Once Removed: A clear view of art world bollocks

Behind all the impeccably clean (sterile?) exhibition openings propped up with champagne or wine and addresses by eminents, the jet-setting to biennales on international shores, and auction prices that resemble lotto winnings, are thousands of artists receiving rejection letters, artists having to keep a soul-destroying job to support their art, artists drinking themselves to death in the dusk of past glory, assistants and interns slogging away in grime and impending despair, critics who take themselves too seriously, and wealthy buyers who believe artists are beholden.

It is from this crowded backroom of dying dreams fronted by dealers and auctioneers that David Mann draws his darkly humourous stories, contained in his debut book, Once Removed.

A critic himself, and one of sadly all-too-few writers in South Africa who manage to make a living writing about art, Mann has a front-row seat of the wasteland behind the beauty of the paintings and the performances.

The first story, Resistance, provides the opening perspective through an hilarious critique of the critic, wherein a pretentious middle-class scribe has their self-importance deflated by the sharp point of South Africa’s working-class needs. Whether or not there is any autobiographical element to it is beside the point, it is a wonderfully self-deprecating opening for the collection, acting by analogy as a confession that places the writer firmly back with us, the proletariat in general.

For anyone who is involved in, or brushed against, the ‑ in Capitalist terms ‑ industry commonly referred to the “artworld”, most, if not all, the stories will summon familiar scenes. But through Mann’s eyes we are privy to a broader perspective in which the egos and the all-consuming pressures to perform or produce, are put into context and thus reduced. Disparity is revealed and therein, also, the humour. And deep melancholic sadness, as in the second story, Rain. Again, we meet a character we have met and probably tried to avoid: an ageing formerly lauded artist. In this case, a jazz photographer in his squalid flat somewhere in Jozi, complaining about being disturbed by a busking saxophonist on the street. This is the same kind of person who will go on and on and on about how great the music scene was when they were part of it, not once thinking about turning around and opening the doors that were once opened to them.

Again, a painfully familiar story in Common Ground, in which nine young self-proclaimed artists meet in a dirty digs in Cape Town’s Observatory to ostensibly plan their new avant-garde collective but which is in reality a dagga-fueled competition of egos which only finds common ground in bitchily ganging up against a perceived enemy.

And so Mann leads us on through the backstreets of the gilded world. We meet the successful artist’s long-suffering partner who finally prevails and has them leaving the city for a quieter life at the seaside, only to discover his dreams dampened by the dark reality of his partner’s ego not being limited by geography. There are the two interns obeying instructions yet finding themselves abandoned on a hot road outside a locked warehouse in a story in which, despite their unjust suffering, you give a quiet ‘yes’ to the absent artist’s ability to give the figurative middle finger to all.

The stories in Once Removed contain universal, or at least international, themes, yet have a firm sense of place. Set mostly in Joburg and Cape Town, they have a particular South African flavour providing a distinctive piquancy. None more so than the story of a hapless Hartebeespoort lodge owner who stumbles upon a valuable charcoal drawing (probably a Kentridge) at a roadside stall.

Mann has the rare ability to be both cynical and kind, revealing an empathetic understanding and keen observance of human nature that is reflected in clear prose and unaffected dialogue. We desperately need his ability to strip away the bullshit so that we can see clearly past the corporate avarice and government tyranny of “social cohesion” that pothole our road to freedom of expression.

Once Removed is published by Botsotso and available at the Book Lounge and other book shops.

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