Monday, June 4, 2012

Art Appreciation

Hmmmm… It’s been a while!

We all pretend or assume we know/understand what art is. Maybe we know, maybe we don’t (but that’s a story for another day). When we add the word “appreciation” to our understanding of art, it becomes a totally different ball game.

Art Appreciation is/may be the knowledge and understanding of the qualities that identify all art. Huh! Maybe this is just a polite way of saying art appreciation is one’s ability to withstand art without pretence, peer pressure, fear or favour. This translates to being able to look at artworks and form your own independent opinions about them without necessarily referencing the artist. I think.

However, rather unfortunately with the current trends, art appreciation has become another cliché phrase. It’s the case of nobody gives a damn. Yet we pretend we do!

In the small pond we call Nairobi, art is big business! I know you’re wondering, “How?”

Outside production, 95ish% of art is NGO based. This is big business you know. Most of these institutions have impressive constitutions/missions/visions etc and among them is “improving art appreciation locally” this is loosely referred to as audience development in donor rhetoric.

Sounds noble I guess but sometimes it’s not the ‘Whats?’ that matter, it’s the ‘Hows?

I love (some) NGOs with The Kenya Red Cross being my favorite. Maybe it’s because I find it being result oriented. However, most of these art based NGOs aka not-for-profit institutions are report-based loosely translating to, “What’s in the report at the end of the year is actually more important (for them) than what actually happened during the year.” Shame.

How do you encourage art appreciation or develop an audience? Everyone working in the arts in Kenya has an answer to this and a great formula on paper to boot. However, that’s exactly where it stops! Strange it is if your job is to develop audiences yet you’re never in the audience yourself at any time of your work. There’s a gig in Nairobi almost bi-weekly. That’s pretty good for our small pond. The audience is almost always the same - the participating artists, two journalists (Frank Whalley + Margaretta Wa Gacheru), two dozen art appreciators, artists and their offspring.

Conveniently absent day in, day out are those mandated with running our art scene! Those that teach our kids (for years in university) how to be artists, those that sit in the ministry (& department of culture), they that are supposed to watch over my practice, they that are supposed to enlighten us and make us appreciate art more, they that we trust with building our audience.

These are not just a handful of people! We’re talking hundreds! A minister here, a couple of assistants, some Permanent Secretary… a whole department in charge of visual arts. Add to these all the cultural managers of all the institutions set up to support and raise the profile of visual arts, then to these add the new kids on the block – Curators.

The latest trend is what practicing artists have christened the Seminar Contemporary Platforms - where “important people in the arts” gather and talk about art. I heard from a wise artist that it’s probably part of the Kenyan Vision 2030 – I believed her.

How do you stop art from seeming cool and elitist during seminars and boardroom tête-à-têtes while allowing it to flourish in its real world? The artists’ studios, the galleries, exhibitions etc. Maybe am using so many words to ask, “When will we see all these art technocrats appear at an art event? Where it’s not about talking while drinking mineral water and making notes on branded five star hotel notepads but appreciating art while having a beer or blended scotch! Where art is visual? Not verbal

How this rhetoric trickles down to the mainstream practice remains to be seen/felt.

My take is that it would be very difficult to convince your mechanic, or my bartender, or the house help to attend an art event or to try having a conversation with an artwork if you, the person living off art(ists) seems clueless or uninterested in doing the same.

Maybe we should be trying to convince ourselves to be part of the audience. Just maybe.

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