Art criticism in South Africa, like the art world which it inhabits, is nascent in its development. With all the attention, both local and international, that has recently been centered on South African art there is surprisingly little focus on the surrounding apparatus that gives this peculiar eco-system it’s critical relevance.

Perhaps this is too much to ask of the discipline; after all who wants to read about writing? Surely it is enough to simply read about art without exhausting essential brainpower on the internal dynamics on what’s taking place on the page.  

Yet is worth a pause, however brief, to take stock of the current shape of art criticism in the given context that we call South African art in order to understand where and how these multiple voices coexist and come together to breathe life into the intersecting modes of expression between art and criticism.

Instead of relying on the outdated distinction of theory and practice (a fundamental injustice to both streams of making) one should see the two as inextricably linked. Art criticism is about the joy that one can find in meaning, however idiosyncratic, that lies at the heart of the object left behind once the artist has taken their leave.

In this way criticism is what bonds art to the world. It is a conduit that opens up the possibilities of what art can and cannot do. This is a grand claim for sure. Some might say that it is an unnecessary elevation of a form of niche journalism disguised in the robes of self importance fueled by fancy words and coded jargon.

Furthermore some might even make the charge that art criticism is, rather than an open democratic space, insular and exclusionary because of the way it alienates the object through writing rather than bringing our reading closer to the various intricacies contained in the experience of an artwork.

Both are true. It is hard to argue that the current shape of art criticism is an egalitarian form of expression aimed at enlightening public experience. Yet to lose sight of such optimism is to merely perpetuate the status-quo that relegates art and its world to the periphery where it occupies the rarified space that it does.

Rather, a case can be made for art criticism as an implicit mode of perception that resides in those cerebral functions of reading and writing, where after the philosopher Edmond Jabes, “you turn into writing what you see; what sees you, into reading”. Thus the argument is for criticism to provide a space that grants agency enough for the artwork to look back at us, not separate from the world, but present as a legible being.

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