What to say to a Steven Cohen phenomenon?
His entire performance lasted five minutes, then he was gone, but it left intriguing questions about what is art, what is Jewishness – he wore a silver Magen David above his eyes and another mounted on top of his head which he discarded at a certain point, accompanied by music from Fiddler on the Roof – and what is the meaning of everything else?
The gathering was to mark the 80th birthday of a South African icon of the arts, Linda (Goodman) Givon, who for the past 50 years – through Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery – had encouraged, cajoled and facilitated development of a veritable parade of young black and white artists, during times when the apartheid regime did everything it could to discourage such mixing.
The event marked a dignified end to her career, described eloquently by one of her gallery’s successes, artist William Kentridge, in his speech, and the handing of the baton to younger people.
Steven Cohen’s shaking up of conventional notions, something he has done for the past 20 years, is a metaphor for events unfolding in this country today – such as the thrashing in the recent elections of the ANC’s tired old men epitomised by President Jacob Zuma and his cohorts, at the hands of young bucks of the EFF and DA opposition bursting with fresh energy.
The leaders of the latter parties – Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane – are in their mid-thirties and at the beginning of their careers. This country and its component minorities, including South African Jewry and others, are seeking new, forward-looking people who recognise past history but are not hamstrung by old slogans hanging like lead balls around their elders’ ankles.
What will this country look like in 20 years’ time? And closer to home for the readership of this newspaper: What will the Jewish community look like, when most of the older generation has passed on?
Do the people being placed in leadership positions today have the calibre to rise to the demands of the next decade? Given recent demographic trends, will the shrinking of the Jewish community continue? If the size of the community today is 70 000, down by half from its high point in the 1970s, will it have dropped to 30 000 in 20 years’ time? And if it is smaller, what kind of community will it be – both in Jewish and South African terms?
Every generation has its challenges. Young South Africans – the born-frees – do not want to be forced to follow the old catchphrases of their elders who fought apartheid. They want to look forward. And young Jews do not want to be forced to continue mouthing old refrains either, when new challenges are staring them in the face.
Every generation needs a Steven Cohen to shake things up. And also the courage he has shown, for example on the day he walked onto Loftus Versfeld rugby field in Pretoria in 1998, dressed as an “ugly girl” in his characteristic style, and confronted hardened, macho, white sports fans who couldn’t work out what he was saying to them, and some of whom wanted to attack him.
We live in exciting times, even if we can’t quite work out what it is all about.
Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog sifrintakingissue.wordpress.com