Exhibition opening speech: Francois Smit Exhibition (Johannesburg 2004)
I have been looking at the art of Francois since 1986. That equals twenty years of aesthetic scrutiny, twenty years of professional admiration, and twenty years of artistic fascination. And twenty years later, there is no doubt that Francois is widely respected for his formidable imagination, skill and artistic rigor, and especially for his idiosyncratic pathos. All these qualities are compellingly obvious in the works on show here.
But upon seeing Francois' art hanging together, in close proximity, for the first time ever, one also senses something else: It is like a persistent theme that is less obvious, like a complex leitmotif in a large symphony. At its very core this exhibition engages a fascinating contradiction, and it is a contradiction that is central to visual art of our time.
History has shown us that there is an ideological pendulum that swings in art. It expresses a contradictory energy that drives art along its fascinating and often unpredictable course. Whether we choose to think of it as a cause and effect, or thesis and antithesis, it is clear that there are two opposing attitudes towards art, or more specifically, towards the role of art and the artist.
The one point of view suggests that art is not very useful.
In 1891 Oscar Wilde declared that, "All art is quite useless". He was, of course, referring to the business of aesthetic vision, or more correctly, to the notion of disinterested contemplation, without which art cannot exist. Oscar Wilde was certainly not the first, nor the last, to suggest that art has no real or physical value, other than that which we choose to project onto it.
As artists, we all battle with these questions. In some central way, it can indeed be argued that art is genuinely useless. It has no real purpose in a materially defined society. This sense of the social impotence and political irrelevance of art forms a major theme in contemporary art theory, and keeps reminding us of Oscar Wilde's dictum that says: "All art is quite useless."
But the ideological pendulum swings, and at the opposite extreme, we encounter the statement by Russian-German poet, Ludwig Rubiner: "Painter - you demand. You transform the world. Or else you are a private citizen. To paint for painting's sake is like rowing a boat in one's own room!"
Rubiner, not long after Oscar Wilde, was appealing for an art that would be socially relevant. He was condemning the notion of "art for art's sake". He demanded that art become "useful". Rubiner, along with successive generations of Avant-garde artists, tore down the ivory towers, liberated art from its elitist enclosures, and forced art to become politically relevant. It is no coincidence that the Modernist artists took the term "Avant-garde" from military language, referring to the shock troops that first advance across enemy lines to inflict the maximum damage. The Avant-garde therefore represents the other extreme, where artists have tried to make art useful, and socially, politically and economically effective.
Regrettably, a hundred years later, the Avant-garde has not yet succeeded in liberating art from its middle-class ennui. But did they prove Oscar Wilde wrong? Does this prove that art simply has no cultural relevance or value? Does this mean that Oscar Wilde and Ludwig Rubiner have covered all the bases, and that making art is a profoundly futile exercise?
In his art, Francois manages to achieve the near-impossible: He not only reconciles the contradictory aesthetics of the Oscar Wildes and Ludwig Rubiners, but he also presents South Africa with what I call a mythography that is at once beautifully sophisticated, and also socially relevant, and he does both to an extreme degree.