Re/centering Artists

Mario Pissarra, 30 January 2014

Note: original published as editorial to Third Text Africa vol 1 no. 4, 2009

This fourth edition of Third Text Africa compiles early texts from Third Text that address the work of specific artists. This act of validating earlier validations of artists introduces a set of its own questions. These questions apply more broadly to the related issues of visibility and validation than they do to the specific texts featured.

To what extent are the artists who are most visible privileged because of the specific interests of dealers, curators and academics? Do they necessarily represent the most interesting artists?

In an era where the value of art is often equated with investment, and where private galleries represent the primary vehicle for ‘representing’ artists, does the visibility that comes with promotion get conflated with critical recognition of artists? Do the commercial interests of dealers get lost in the public perception of them as ‘neutral’ agents, guided primarily by questions of quality and (perhaps) relevance? This is not to deny dealers and galleries their role, but to not lose sight of the capitalist framework that necessitates it.

In an era where curators frequently usurp artists as the main act, how many of them select artists who comfortably fit their curatorial interests? This is not to deny curators agency, since artists need them as much as they do dealers. It is to question to what extent are curatorial themes informed by substantive research into practice? Furthermore, it is to question how many artists have the confidence to critically engage curators, and how many bow to their sometimes flimsy curatorial concepts? Not least it is to question why some lusciously produced catalogues, complete with commissioned essays, fail to engage with the art featured in the relevant exhibition?

In an era where multidisciplinary approaches to intellectual enquiry create new horizons for art history, theory and criticism how many academics prioritise art that supports the hypotheses that they are developing? How many disregard those contradictory impulses embedded in many artists’ works that resist being harnessed to support an argument? This is not to deny academics agency, artists need to be critically challenged as well as ‘documented’, but how many artists remain silent knowing all too well that the ways in which they are being theorised does not tell the whole story?

If power resides in the intersection of critical validating agencies, not least the dealer (market), curator (exhibitions) and academic (publications), it also reflects global imbalances. It should come as no surprise that most artists featured here are based in the West. This does not reduce their value but it does raise the question of when will conditions in the periphery act as an adequate counterweight to this uni-directional gravitational pull? It also raises the question of the in/visibility of artists working on the African continent, and what will need to be done to support their practice in ways that not only play to globally hegemonic interests but also to advance the position of art on the African continent itself?

Ultimately these texts remind us that artists occupy the pivotal terrain in any discourse that seeks to make sense of art. It’s a discourse that is framed by power and powerlessness, by agency and apathy.

When artists become the object and not the subject, are they playing the system or is the system playing them?

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