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For art’s sake

Ashraf Johaardien nurtures multiple passions, and has been associated with several major South African arts and culture organisations over the last two decades. He is currently the CEO of Business and Arts South Africa NPC (BASA) and a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria.

‘Art for art’s sake is an empty phrase. Art for the sake of truth, art for the sake of the good and the beautiful, that is the faith I am searching for.’ – George Sand.

Portrait of George Sand Auguste Charpentier 1838
Portrait of George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) by Auguste Charpentier (1838)

French novelist and memoirist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin went by the nom de plume George Sand. I assume she did so for similar reasons to that of celebrated English novelist and poet Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot. They wanted to be taken seriously. Most women writing in the 1800s wrote romance, so for both novelists, adopting a masculine pen name achieved the outcome of not being blindly marginalised from the outset by mere virtue of their biology.
      With no regard for tradition or conventional femininity, Sand was notorious for wearing trousers, smoking cigars and having scandalous relationships with famous male artists like pianist Frédéric Chopin, writer Alfred de Musset and countless others. Similarly, Eliot, who was the legendary author of Middlemarch (1871–72), rejected a perfectly legitimate marriage proposal in her twenties, shunned the idea of going to church and entertained a series of affairs with men who were already married to other women. Several contemporary reviewers have suggested Sapphic sentiments or connotations in Eliot’s work. Depending on how you read her, and who you read, this may or may not have been the case – but to my mind, it’s almost extraneous, if not outright irrelevant, because the novels she penned are so complex and canonical. And her writing is just extraordinary.
     Fast forward roughly two centuries (give or take a decade) and it would seem that work by female creatives – in the absence of a masculine alias – is somehow still less valued than the works by their male counterparts. Responding to some of the figures in the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report 2019, sociologist Taylor Whitten Brown argues that ‘the statistics of the past few decades confirm that the art world is not one of gender parity.’ I fully realise that I am jumping genres somewhat here, but I do so intentionally to illustrate a very particular commercial point from that report: 
     ‘Gender disparities in the art market have been the subject of continued study and debate for many years. Research on the auction sector has shown that there is a gender discount of close to 50% in the paintings market at auction, and this discount is higher in countries with greater gender inequality. Statistics have also been tracked over time to show the changing share of female artists in exhibitions. Gender imbalances in the gallery market are no exception and have been brought to light in different contexts for some time, with rising debate in recent years regarding the reasons for their persistence.’

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