Do we think enough of art writers beyond the byline?

When we think about sustainability in the arts, do we think (enough) about art writers?

They are everywhere and yet often invisible. Their names appear in small print beneath or alongside the artists they cover in catalogues, papers and magazines. Their work can be found on a thin sheet of paper handed out to visitors at galleries and museums. They might be called connoisseurs or critics, experts or quacks, depending on the mood. They are art writers. Their job is to develop (or deconstruct) how we understand art in the past, present and future. For writers who dedicate their intellectual output to enriching art discourse in South Africa, their job is not exactly easy. 

For one thing, it is difficult to make a living as an art writer in South Africa. Those of us who don’t have the energy, patience or prestige to hustle multiple commissions from local and international publications supplement our income as editors, curators, tutors, academics, researchers and gallerists. This might seem all well and fine, until you realise that our livelihoods are dependent on the whims of the institutions who employ us. This compromises our ability to think and write independently. 

“I wish that my/our credibility didn’t rely on the institutions publishing, hiring or platforming us,” reports Misha Krynauw, “sometimes in exchange for our compliance or alignment with their models and beliefs.” 

Misha Krynauw says too much weight is put on the credibility of institutions as opposed to individuals in the art writing world. (Photo: David Harrison)

The institutions, sometimes unconsciously, foster a culture of internalised censorship, whereby writers (particularly those at the early stages of their career) are hesitant to speak ill of institutions that might deny them access or opportunities later on. Those most moneyed and powerful in our industry are privately gossipped about, but publicly unchecked. Scandals blow up from time to time but, more often than not, are dismissed by the next exhibition cycle. I have seen writers struggle more often than any institution they dared critique.

“The work we do is largely unregulated,” says Nkgopoleng Moloi. “It makes it very easy for us to be exploited, coupled with the fact that the supply outweighs the demand.”

Writers who are at the start of their careers often only get commissioned for exhibition reviews. These pay the least and provide little room for an in-depth writing practice. Opportunities for better paid, longer form essays — extended essays, book chapters — are few and far between. Precarious work is the norm, and some writers, like Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti, reported instances in which publishers did not pay at all: “One publisher decided to ‘pay’ me with a complimentary copy a few years ago. Another told me they would not pay me since I am not a South African citizen.” 

Nkgopoleng Moloi says the oversupply of art writing makes it easier for the its creators to be exploited. (Photo: David Harrison)

I suppose it goes without saying that those who do not struggle as art writers are those who have the material means not to. These writers are disproportionately white, and although many are immensely talented and self-aware, their tastes and attitudes are nevertheless shaped by white habitus. Since art writers shape what — and who — is valuable in our ever-evolving culture, this habitus can become a problem, particularly when we consider how South African art is received on the global stage. Lukho Witbooi puts it this way: “Our art is big globally. Our perspective as art writers who understand and live in the context of these art creations is valuable to the world.” 

As the attention of the art world at large shifts increasingly towards Africa, its diaspora, and various Global South relations, art writers in South Africa will become increasingly crucial. Ashraf Jamal sees the art world as “a potent geopolitical and cultural arbiter” and South Africa as “as a locus for a continental and global aesthetic revolution”. A shift is on the horizon, and how our writers “reflect and shape” that shift, to use Jamal’s terms, will be “crucial”. 

When the shift occurs, I hope it does not find our writers where they are now — not only underfunded, but creatively and imaginatively stunted. This labour — creative, imaginative, intellectual labour — is important, and our writers need space and support to cultivate it on their own terms. 

In 2021, I received funding for a project called [in review]. I invited 30 art writers working in, around and about South Africa to choose an artwork that was, for them, thought-provoking, life-giving or soul-soothing and share a short meditation. The goal was to give art writers breathing space — to loosen the limitations art writers often feel with regards to what they write about and how they write about it. 

Ashraf Jamal sees the art world as a potent geopolitical and cultural arbiter. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

The resulting contributions led to much surprise and delight: a personal essay about a Belarusian expressionist; a think piece about the techno-poetics of sghubu and yaadt; a cultural history of a Julius Malema portrait that made the rounds at political rallies in 2014-15. It was exciting. It felt like the aperture of what was possible for an art writer in South Africa had dilated, if only slightly. 

A few months later, I took the reins as editor of ArtThrob, a publication that has been covering South African art since Sue Williamson created it in 1997. Although ArtThrob’s form is more traditional — reviews and interviews updated weekly — I am amazed by how the writers consistently approach their pieces with curiosity, criticality and creativity. As we, like most other publishers in South Africa, labour to make ends meet while asserting our independence, my regret is that I cannot pay writers more or commission more writers. 

Luckily, more platforms for experimental art writing are cropping up. Art Formes, spearheaded by Olivia Barrell, is one example. 

Art Formes seeks to develop South Africa’s art writing, away from the more standardised art criticism, towards art writing that is both academic and poetic,” she says. “A written form of art that, rather than commenting on art, accompanies it.” 

Moloi cites Bubblegum Club as the place where she learned “how to test ideas and how to experiment. I’m extremely proud of what Jamal Nxedlana has been able to create — he offers us a model for what it means to push boundaries and to ‘just do it’.” 

Another example is the wherewithall library. One of its organisers, Chloë Reid, says: “I think the only way art writing is likely to grow (and sustain itself) as a creative and critical discipline is through allyship, independent publishing and insisting on fair pay.” 

As we imagine a more sustainable future for the arts, art writers ought to be taken into consideration. In the future I imagine, art writers see themselves as cultural workers, loosely organised around a politics of interrogation and experimentation. They are supported — and paid fairly — at each stage of their career. They are treated as neither exploited nor expendable, but integral to the health of the arts ecosystem. 

They are encouraged not to uphold institutions or inflate egos, but to hone their craft — or, as Krynauw puts it, “to honour their insights and ideas”. When the job of an art writer is to honour their insights and ideas, ultimately, they will expand the genre of art writing in such a way that, working in tandem with artists and other art workers, will expand arts and culture as a whole. 

I don’t anticipate a panacea, and I know this won’t happen overnight. But I am content by the hope that, in each corner of work, we are tugging on the thread of what is imaginable; testing and transgressing historical limitations. Eventually, we might unravel the whole damn cloth. I hope that the legacy our successors inherit is not a mess to undo, but a spool with which to spin anew. 

This article was produced as part of a partnership between the Mail & Guardian and the Goethe-Institut, focusing on sustainability and the arts.

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