A visceral experience

Business & Arts

Business & Arts is a monthly column by Michelle Constant, CEO of Business and Arts South Africa (BASA).

A month or so ago, Ismail Mahomed and myself were offered places on the London King’s College Leading Culture in the 21st Century course, through the British Council. Spending time with 19 cultural practitioners from countries as diverse as Russia, China, Malaysia and Ethiopia was an affirming experience. It was learning through affirmation. Through the diverse individual stories and experiences, it became quite clear we are mostly on the right track when it comes to ensuring that culture is a participant in the drive for more equal societies, to ensuring, as Southbank Creative Director Jude Kelly put it, ‘the arts act as a solution and not a problem, inside systemically unjust societies.’ One of the speakers, Senior Research Fellow at Robert Gordon University, Dr Jonathan Price, questioned whether there was any difference between cultural and civic leaders, asking whether cultural leaders should also be civic leaders? It’s an interesting debate and crafts a good question as to the role (both via expectation and intrinsically) of the cultural and creative practitioner, or the artrepreneur, in broader society. As Price noted, leadership often spoke to the ‘the fallacy of the strongman’, suggesting that crisis should not always be linked to leadership but rather we need to dig more deeply into a systemic world of politicians, technicians, educators and the private sector. It’s pretty obvious, of course, but I appreciated being given time – time to question and challenge ideas that often slide by – time that often seems unavailable in a rapidly changing and socially mediated society.

Each book represents artistic practise at its best, with a focus on the journey, as opposed to the finished product. It is not often that I have had such a visceral experience to an exhibition.

Price suggested further that a cultural leader is required to keep ambivalence open for longer, resisting decisions, holding the paradox for longer and living with the problem. ‘Create space for indecision and possibilities,’ he suggested, arguing the need for collective and personal curiosity. It is this focus on ‘process’ in decision-making, the ‘making’ of decisions intrinsic to the creative practice. I recently visited the UJ Gallery for an exhibition of artist made books. Academic David Paton had skilfully curated Booknesses and the 250-piece exhibition was part of philanthropist Jack Ginsberg’s 3 000 book collection. The exhibition wove a journey, both literally and figuratively, highlighting the making of the art book even more than the final book itself. The processes, the choices that the artist made highlight, in many ways, the idea of living with the problem that Price talked about. Whilst the final product or book was ‘quietly’ exhibited – each work talks to an extensive process, a macro and micro world of making. Each book represents artistic practise at its best, with a focus on the journey, as opposed to the finished product. It is not often that I have had such a visceral experience to an exhibition. My instinct was to rush home, to make paper as opposed to simply buying it, to pull out scissors and thread, to understand how laser-cutting really works, to be lost in the bejewelled shades of water colours, to climb into the mind and choices of the artists. Ultimately to appreciate the time, time, time it must have taken to make each treasure that could possibly be found under the glass vitrines.

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