Melvyn Minnaar: Wine gets rated so why not art?

By , 11 September 2019

A stone’s throw away from the glamorous Steenberg Winery there is a corkscrew in a gallery. In fact, there are three, similar in shape, but of different sizes, from sideboard ornament dimension to something, well, quite monumental.

Cunningly titled Open (2019), these are sculptures, brand-new work, by the country’s most famous artist, William Kentridge. They form part of the extensive overview of his art, Why Should I Hesitate? of which the Norval Foundation is hosting the sculpture part in a grand, extended manner. The other part is at the Zeitz Mocaa.

Tim James, an old pal of the artist, wrote recently about Kentridge’s wine connection, and it is clearly a tribute to his stature that he was honoured as an invited artist for the label of the Château Mouton-Rothschild 2016. (Part of the deal includes a couple of bottles for the artist’s cellar. So be jealous.)

But if Open can be explained by the maker’s delight in wine, what would art lovers make of the piece? And how would it rate, should judges be called in? 90, less, or more?

“Open”, 2019.

The sculptures are a riff on that old-fashioned kind of wooden corkscrew with two prongs to clutch the neck while the screw spirals into the cork. (The latter-day Screwpull reinvented that classic tool for our modern convenience.) But William’s wine implement looks a bit ditzy, kind of unsteady after too much booze, maybe not quite up to the job of its title. It’s a sort of three-dimensional cartoon really, like if a cartoonist would play with plasticine.

The largest version measures well beyond human scale, is not yet cast in bronze (it will be, others on show were at substantial cost), but has the station and presence of a public artwork. In other words, it could stand in a public space someday, if not a mogul’s garden.

The towering aura of its own wobbly oddness is a pretty highbrow send-up of the monumental: captured in scale and medium usually employed for the grand and glorious, the satire is wickedly humorous. (Especially when one considers the expense. What would that wealthy collector pay for it?)

It is impressive, but how does it rate as art?

If wine-judging – especially contemporary rating systems of numbers – is awash in the murky spill-out of postmodernism, how then to allocate stars to artworks? If Trechikoff, Pierneef, Kentridge and Stern mix happily at high-price art auctions these days and Jeff Koons makes ultra-expensive giant balloon dogs for his global fans, who and where do we allocate the stars?  

In years-gone-by good art was recognised by the consensus of authority and expertise. (Get a couple of dedicated, unbiased wine lovers together to taste and drink and that consensus sometimes still holds. Thank goodness.)

Nowadays more often than not, it’s price that talks. And it is here that the worlds of art and wine run so parallel: value and meaning measured in and by the “market”: auction prices taken as shorthand for importance or substance; wealthy collectors’ cheques as notice of worth.

(The talk so often of South African wine prices being low and “having to increase” is also a sign of that mistaken capitalist quality paradigm. I always find it amusingly ironic when such talk is bandied about while right now market research shows that wine-drinking consumers are diminishing or simply keep on buying what they can afford.)

But back to stars and ratings.

William Kentridge was twice awarded gold medals for his entries in the fateful Cape Town Triennials way back in the 1980/90s. Like in the Olympics the golds were for the best work selected by judges – kind of the ultimate five-stars, the show trophies. (Those artworks are now in the collections of the Rupert Museum and the Iziko SA National Gallery.)

Good winemakers know that each vintage, every wine, is an act and test of creativity. Artists too.

So, giving Kentridge one up for monumentalising a good tool as artwork, I tentatively rate Open 91…

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.

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