Do We Respect Our South African Artists?

Things appear to have changed so much since I was young.


Maybe you too can remember that the local GP was treated with utmost respect and even awe. If the doctor had to be called out you would be dragged to the bathroom regardless of your condition and were scrubbed, combed and attired in clean fresh pyjamas. Fresh flowers would be displayed and the reception would be tantamount to receiving Royalty or some great celebrity.


That doesn’t seem to happen these days, and perhaps that is because doctors don’t like to make house calls any longer and so have lost their aura and mystique, or have we just lost respect for just about everything and in many cases that includes ourselves?


When I was a little boy and living near Vereeniging in the then Transvaal, my dad came home one day in a very rare state of excitement. The cause of the excitement was that two British artists, Littlejohn and Langton, had opened a studio on the banks of the Vaal River. It was understood that this was really a wonderful stroke of luck for us ‘Platteland’ plebs as they were considered to be highly regarded in the U.K and so we really were fortunate and blessed.


The very first Sunday at the end of the month I think it was, we were again scrubbed and dressed in our ‘going out’ finery and deposited into the back of my dad’s Vauxhall, and so transported to what was one of the turning points in my life. That was to visit the studios of real live international artists.


To us it was a mystical place with walls covered with huge oils and delicate watercolours, and where cool light from lofty windows showered the room in a kaleidoscope of hues. It was mesmerising, and I can remember that experience clearly after all these years.


What also impressed itself on me was the hushed tones in which people spoke, and the awe and respect that my dad and other visitors had for the artists and their work.


I really do not know if their work was that good or not. I was too young, but I do remember that the lady across the road, who was a Mrs. Truter, had bought one of the works and for some time after that she had a steady stream of admirers paying homage to her reclining nude. Perhaps it was not the painting they had come to see after all.


This may be a good place to stop and consider what this thing known as respect and also self respect are.


My Collins dictionary says the following:


Respect: 1) Consideration. 2) An attitude of deference. 3) The state of being honoured or esteemed. That is pretty straight forward?


Also, Self–respect: n. A feeling of confidence and pride in one’s own abilities and worth.


An attitude of deference, admiration and regard is what we used to feel for people who had exceptional or advanced skills, but do we still feel that way today?


Perhaps this is peculiar to baby boomers and those that came before, but I have always had this great respect for skilled artists, and that includes my peers, but am I alone in this now, because there no longer appears to be much respect for people who excel in the things that really matter like maths and science and the arts. There is the story doing the rounds about one of the world’s greatest violinists who was asked to play his wonderful music in the subway of an underground station, and hardly a soul even noticed him or stopped for a moment to listen to this famous artist. Strange then that there are those that pay huge amounts of money to hear him in concert. Does this mean that only some people have respect for great artists but the rest not? Or is it we only respect people when there is a high price attached? Why would that be? Breeding, education or ignorance?


My wife Ingrid puts forward the premise that perhaps the bulk of us have no opinions or particular taste, and are swayed this way and that by the media or those that we deem to be experts. There was no media hype when the world famous violinist played in the subway so people had no opinion at all and ignored him. I’m sure there are many opinions relating to this.


Sports people, pop singers and movie actors are idolised but great scientists, mathematicians and the people who bring us healing and advancement are seldom mentioned at all. Perhaps they are mistakenly seen as boring, even though civilisation could hardly exist without them? (Personally I see great art and scientific and engineering discoveries so much more exciting than some repetitive sports match or game, but then perhaps I’m boring and un-cool too?) When looking at rewards it appears to be those that would hardly affect the course of humanity in any meaningful way who are so ridiculously and excessively rewarded.


I do feel it is strange that every stage of our advancement as civilised humans has been essentially through discovery, arts and science. All great heroes of the past fall under that group. In all of history whereas great discoverers and artists are revered, no sports heroes have been remembered until very recent history. So what has brought about this misguided change?


Sadly now many great and skilled artists fall mainly into the poorly rewarded category, whereas the equivalents of the visual furniture or décor artists are handsomely rewarded by society. One needs to stop here and think about this – why is it so?


Has our society become shallow and myopic? I think in the main it has.


I wrote an article in 2004 just after a list of ‘100 GREATEST South African’s’ had been published. Out of those top 100 eminent people only one was an artist. That was Pierneef, and he figured pretty low down on the list. I’m sorry I do not have that list any longer because it would be interesting to look back and see who were considered the ‘Greatest’. Who of those are still considered the greatest? Perhaps a 2010 list would be even more revealing.


I have little doubt that the importance and respect for our artists would not have changed to any great extent since that last list. Who do we really consider important now? Do any of the readers of this ‘Thoughts’ article have any ideas, and would they perhaps like to shed some light on this phenomenon?


I think the root of the problem possibly lies in the fact that artists, especially visual artists, have little respect for themselves, and if this is the case then one can hardly expect anyone else to have respect for them. It seems the public have scant regard for artists in general now.


For years I have heard academics making the claim that ‘easel painting is dead’ but it never ever was, and seemed to go merrily on and rise up again and again. Lately though I think that maybe they were right, but not in the obvious way. Not in that people do not paint any longer, or that there is no longer any need for paintings or sculpture, but in that standards and the values and respect that artists had previously enjoyed is no longer there, and so the thing that made painting, sculpture and art in general special has evaporated.


Somehow artists no longer seem to demand respect, and have little respect for themselves or their creations, and are as one experiences daily, only too happy to prostitute themselves for a couple of Rands. Integrity is a rarity and even some of the well established artists will without a single pang of conscience steal someone else’s intellectual property, even while wailing that the country is going to pot and about all the crime, fraud and theft we are surrounded by. How very bizarre is this society, and equally the state of the arts?


Money and sales are pursued in a frenzy by the non-academics, with little concern about the quality of thought and quality of work. At the same time many of the academics see selling art as obscene and to be ridiculed and then end up with garages full of unsold work which is also regurgitated and displayed in a frenzy each time there is the slightest chance of selling it. One only has to cast one’s mind back to the Brett Kebble exhibitions and the mad scramble there was to be included. It had little to do with art but a lot to do with greed. The whole thing is bizarre; but then art reflects the society it is made in, does it not?


Here in Durban, once proud arts societies and arts organisations with proud members scramble to display their works in Shopping Malls. Not so much to show their understanding of art or to display their expertise but only for the unholy ‘buck’ (The buck is king we are told)


I remember the artist Titta Fasciotti finding his work being displayed in the foyer of a Building Society. He went to the person concerned and introduced himself and asked for his work to be removed as he did not want it shown in that place or in that manner. The dealer refused to do his bidding so Titta went and drew money and bought his own paintings and took them away. It may seem foolish to some now but I take my hat off to him because he believed in his work and had pride in it. Sadly this is not often the case any longer.


The question then again is do we as artists have any respect for our profession or our creations. Do we have respect for ourselves or our peers? I would say no, little or none at all.


If I am correct and we have somehow lost respect, can we then expect anyone else to respect what we do or respect who we are?


Although it seems more and more people are taking up painting, very few young people are joining art societies, or have any real interest in pursuing painting, sculpture or art as a career any longer, and the excuse is that they are too busy and life is too frenetic. Is that really the reason? Is it that, or is being an artist now seen as un-cool and too badly paid? Many misguided people believe that artists are coining it because of high prices but the truth is that the artists in many cases only receive a small portion of the asking price. Artists except this without a murmur, and again this thing, respect and self-respect are further eroded.


Many galleries no longer even try and show art but either show academic experiments or on the other side ‘wall furniture’ I personally believe that the art work that publicizes the visual arts organisations, and the exhibitions presented are essentially a put-off rather than an attraction? Somehow we have lost the respect of the public by the work we are doing and how we present ourselves. People who respect themselves and their creative endeavours would only want to show their very best and in the best possible way. Are we doing that? Is the work we are presenting good and compelling or just ‘stuff?”


Maybe we have not only lost the public respect and our self-respect, but also respect for those who achieve, have achieved, and made a huge contribution to our art and society.


If by some chance I am correct in what I have said here, and there are those that will differ, but if I am correct then how can we put it right?


Just perhaps some of you out there will give a thought to what we have spoken about here. Is it too late to turn things around? Perhaps there is no need to do that, and there is no need to mend that which is not broken.


I think it is really worth taking a minute or two to think about where we are, where we are going and about this thing respect and how it affects our work and the society we live and bring our children up in.


Till next month….


Written: February 2010


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