmond's indictment about a "flawed curatorial process" is therefore
spurious. Contrition is not what I expect but next time instead of sniffing
around he should just ask.
As for Kathryn she can have her "Y" back with pleasure. I have replaced
Edmonds "U" with a "zero".
From: Sean O'Toole
Date: March 22
Subject: Of things a few metres above sea level
I have always regarded myself an outsider, a spectator to the ebb and flow of South African art practice. Quite possibly this entitles me to a lesser ticket,
the cheap seats if you would. At risk of eviction from this heavyweight title match, I am going to sneak forward and steal a ringside seat so that I too can
add my loud jeers to the cacophony of voices.
Anyone noticed the defensive bunker casting its imperious shadow over this little debate? Maybe I should phrase that statement more clearly. The mighty
mount seems to be doing its job again, hiding Cape Town from the rest of us, keeping the issues insular and, let's be honest, parochial.
I think Paul Edmunds deserves praise for having fairly lifted the veil on this little tiff masquerading as a national debate, and Nick Dawes too for fairly stating that specific concerns, not personal animus, should be the source of debate. OK sure, there have been some valid objections raised and counter-arguments tendered, but much of the invective seems to be grounded in petty local politics. I personally find the lack of commentary from the "entirety of the South African arts scene", as Lloyd Pollak would have us,
To Mr Lloyd Pollak specifically, I would like to suggest you contemplate some wisdom imported from elsewhere, from Durban to be exact. It comes from a poem entitled On Some South African Novelists. Just for good measure, I'll quote old Roy Campbell:
You praise the firm restraint with which they write -
I'm with you there of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where's the bloody horse?
Out to pasture I would venture.
From: Chris Roper
Date: March 20
Subject: Response to Payne
I was tempted to indulge myself in my response to Malcolm Payne's letter, and I had a whole bunch of funny ripostes ready. But perhaps it's time we elevated this debate a little, and started to address the real problems that both he and Pollak have raised. Despite the fact that I could have great fun pointing out the various incoherencies in his letter, not to mention the typos (but he is not, after all, a writer, although I am aware that anyone can write a letter, just as anyone can be an idiot), it would serve little purpose. (Damn! Sorry. I couldn't resist one little intertextual gibe, I'll stop now.) Also, there are some very interesting debates that could be sparked by his missive. But while I address these, allow me to also correct some blatant misprision by Payne.
I did not describe "Artthrob as the avant-garde being attacked by Pollack [sic] who represents the mainstream". I wrote: "I often side with the spirit of Lloyd Pollak's reviews, if not the substance. I think that the mainstream attacking the avant garde is often more valuable then the reverse, and certainly far braver."
It wouldn't be difficult to prove that many of Pollak's reviews attack the avant garde, or at least what he might term the self-professed avant garde. In fact, around this point I agree with Payne whole-heartedly when he writes "Artthrob does not embody the avant-garde. It is middle of the road and mainstream like most media in South Africa". I certainly do not ascribe the axiological judgments to the terms "avant garde" and "mainstream" that Payne alleges. He seems to have mistaken me for someone else, possibly Peet Pienaar (just kidding, Peet).
I am a firm believer in the mainstream, and well aware that the so-called avant garde is always a part of the mainstream. I doubt very much (although I don't know) whether the Artthrob editors would think of themselves as "avant garde". By the way, I am NOT an Artthrob reviewer, except on very, very rare occasions, so please don't tar the site with my brush. Of course, here we might start debating what the hell we mean by avant garde, but perhaps that is too rigorous a discipline for a mere letter. However, it would be a very interesting thing to debate on Artthrob's forums, and I'm hoping Payne will clarify what he means. All I can say is, the life of a critic is an interesting one. One day you get a letter from Beezy Bailey accusing you of selling out to the mainstream for giving Paul du Toit a positive interview, the next a letter from Malcolm Payne accusing you of siding with the avant garde.
Payne also writes: "In a spin of profound logic [Roper] tells us Artthrob's editor is not 'a crap editor' because she decides the content". No, Payne, that's not fair. I didn't write something as stupid as that. I know you're not a journalist, but still, you can't twist people's words like that. What I wrote was: "Artthrob is a media property run by an editor who knows the target market she is trying to reach. Why the hell shouldn't she decide on the kind of content and editorial stance the publication will take? She has to, or else she's a crap editor." I know many crap editors who decide content. The point is, every media property has to have a vision (or business case), and stick to that vision. You can argue with the vision, but not with the publisher's right to have a vision. We've seen many media properties sink that tried to be all things to all people.
Payne also writes: Roper "trashes the 'amorphous audience of dissatisfied art-lovers' and the 'bloody apathetic' art community and artists he accuses Lloyd of championing. Roper doesn't like 'them'. He parades his bigotry and distaste for others who probably make up ninety percent of the real art world." As revealing as it is to know that Malcolm Payne consider 90% of the art world to be apathetic (see how easy it is to twist words), I didn't say that. I wrote: "Lloyd, the section of the art community that you champion is too bloody apathetic to contribute to a Feedback forum." I then admitted that I was being emotional here, and that I had no right to assume I knew who he was talking about. But where do I say "90%"? I mean, I know Lloyd's a popular guy, but really. I'm referring to a small group of people who, for instance, often ask me why I don't list them in the M&G listings, and then seem dumbfounded when I tell them, well, it's because you didn't send me any information. Or more specifically, I am asserting a provable point: the section of the community that Pollak champions has NOT contributed to the Feedback forum. That is left to Pollak himself to do, in an act of bravery that I have already applauded. To set me up as the enemy of the art community is really an underhanded thing to do, Payne. I think that 99% of the artists and gallerists I have the pleasure of dealing with are great people, battling overwhelming odds to serve the discipline they love.
I see that there are rather a lot of misreadings that I've taken issue with, and I'm being far too self-indulgent. I'd like to move on to the more valuable parts of Payne's letter now. Allow me to summarise some of these issues, as I see this letter is getting too long. Payne dismisses the theoretical paradigm from which Kathryn Smith speaks as disciplines that have "desperately appropriated the visual to set themselves up [as] producers of meaning". I'd like to find out what he means by this. Is he contending that the discipline of cultural studies is hogwash? Is he saying that an analysis (or review) of an artwork must only stem from one philosophical or theoretical position? Or is he perhaps saying a simpler thing, which is that artists can't be critics? I hope not, because that would be like saying that artists can't be teachers. This is a thread of discussion that could add a lot of value to Artthrob's discussion forums, along with the one about "what is the avant garde, what is the mainstream".
Actually, I'd better stop now, although there are several other interesting points in Payne's letter. Perhaps other readers will point them out, though. But in closing: Payne is of course free to call me "smug", and a blatherer. Hell, my own mother has made those points on occasion. I myself would not stoop to insulting him, as I hold him and his work in too high regard. But please, not "gonzo". That's a technical term which Payne is misusing, and it's also a style of journalism that I've spent many years trying to beat out of my students and staff. I hate it. It certainly doesn't belong in art reviews.
One final point: what about holding a vote on Artthrob, asking readers' opinions on what sort of content they'd like to see here? I don't see why people like myself should presume to speak for others. Let's ask the people who count, the readers.
From: Paul Edmunds
Date: March 18
As one of the few Artthrob writers who hasn't personally been given any stick in the recent flurry of criticism of our endeavour, I have this to offer. Just to be clear about it, though, I must say that I welcome any criticism and constructive engagement with the site and its contents. I am, however, a little dubious of personal kneejerk reactions in the guise of criticism.
Looking back at some of the correspondence we've received lately I'm forced to examine from whence I think it really comes. Lloyd Pollak, with whom I get on very well and have recently begun a project, wrote his letter soon after a small altercation with Sue Williamson about some serious factual errors in a review he wrote for the Cape Times. I suspect that him feeling a little sore had something to do with his near-vitriolic response to Artthrob, which is still widely believed to be under the editorship of Sue Williamson [Sophie Perryer took over as editor in May last year].
Malcolm Payne's response came after a fairly unfavourable review of the video show he put together at the Michaelis Galleries (from a critic who is not incidentally an artist and the content of whose reviews far outstrips the title of "reviewer/journalist" Payne so self-consciously uses). I was asked to write a review of the same show for the Mail & Guardian, after Payne himself contacted the Arts Editor and then called me to suggest I write something. Those are at best dodgy politics.
Anyway, in keeping with the spirit of reportage these days required by the paper, my "review" was newsy, punchy and very much shorter than when I wrote it. I told Payne that that was what he should expect, and frankly I was quite relieved because I felt the premise of the exhibition to be flawed from the outset. It featured four works commissioned by the World Wide Video Festival in 2001 as well as a new work by Payne, the showing of which he justified by saying that he had twice previously participated in the festival. So have several other South African artists, and a number of them were there last year. Lucky for Payne, Nic Dawes' incisive pen didn't venture anywhere near such a flawed curatorial process. That is, if artists can also be curators.
From: Nic Dawes
Date: March 18
It seems to me that this debate, if in fact it rises to the level of debate, is now concerned chiefly with its own mechanics, and has long since left behind the question of Artthrob's editorial policy. There are points in Lloyd Pollak's original letter which, I would suggest, are well taken - these concern the relatively unsophisticated technology of the site and the consequent absence of a vigorous feedback section.
The key charges surrounding "cliché-ridden art speak" and - a strange animus or anxiety seems to creep in here - Sue Williamson's "apron strings" remain completely unsubstantiated. For example, Malcolm Payne mentions only two actual reviews, both of them written by me, and both deployed by Chris Roper to refute Lloyd Pollak's assertion that Artthrob is uncritically avant-gardist. Payne does not stoop to debating the substance of these reviews, he simply points to Het Parool's review of Matt Hindley, and waves his hands in the general direction of "substantial" international reviews of Berni Searle's Venice piece without quoting either. I would be quite happy to have Payne point out both the stylistic and and critical flaws in my writing, but he has chosen not to.
Even a thorough demolition of my art-critical and literary pretensions, however, would hardly serve the purpose of exposing Artthrob for a slackly written and partisan hobbyhorse in the thrall of a smothering maternal force. After all, I have written for Artthrob only a few times, and I am apt to disagree with Sue Williamson about a great deal of work (not least Searle's).
Like Payne, Pollak names names (Brenda Atkinson good, Sue Williamson bad) without engaging the substance of the writing - he does not cite a single clunky sentence or discuss the detail of a one ludicrous opinion.
The question of contemporariness - handled rather casually and no doubt in the heat of the moment by Kathryn Smith, but originally posed by Pollak - is a red herring. What Pollack wrote was: "Artthrob is associated with Ms Williamson and like-minded critics, and it tends to promote the interests of a particular clique of artists. This cosy little mutual admiration society is committed to so-called 'cutting-edge' art, and this is accorded far more coverage than more traditional forms of art-making which are often simply ignored despite their excellence."
Payne, on the other hand, contends that Artthrob is precisely not cutting-edge, but mainstream and, more damningly still, dressed in a thin pale skin.
In this tired game the players stake out positions with respect to some imagined limit and stock up on the authority of the solid centre or the bleeding edge. Both approaches are bafflingly naive, particularly given that they are adopted here by two people who are very familiar with difficulties attendant on nailing an ethical manifesto to the mast of either avant-gardism as such, or conservatism.
It strikes me as unfortunate that a debate around the lack of debate on Artthrob, fuelled as far as I can tell by no small amount of personal animus, should fill up these pages. I, for one, would rather respond to specific concerns about my review of the show Malcolm Payne curated at Michaelis recently, or explain to those who were outraged by my 'Authentic/Ex-centric' review why I thought Berni Searle's Snow White looked pretty dull alongside Yinka Shonibare's brilliant Vacation 2000.
I have been pleasantly surprised in recent months to find out just how many members of the South African art community are regular readers of Artthrob. It must have something to do with all the sloppy writing and pale partisanship.
From: Kathryn Smith
Date: March 18
Subject: re: Pollack and Artthrob
Malcolm, I would like to request the "Y" in Kathryn.
From: Malcolm Payne
Date: March 15
Subject: Pollack and Artthrob
It seems Lloyd Pollack makes the following not unreasonable points:
1. Artthrob's reviewers, critics or whatever you wish to call them
lack "literary excellence", and therefore collapse into what he calls
"cliché-ridden 'art speak'".
2. That Artthrob remains tied to Sue Williamson's apron strings,
lingering on devotedly to her clique of critics and artists who
represent (in their opinion) all that is "cutting-edge" in South
African art. In so doing, Pollack contends other practitioners are
ignored and therefore the site is partisan.
3. That debate on Artthrob's feedback column seems suppressed.
Of course the initial response to his views come from the site's
editors. They are proud of their reviewers' selectivity (sparked by
interest) whom they also claim are adept at discerning innovation.
The second rejoinder arrives from Katherine Smith, a regular Artthrob
contributor from Johannesburg. She defines herself as artist, curator
and critic - a Jill of all trades. She writes confusingly as one might
expect from one who has astonishingly united these disparate practices
that she guiltily admits trigger lapses into a learned language that
she believes "'produces' the contemporary art world as we know it".
Cosily swathed in this unholy trinity she asserts her disclaimer.
Interdisciplinarity is for South Africans an imperative, a "survival
necessity", not only for the artists themselves but also for art in
this region generally. If art and its cognate zones in this region are
suffering from an identity crisis, which is what I think she is
suggesting, it is precisely brought about because of a thin reading of
notions of interdisciplinarity - any artist can be a critic, any
critic can be a curator, any museologist can be an artist and so on,
which is plain nonsense and anyone can be an idiot.
The deepest sense of what it means to work inter the disciplines is
found in the production of art by artists. Art by its very nature is a
product of interdisciplinary methodologies. This is nothing new. The
form that Smith talks of has come about through revisions in the
social sciences, historical studies and cultural studies. These
disciplines see the visual as text. They have, in affect, rather
desperately appropriated the visual to set themselves up producers of
It is this light that Smith exemplifies Pollack's first observation
(art speak) further on in her response when she fleshes out her
contentions on "the primary value of, and means of defining
'contemporary' art". What does she mean in this most extraordinary
passage and why is it in her repost? I can only think it is in
response to Pollack's accusation that Artthrob focus on so-called
"cutting-edge" art, and is meant to be a lesson in the contemporary.
Perhaps Pollack has a point.
Smith's umbrage at Pollack's suggestion that criticism of Artthrob is
suppressed sees her peeling away two of her interdisciplinary skins.
Now as Artthrob artist she protests with outrage at his submission
that the gang gets reviewed by each other favourably. Clearly the
remaining hide is thin, and Pollak has got under it.
So all of this in the light of Smith's odd desire for merriment brings
me to the next columnist, Chris Roper, and his response to Pollack.
Roper's smug gonzo chic, "so what", "why the hell" style differs from
Smith's. In a spin of profound logic he tells us Artthrob's editor is
not "a crap editor" because she decides the content. That's fine by me
if it is an editor's work to be selective, and to gather around a team
able to focus on producing the best journalism for the best material.
Pollack's material seems good enough. It's eating up space, and that
is good. What is even better is that it has allowed Roper's true
journalistic credentials to float to the surface.
In his second point he refutes Pollack's allegation that Artthrob
favours so-called groundbreaking exhibitions, and that they are
favourably reviewed. He cites a few examples of Artthrob's probing
cutting-edge critique in support of his denial. These singular reviews
by Artthrob's part-timers sit clumsily next to Het Parool's
professional reviews of Matt Hindley's work in Amsterdam or
substantial international press reviews of Searle's work at the Venice
Biennale. Dawes' supercilious take, I suspect, on Hindley's work
presented at the Michaelis Galleries seems excited by factors other
than the complexity the work presents.
What may be constructive for Artthrob in the future (picking up on
Roper's "Come on Lloyd!") appeal, is to publish more than one
journalist's opinion, as is often seen in conventional print media.
Roper's third point or argument is self-defeating. Artthrob is
manifestly partisan. Any small closely confined crew existing on a
shoestring can only but be. There is no sense in him defending their
sovereignty, however, if "the love of art" is what motivates them - an
expanded more inclusive, less conformist (avant garde), less
mainstream vision of art can only profit the site.
In Roper's third and particularly fourth point he trashes the
"amorphous audience of dissatisfied art-lovers" and the "bloody
apathetic" art community and artists he accuses Lloyd of championing.
Roper doesn't like "them". Blathering on loosely he eventually
disingenuously checks himself, but the damage is done. He parades his
bigotry and distaste for others who probably make up ninety percent of
the real art world.
Lastly he asks we should not get him wrong. He applauds Pollack's
submission. But I get him wrong for what he says at the start where he
describes Artthrob as the avant-garde being attacked by Pollak who
represents the mainstream.
On the contrary, Artthrob epitomises the status quo. Artthrob does not
embody the avant-garde. It is middle of the road and mainstream like
most media in South Africa. Its reviewers or journalists or whatever
you wish to call them sit squarely in the centre/right of mainstream
politics, art and identity. A defining feature of those that reside in
this pale comfort zone is a deep suspicion of criticism, of others, of
diverse opinion and art that looks different.
Please read Pollack's interpretation of your operation as a wake-up
From: Kathryn Smith
Date: March 12
Subject: Response to Lloyd Pollak's letter
Partisanship and bias are one thing, but to confuse them with editorial policy is quite another. There is nothing worse than woolly editorial policy as it confuses readers and writers alike. As a contributor, who happens to pursue interests in artmaking, curatorship and criticism, I am only too grateful to know for who I am writing, despite being as guilty as the next artist-writer - and critic, occasionally - for lapsing into the language we learn after a couple of years in the global community that "produces" the contemporary art world as we know it.
I do feel very strongly that despite questions about whether artists should review each other's work, interdisciplinary practices are on the increase, both as an intellectual imperative and for South Africans in an ungracious cultural milieu, a survival necessity. Yes, writing about a fellow artist's work is obviously tricky for personal and professional reasons, and familiarity can indeed breed contempt, but the exchanges that happen between artists do account for certain "qualifications" to comment in this regard, if it does need justifying at all. But until the broader spectrum of "art" is understood and valued as a professional career option (and as Estelle Jacobs notes, the industry is somehow regulated - although I do believe people get involved in the art scene to escape any kind of regulation, but I take her point), and arts and culture criticism is seriously introduced into journalism and English degrees respectively (as well as other related fields), it will inevitably be the artists who write about art to try and pay the rent.
The fact that the team of writers associated with Artthrob seem to wax lyrical about a certain kind of artmaking, despite whether the exhibitions actually live up to expectations is ludicrous. Surely we all, in our own (hopefully) informed but subjective ways, give credit where credit is due, and acknowledge who is challenging the familiar in ways that are themselves formally or conceptually compelling. Having said that, supporters of the contemporary South African art scene are dedicated and need little convincing. How many times do you see a completely different set of people at an opening? However, the broader perceptions of the South African art scene are in desperate need of a shot in the arm. Museums don't have acquisitions budgets to speak of. In a few years' time, it's going to look as if we stopped making art after the mid-1990s when in fact we're in the midst of a fundamental redefinition of why and how we do things culturally. And with the daily media having more or less abandoned considered and extensive critical reviews in favour of listings and endless TV guides, it's no wonder "the public" have lost interest in what's going on. They don't get the information and it's not like Artthrob, being the case in point, has massive PR budgets to take out a series of billboards on the highway advertising our presence and service.
It is my contention that the primary value of, and means of defining "contemporary" art (which is defined less by a time-frame than by its intellectual ethos) is a practice that overtly or covertly helps to shift our perceptions and assumptions, and is ultimately informed by and contingent on external factors. Obviously this kind of art making has its own internal language systems that are specific, as much as Impressionism or Cubism had their respective sets of rules. The thing here is that there are that many more contingencies and subjectivities floating about the place, that then produces particular insecurities in producers and viewers alike.
You can't please everybody all of the time and a publication that tries to do that is its own worst enemy. Most of the problems Pollak raises in his letter regarding Artthrob's failure to be inclusive and representative are less about Artthrob and instead point to a general lack of representation for the arts in any kind of publication in South Africa. If there are a limited number of dedicated arts publications, the pressure is on them to deliver all the goods. For those who are unhappy, I go with Chris Roper's suggestion - go start your own publication.
As for suppressing criticism about ourselves, this is outrageous. As artists, we run the risk of doing ourselves a huge professional disservice if we were obnoxious enough to swan about in the tiny pond of the local art scene, thinking we are beyond reproach. Our careers would be cut short faster that we could say "abstract expressionism". We are continually appraised by and then appraise friends and colleagues. This can't always be positive or the scene gets way too comfy and nothing moves forward. The fact is that apathy seems to define the work ethic of the armchair critic, and if as many people took written issue (ie use the Feedback facility on the site) with things they feel dissatisfied with on the site, we'd have more Feedback than other content. I would see that as a particular kind of victory. And singular individuals like Pollak wouldn't be left waving the flag alone to take the flak when I know there are armies of people holding similar opinions hiding in the shrubbery.
And as a final note: Mutual admiration - or perhaps respect is a better word - is always, in my worldview, hugely preferable to bitchy gossip. Both are endemic to any kind of career that involves putting ego and self-determination above a worker-bee policy. Writer Chris Roper and gallerist Estelle Jacobs both responded eloquently to Pollak's letter, and it's important to note that if entertaining, opinionated and hopefully contentious criticism can help stimulate discussion, as Pollak's letter has, then we're well on our way. Thanks, Lloyd. Let's just hope the fun don't stop here. The buck probably should though.
From: Abrie Fourie
Date: March 12
Subject: Philippians 4.8
[With reference to Sophie Perryer's report on the nominations for the FNB Vita Art Prize 2002] Just for the record Niven Anghar (MTN Art Institute) was the curator for the 'New Media Exhibition' at the MTNSciencenter and Philippians 4.8 was a solo project which featured on the 'New Media Exhibition'. I thought I should just clear this up.
Thanks for correcting matters about the curator. It remains however that a solo project is not the same as a solo show, on which only one artist exhibits; the 'New Media Exhibition' was clearly a group show. Information given out by FNB Vita stating the basis on which the finalists were chosen should be accurate on as important a point as this.
From: Brad Hammond
Date: March 10
Subject: NSA exhibition
It seems that the Chinese government is hoping that 'The Truth About Tibet' will be swept under the carpet [see News]. It's a sad irony that our own government should bow so easily to Chinese pressure. Surely the ANC government understands the concept of human rights violations. It is widely believed that well over a million people have been tortured and slaughtered in the Chinese illegal occupation of Tibet. And yet, while being fully aware of these facts, the South African government refuses to meet officially with the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibet, because China has told them that that would be a very naughty little thing to do.
I would like to commend the NSA for sticking to its guns. That our own officials should wish to silence the NSA by blocking the 'Truth About Tibet' exhibition makes me think of the great George Bernard Shaw quote: "History teaches us that we learn nothing from history." We clearly cannot rely on authorities anywhere to draw on memory or morals. We know this because this is exactly what the gallery is doing and it is being ordered not to.
We all want the government to get more involved in the arts, but guys, please, not like this.
Well, congratulations to the gallery again for showing the ministers in question and the Chinese Government (your most exalted excellencies) the finger.
From: Chris Roper
Date: March 8
Subject: Artthrob Feedbackn
I often side with the spirit of Lloyd Pollak's reviews, if not the substance. I think that the mainstream attacking the avant garde is often more valuable then the reverse, and certainly far braver. But in the case of his letter claiming that "Artthrob is associated with Ms [Sue] Williamson and like-minded critics, and it tends to promote the interests of a particular clique of artists", I am forced to disagree with him. Well, forced is perhaps a strong word. I'm just mildly irritated enough to respond.
Let's deal with a few of his assertions:
1. "... the flow of information is selective and tendentious."
So what? Artthrob is a media property run by an editor who knows the target market she is trying to reach. Why the hell shouldn't she decide on the kind of content and editorial stance the publication will take? She has to, or else she's a crap editor.
2. "Any artists who fit into this category ["innovative" and "ground-breaking"] are accorded far more favourable reviews than their often disappointing shows deserve."
Come on Lloyd! Surely that's just a question of your opinion vs theirs? And there are of course many examples that refute Pollak's point. Think of Lauren Shantall's current review of the Bell-Roberts website, built by avant garde digerati Daddy Buy Me a Pony ("clumsy, uninspired, cluttered"), and Nic Dawes' reviews of the World Wide Video Festival at Michaelis - "would not pass muster in a second-year psychology class" - and of Berni Searle at the Venice Biennale - "tedious, dull, banal".
3. "Many artists, critics, dealers, collectors and art-lovers have told me that they feel dissatisfied with Artthrob as it is partisan, and certainly not representative of the entirety of the South African arts scene."
How can it be? I mean, seriously now? It's run on a shoestring budget, staffed by people who work for very little except the love of art. Should we now tell them that they owe it to some amorphous audience of dissatisfied art-lovers to cover art that doesn't personally interest them? Are these people you talk about willing to pump some money into Artthrob so that they can expand into the areas you want? Also, WHY should it be representative of the entire art scene? I don't understand that. Where is the business case in that? It's like expecting Supersport to cover field hockey to the same degree they cover rugby.
4. "Although Artthrob boasts a section called Feedback, it contains no feedback whatsoever. One can only ask whether Artthrob deliberately suppresses criticism of itself and its writers, and whether it arrogantly regards itself as above criticism."
Man, I nearly fell off my pedestal laughing when I read that one. Lloyd, the section of the art community that you champion is too bloody apathetic to contribute to a Feedback forum. Most of them are too apathetic to even bother sending a press release about their own shows. The fact that they can muster the energy to come and whine to you is the first positive sign of life I've seen in them, and I must congratulate you on eliciting that much. (OK, I have no idea who "they" are, and I wouldn't normally write in so loose a fashion. Phew, I'm getting all worked up here. Let's just say I'm talking about the ones who whine to me.)
But don't get me wrong. I applaud Pollak's letter. Every publication needs criticism, and Pollak has written in as someone who wishes Artthrob well. I'm sure the editors have often debated the issues he raises among themselves. It's just this ghastly sense of entitlement that I can't stand. Artthrob doesn't owe anybody anything. Just because they write about art, doesn't mean that it's their responsibility to keep the SA art scene afloat. Go start your own art publication.
And one more thing: a shopping list that reads like a Shakespeare sonnet is just a useless shopping list. That's what makes Brenda Atkinson such a good writer - her shopping lists work, and I'm sure her sonnets are divine.
From: Carla van Beers
Date: March 6
Subject: Criticism and discussion
The issue brought up by Lloyd Pollak is very important, traditional forms of contemporary art-making are often ignored. Perhaps one can speak of an art circle instead of an art clique to address the problem. There are several circles, each of them having their own "language of art". Generally speaking, I feel that there is a hierarchic elitist attitude towards art whereby the language of conceptual art is on top: is this a topic for discussion?
The stories of artists who are invited onto important shows and nominated for awards are the most accessible and safe art features to cover, for these artists communicate very well by sending out press releases. It is therefore more difficult to look for artists from other art circles who do not have such public-relations mechanism. Artthrob is indeed selective in its focus, but bringing in the lack of contributions by readers, or a small budget is not a good argument. In order to cover "Contemporary Art", writers, art critics and editors have to do their "shopping" in all contemporary art circles.
From: Estelle Jacobs, Gallery Director, Association for Visual Arts (AVA)
Date: March 6
Subject: Lloyd Pollak's letter to Artthrob
In response to your call for feedback and views on Artthrob and to Lloyd Pollak's recent article, I would like to add the following.
I have been in the Cape Town art world for a long time - some may say too long! Sitting as I do in my office every day trying to get through a large workload and to promote/exhibit/sell art, I am privy to a lot of views and feelings from artists and colleagues.
I need to make clear from the start that I am not commenting here on the layout or design of the Artthrob website as I am not a graphic designer. I am also not commenting on the quality of the journalism as your correspondents are artists and not journalists (which begs the question, should artists review other artists' works?). The problem in SA is that the art "industry" is not regulated, taken seriously or treated professionally, and it is true that many people in the SA art world do not behave professionally either. This has resulted in a scenario where artists have become all things to all people - visionaries in their own right as artists and purveyors of the truth, critics, reviewers, curators, gallerists, dealers, and also consultants and public collection builders. In any other arena, this would be regarded as a conflict of interest, but because of a lack of structure and of a valid art market in this country, the SA art world can get away with behaviour which would not be tolerated in other more professional fields.
However, a criticism often levelled at Artthrob is that it is partisan and not objective - a criticism levelled at many other art institutions too. My question to you is: why should Artthrob be objective and inclusive? And if it need not be, why not?
My answer, quite simply: I think that hosts of artists would be spared much pain and suffering if Artthrob declared its intention, aim, mission or whatever you wish to call it. Once it is clear what you are doing and why, no one can be upset by your lack of inclusivity. A transparent, focused statement of your mandate would go a long way to dispel many unfounded objections and gripes and to clear the somewhat smoky air.
Finally, as I know only too well, it is very easy to criticise, but much more arduous to "do", particularly to "do well". I firmly believe, that in the absence of any websites in this country which can even begin to compete with you, Artthrob makes an enormous and invaluable contribution to the promotion and propagation of the the visual arts in this country and internationally. Its dissemination of information on artists and art is global, its reportage on events (granted only a certain type of events) is comprehensive and its achievements are manifold.
Regarding what Lloyd Pollak has written, it needs to be said that he represents that rare breed of person in SA art, an art critic who is not an artist, and one whose command of the English language indicates, beyond question, that he can actually write! I salute his contribution too.
From: Paul Wessels
Date: March 5
Subject: Artthrob weekly update
The updates I receive from Artthrob do not contain live links, or click-throughs to you site. Is this intentional? It would be far more convenient if they did. Excellent site, and worthwhile updates though. Many thanks.
We seem to have a Mac/PC problem with the links in our email update, as they are readable as hyperlinks on Macs but not on PCs. Various technicians have been consulted ... but suffice to say no solution has been found yet. Meanwhile, you can copy and paste the links in your browser's address bar, or go to the Artthrob index page and surf from there. Apologies for the inconvenience.
From: Brendon and Suzette Bell-Roberts
Date: March 3
Subject: Bell-Roberts website
Thank you for the comment about our website, we welcome both the praise and criticism and won't sulk too much at the "bullshit baffles brains" reference! Why not add a couple of comments to our site to get a really interesting debate going?
Brendon and Suzette
Read Lauren Shantall's opinion in Websites and visit the Bell-Roberts Gallery online at www.bell-roberts.com
From: Lloyd Pollak
Date: February 27
In 1997 Sue Williamson established the South African national website, Artthrob, which is entirely devoted to art news and reviews. Nobody could deny that this unique site provides a sterling service in keeping one abreast of current international and local trends and all the latest shows. Some of the criticism is not only profoundly insightful and enlightening, but, in the case of Hazel Friedman and the wonderful Brenda Atkinson, it is a joy to read, and possesses considerable literary excellence. Both these hugely talented ladies avoid cliché-ridden "art-speak", and are absolutely incapable of ever penning a dull sentence. I bet even their shopping lists read like Shakespeare sonnets!
Unfortunately the flow of information is selective and tendentious. Artthrob is associated with Ms Williamson and like-minded critics, and it tends to promote the interests of a particular clique of artists. This cosy little mutual admiration society is committed to so-called "cutting-edge" art, and this is accorded far more coverage than more traditional forms of art-making which are often simply ignored despite their excellence. Artthrob quite rightly sets high store on work that is "innovative" and "ground-breaking". But any artists who fit into this category are accorded far more favourable reviews than their often disappointing shows deserve. This is wrong and indicates Artthrob's prejudicial bias.
Many artists, critics, dealers, collectors and art-lovers have told me that they feel dissatisfied with Artthrob as it is partisan, and certainly not representative of the entirety of the South African arts scene.
I know critical opinions are subjective and obviously differ. I hugely admired Cobus van Bosch's show, 'Monument'. Sue Williamson was dismissive, and this brings me to another serious defect of the site. There is no forum for debate. Critics, artists and the public can write to the Letters Page in newspapers, but although Artthrob boasts a section called Feedback, it contains no feedback whatsoever. One can only ask whether Artthrob deliberately suppresses criticism of itself and its writers, and whether it arrogantly regards itself as above criticism.
I think if these defects could be remedied Artthrob could become a superb site, and that is the wish that motivates my letter which is intended in a spirit of encouragement and good will.
With every good wish
Artthrob is indeed selective in its focus on "contemporary" art and makes no claims to represent the South African art scene in its entirety. With our small budget reviews are limited to those exhibitions our critics find most interesting (and, yes, innovative), although to define the hundreds of artists who have been promoted via these pages as a particular clique would be to do them a disservice. They receive coverage in Artthrob for the same reasons that they are invited onto important shows and nominated for awards - because, in the eyes of more than just this group of writers, their work deserves attention.
Artthrob actively encourages feedback through the inclusion of buttons inviting readers to submit reviews, comments, projects, websites and items for the exchange page. It is regrettably true that few readers choose to submit reviews - we have received just two readers' reviews since September, one of which was a direct response to an Artthrob critic (see KwaZulu-Natal reviews in the November edition); both of which were published. We would welcome suggestions on how to improve this aspect of the site - please email email@example.com.