Melvyn Minnaar: Trying to make sense of art and wine in a time of need

By , 1 July 2020

Leftover food in the room of migrant from Zimbabwe, April 2020. Source: AP Images.

Okay. So let’s start with art, again.

At the food stores, the presence of need lingers outside in the tattered figures who ask for bread, jars of peanut butter, fish paste. Negotiating this confrontation of want is so different from the ritual that played out with the car guards in a previous era. Was it four months ago? In this time of the virus, the history of the present has taught a tough lesson: Hunger is on the pavement, starvation lingers, for now, just out of sight.

In this time of need, a local auction house recently sold a painting by a what-should-be upcoming artist for a blistering R120 000. To be honest, it is an engaging work – of the sort that demonstrates that a talented youngster can bring something new to view, prick the imagination. And thank goodness for that. But at R120 000?

Leave aside for a moment the argument that handing over such a large sum to a young artist at the start of a career may be sending out a wrong message – boosting expectation, signalling a warped sense of value or worth, hijacking a creative vocation in the making, yet to become, to be nurtured. But consider the mind, motivation and, perhaps the ethics at play when someone is prepared to pay that amount of money for something that would look nice on a wall.

Think of an amount that would, for a long, long time, take care of the families of those that now ask for a loaf of bread, a jar, when we walk out of the Spar, Checkers, Woolies.

In the Cape Town suburb of Grassy Park, Voice of the Voiceless, run by Howard Downes, currently feeds more than 300 people daily. In nearby Lavender Hill, Philisa Abafazi Bethu, run by Lucinda Evans, hands out food to 1 500. The Lavender Hill Sports & Recreation Foundation looks after children, the disabled, those with HIV and the elderly. Some 500 people get food each day.

The average cost of a cup of soup, those who provide say, is around R1.20. That prices the painting at 100 000 people meals.

At this stage, if you’ve read this as a visitor to the Winemag website, you would have reacted – shrugged your head and given up on my assertion; or, maybe come up with a hothead economic argument in defence of the art collector, supporter of new talent, who may or may not have bought a loaf of bread and a jar when last leaving the shop with a grocery bag.

The Covid-19 pandemic has kicked up many arguments trying to justify the high life. It had to when hunger isn’t sticking to the established city and social geography. The argument is usually a variation of the neoliberal hobbyhorse of ‘trickle-down’ paradigm.

This mostly discredited Chicago School of economic theory has been a key for most of the superficial arguments about the effect of the lock-down on restaurants, small businesses, etc. Staff losing jobs, etc., trickle-trickle down the line. Of course, on the face of it, it is true and sad, even tragic. But there are, thankfully, more voices pointing out that at the heart of the problem is a structural dysfunction.

Whatever your opinion and argument for, against, or about the One Percent – the rich with the clout, the outrage of contemporary capitalism – is, the present pandemic’s social upheaval is a visceral signal of that dysfunction.

Going further than Anna Trapido’s call for ‘Luxe Ubuntu’ in the restaurant business, the Nigerian-American activist writer/cook Tunde Wey has stirred up controversy by calling for the demise of the current restaurant hierarchy. (And let’s take wine as a hanger-on here.)

Wey calls it “An industry where on the higher end is great food at fat prices in spaces that drive up real estate values, pushing property prices higher and poorer people further. And on the lower scale, working poor people, making barely enough to keep them going, serve low nutrition meals to other working poor people, who can’t afford quality housing because of predatory development. Let it die  …this old god prioritizes the capital of a few people over the labor and lives of many.”

The fat price is of particular note – to get back to the beggars outside our stores today and tomorrow.

I wonder what one of those ragged people would say to the art collector who forked out that R120 000 for a painting, perhaps ordered a lockdown food hamper from Luke Dale-Roberts for R1 800, and maybe even paid R30 000 for the six bottles of Alheit Radio Lazarus 2016 (that’s 4 166 people meals per bottle) at a recent Strauss & Co wine auction.

In this time of need, I suppose some have other needs.

  • 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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