CAN A COMMERCIAL GALLERY CLAIM TO BE A NEUTRAL SPACE – AND DO SO WITH A POKER FACE?

PM has been considering the above question since Goodman Gallery owner, Liza Essers filed notice to oppose the application made by the ANC to take down, the now infamous, The Spear by Brett Murray.

Saying in her answering affidavit: “The reason I am opposing this application is because, as a gallerist, my role is to keep open a NEUTRAL space for my artists and my audiences, sympathetic and critical alike.”The Goodman Gallery has come to be known as a NEUTRAL space that embraces the voice of dissent, presenting work that confronts the contemporary socio-political climate,”


PM gets the “Meta” sentiment Liza was trying to convey. PM sincerely thanks Liza on behalf of all South African’s who believe freedom of expression is worth standing up for. That being said, PM’s first response was to pee in PM’s panties with uncontrollable mirth. How amusing that a gallerist would refer to a commercial gallery as a neutral space. The Goodman Gallery (or any other commercial gallery for that matter) suggesting that it was neutral, like Gward damned Switzerland, is  flawed thinking and horrifically amusing.
Then again, Switzerland keeps up the veneer of neutrality because it’s good for banking business. Switzerland also has very big countries (relatively speaking) on all its borders. So one could say, historically speaking, it’s been self-preservation that has motivated it to claim it would never take sides in a conflict. Thus hoping its neutral status would minimize its chances of invasion, or bullying from any of its neighbours. So maybe the Goodman is like Switzerland, the veneer of neutrality is good for business and self-preservation. Fair enough.

Neutral being used to describe the Goodman Gallery, which is a contemporary commercial gallery AKA big paper money business, who’s buying client base is not, shall we say, poor. Whose general viewers are, shall we say, reasonably visually literate, means that they are catering to an audience that has a degree of power. One could even say that commercial galleries, certainly in South Africa, are generally elitist spaces that cater to a generally elitist audience, correct ? Correct. An elitist space where people buy and sell things of speculative financial value, cannot be neutral. Using the term neutral in the affidavit was at best naive – at worst well……..

Aunty Panga demands that PM does not finish that sentence! Aunty Panga is empathetic to the stress that this situation has caused all the individuals involved. Aunty Panga has very sweetly requested that PM focus on the ideas and Let Aunty Panga handle the individuals. Aunty Panga realises that the stress very likely caused Liza to go into neutral, like a car ,she disengaged her intellectual gears, in response to the shock at how the situation was developing, and judging her for her semantic silliness at a time like that, is really counter-productive. Fair enough, PM never argues with Aunty Panga, and PM respects the stand Liza took.

Back to the idea. Claiming that a commercial gallery is neutral is like claiming that a church is neutral, and holy mother of Gward, when has that ever been the case? Never. Churches wield power that have seen wars fought in their name, wars against people of different faiths and cultural beliefs, and whomever else gets in the way of their righteous bigotry . Take for example that (cooked in the head) spokesman for the Nazareth Baptist church, Enoch Mthembu , who called for the artist Brett Murray to be stoned to death. A man most Christians would be horrified to be associated with no doubt, but you get the picture. Churches and religions of all soughts, have been involved in politics through the ages resulting in terrible atrocities. That is why “the church” and that state should always be separate right? Right.

A church however could act with neutrality. Say for example a church opened a soup kitchen where needy people, regardless of religious affiliation, were served soup and a kind word. Acting with neutrality is different from being neutral – ask any good journalist. That is what PM believes Liza was trying to convey in her affidavit. The Goodman gallery would act with neutrality and serve the artists whose production they believed in by exhibiting their works, regardless of the political or social commentary that their artworks where articulating.

Neutrality does not however, seem to be the case in all contexts. The Goodman Gallery told artist Brett Murray that the gallery would not be showing one of his artworks on the exhibition, because it might offend Muslim and Jewish viewers. Now, Panga People, you know PM has to ask why. Why was the Goodman comfortable to exhibit artworks that through satire unpacked hypocrisy and abuse of power evident in South Africa politics, but they were uncomfortable to show works that might have the potential to offend Muslim and Jewish viewers ? PM thinks the answer is really simple- Commerce.

PM can only assume that the Goodman gallery does not have a lot of ANC Politicians aligned to the current leadership, buying art from them, but their client base does include religious people. PM can only assume that the gallery did not want to offend any part of its buying market. Fair enough , do not offend the clients, cause if you do they will not buy your stuff. That’s lesson number one for any good business, right? Right.

PM has no problem with a business running like a business, and a commercial gallery is a business, so PM does not judge the Goodman for that. That being said, let’s not pretend that the above was anything other than commercially driven self –censorship by the gallery. Likewise let’s not proclaim that a commercial gallery is, or can be, a neutral space. PM is not suggesting that commercial galleries should be neutral either, because that would be setting the gallery up for failure, and artists need successful commercial galleries.
Artists need commercial galleries to support their freedom of expression, to contextualise their artworks in the bigger art history picture. To sell their artworks, so artists can pay their bills and put food on the table. The need commercial galleries that can support them intellectually, and cover legal costs, cause as we have seen in the last few weeks, art can be dangerous and lawyers are expensive. Artists need commercial galleries to invest in them as individuals, and in what they produce, from both a conceptual and a financial perspective.

If a commercial gallery focuses too heavily on the money, they will lose credibility amongst the artists, who need intellectual/idea support in equal measure. If they focus too heavily on the ideas, and not on the market, then there will be too much yada-yada less ching-ching, and a hunger artist is not going to hang around. A good commercial gallery needs to balance out all of the above.  So Panga People, to sum up, commercial galleries are what they are, and that’s fine. But let’s never proclaim that they are – what they are not; let’s never proclaim that they are neutral.

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One Response to CAN A COMMERCIAL GALLERY CLAIM TO BE A NEUTRAL SPACE – AND DO SO WITH A POKER FACE?

  1. Interesting how one single painting managed to cause so much rife, yet others far more vulgar and disturbing remains hidden away :( you cannot censor the internet however http://thespearliveson.wordpress.com

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