Arts and Culture
HALF ART: Academic optimism and Ian Houston
Terrorists attack places where people congregate: shopping centres, high-rise buildings, public squares, educational institutions. In one sense, then, the recent attack by Al-Shabaab on Garissa University College in Kenya is similar to that on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013. In another sense, they are two very different symbols; the slaughter of 150 students is a different “category” of atrocity.
The Garissa massacre could be seen as an extreme violation of academic freedom and all that it represents. Viewed like this, Garissa puts into perspective the gripes of those of us who work in tertiary education. A spate of articles in prominent publications over the last year or so have bemoaned the decline of autonomy and intellectual curiosity and pretty much everything else at American and British universities, making life at South African universities seem dreamy by comparison.
Local university administrators and scholars should nonetheless be vigilant about resisting destructive or simply restrictive state and other forms of intervention. For this reason, the cautions and analyses offered in John Higgins’ book Academic Freedom in Democratic South Africa are worth careful consideration, particularly for what they say about the Humanities in SA (Higgins is Professor of English Literature at the University of Cape Town).
When the book appeared in 2013, an extract from the Foreword appeared in the Mail & Guardian under the headline: “Universities head for extinction”. This rather bleak outlook was sketched by Higgins’ former colleague, world-renowned author J.M. Coetzee. The novelist, who has himself spent large amounts of time and ink on the topic of the Humanities as a broad field of study, does not hold out much hope for its future.
I find myself unable to agree with Coetzee. In my experience at the University of the Witwatersrand, activity in the Humanities is flourishing – in terms of teaching and learning, scholarly research and public interventions. This is not a jingoistic institutional punt, or some kind of #RhodesMustFall and #RhodesSoWhite schadenfreude; Wits does not face the same transformation challenges as UCT or Rhodes University, but it cannot sit on its laurels either.
My lack of anxiety about the future of the Humanities may, admittedly, also be the rose-tinted view of an academic on sabbatical. This week’s column comes to you from Bonn in Germany, my base for the next few months. Yet fear not, dear reader, I drank a deep draught of the visual arts before leaving SA’s shores and have plenty to share with you from afar.
Indeed, Joburgers who want to get away from their beloved but occasionally grim city and country – and who lack the time or means to travel internationally – can visit In Toto Gallery in Birdhaven, where Ian Houston: A Solo Exhibition is on display for a few more days (until 13th April). Born in Kent in 1934, Houston is an “old school” oil painter; his realist-impressionist landscapes are evidence of a life lived in search of beautiful vistas around the world.
Here, cheek by jowl, are Antibes and Capri, Norfolk and Suffolk, Hong Kong and Bangkok. They are unapologetically idyllic representations, evoking a sense of longing and – rather curiously for me, as I have visited only a handful of the locations – of nostalgia or loss. Such is the effect of Houston’s work: these paintings are at once both vivid and hazy, so that their subjects seem to exist somewhere between dream and memory, even as we encounter them for the first time.
Houston might, of course, be criticised for a certain naivety; the atmospheres he conjures are not those in which gunmen storm campuses, or suicidal pilots take innocent people to the grave, or venal politicians steal from the poor. There are two possible responses to this critique. One is the “escapist” defence – the (perfectly valid) claim that one important function of art is to take us out of ourselves, to worlds elsewhere.
The other is that, on careful inspection, these paintings do contain reminders of “the evil that men do”. Venice, London, Portofino, Aberdeen, Amalfi: these are cityscapes inscribed with histories of violence and greed, however sublimely they may be rendered. With a little imagination, you can even see Cecil John Rhodes’ cottage in Houston’s aerial view of Muizenberg beach.