Art Attack


This article taken from City Press:

Ed Young, a controversial artist, seems intent on making art out of racist offence and profanity, and of riling black people in particular. His recent exhibition of site-specific murals exhibited around New York and Miami in November last year was a case in point, it had the rather odious title: Niggers (sic) can’t be choosers. Young is white and so unsurprisingly his work has riled many an artist, critic and ordinary person.

Young burst onto the local art scene with an exhibition/concept entitled Bruce Gordon (Found Object) in which he auctioned off local art world personality Bruce Gordon (to Suzy Bell for a donation of R52 000, which went to the South African National Gallery).

The Welkom-born artist instantly became a bit of an uneasy media darling, displaying his work in myriad shows locally (at Bell-Roberts Gallery, he presented Asshole, a one-night exhibition which featured strippers serving Heineken and KFC) and internationally (VideoBrasil in Sáo Paolo, Threat Zones in Texas and, currently, Apoohcalypse Now at London’s Hayward Project Space).

Despite being obviously intelligent and charming (in spite of his almost forced attempt at being insolent and disaffected), this Michaelis School of Fine Art graduate’s work is opportunistic at best – he’s a trickster; a prankster who produces work without depth simply to get a rise out of the easily pleased or easily offended. The motivation for his modus operandi is the concept of persona-as-brand. But there are certain lines that anyone with an iota of self-respect (and respect for others) would think twice before crossing.

For the Miami leg of his exhibition, Young informs me, his title piece Niggers (sic) Can’t Be Choosers, a mural he was to have painted across different parts of either New York or Miami was not chosen. “For obvious reasons,” says Young, making it patently clear that he is fully aware of the potential for outcry this particular work has. Other pieces in the series include I’ll Be Black In Five Minutes and We Are All so Fucking African. The pieces and their overt racist tones are a testament to Young’s arrogance and ignorance in thinking that its cool for a white South African to use his position as an artist to blindly use terminology that has, for hundreds of years, been used to subjugate generations and in the process erode their pride and sense of self worth.

As author, professor and radio host Michael Eric Dyson states, while in conversation with one of America’s most renowned black intellectuals, Cornell West, on Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations, in which West combines hip-hop beats with intellectual dialogue: “There is a specific history and context of suffering and malevolence associated with this word [nigger], and you (as white people) cannot, by pretending, erase that history… The black psyche is so destroyed, so demoralised and degraded by the rapid proliferation of forces that are hurting us: white supremacy, economic inequality and social injustice … that [we are] not yet [at] the point in our culture where we can afford to surrender that word. I am not going to allow (the white community) the ultimate terminological privilege of naming me and fixing me with [their] narrow categories. True enough, we’re using the same term, but we’re not using it in the same way. We’re not giving it the same meaning and we’re not choosing to engage the history of suffering and oppression in the same way.”

When challenged on his motivation in using such loathsome racial epithets, Young’s argument is unconvincing at best. He claims that he’s simply commenting on the topicality of being African and Africanism. In furthering his argument, he asserts that that he too is ‘a nigger’ because he is also an African. The reductionism of this statement borders on the farcical. This flippancy exacerbates the offence.

Artistic frivolity aside, I can’t help wondering if Young would have the gall to recreate the work here, and call it K*ffirs Can’t Be Choosers . I’d like to see Young get away with tagging a wall in a local township with such racist invective. Although, another controversial figure, author Ronald Suresh Roberts donned a t-shirt bearing Young’s Niggers Can’t Be Choosers title at one of his book launches.

In a comment on the website artheat.co.za, a critic states that Young’s work is “like Reader’s Digest does Art Theory, or sad proof of deep self-delusion. Actually, it was the Emperor who was deluded, the crowd were merely too terrified to point out his grand craziness.”

Artistic irreverence is one thing, but, unless backed up by well-thought through, sincere and articulate motivation, this kind of cultural voyeurism by art practitioners such as Young is completely unacceptable. We, the proverbial ‘crowd’ should, for the sake of genuine dialogue, always expose Emperors guilty of the predatory opportunism displayed by artists like Young, who make artistic currency from exploiting the offensive and the profane.

I liked this article, not because I agree with everything that it says, on the contrary, I believe that artists making currency from the offensive and profane is vital. But it criticizes Ed on the content of his work rather than his medium of delivering it, something which much newspaper criticism has failed to do.

On the other hand, a newspaper, would hopefully have paid a little more respect to copyright, and not plagiarised almost directly from an article on Ed on Artthrob:

Ed Young burst onto the scene in 2002 when his work Bruce Gordon, curated by Andrew Lamprecht, hit the media headlines. Bruce Gordon, Jo’burg bar owner and local art world personality, was auctioned at a fund-raising event held by Michaelis as Bruce Gordon (Found Object [concept]). He was bought by Suzy Bell for R52 000 and subsequently donated to the South African National Gallery

Young burst onto the local art scene with an exhibition/concept entitled Bruce Gordon (Found Object) in which he auctioned off local art world personality Bruce Gordon (to Suzy Bell for a donation of R52 000, which went to the South African National Gallery).

Then again, who am I to nitpick.

(Please note: I am unable to edit the comments below, however, someone in the comment section has been using the name “Melvyn Minaar” falsely. These comments are not by him, and do not express his opinions in any way. Please in future respect the reputation and integrity of an individual. Love ArtHeat)

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