We remember Bruce Arnott, Emeritus Professor of Fine Art


Herakleonine Head bronze sculpture
Bruce Arnott, Herakleonine Head 1985

Note of thanks to Bruce Arnott, on the occasion of his inaugural lecture as Professor of Fine Art, Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, 2003.
Pippa Skotnes (Michaelis Professor of Fine Art, Director of the Centre for Curating the Archive)

For the artist and indeed for the academic, there can be nothing more important than ideas. When I was a student I used to keep a little book – a diary of sorts – that recorded all the ideas I encountered that influenced the way I thought about things. When I was thinking about Bruce’s lecture a while ago I found this little book again and was at once amused by my youthful choices and amazed at how powerful a good idea is – how a special insight, or a novel reflection on a well-known subject can colour one’s whole field of vision for years, even decades. Much of the material in this little book was gleaned from the poets. Eliot and Plath and Shelly were great favourites. There was quote from Graves about poetic thinking and desire; extracts from Darwin’s Origin of the Species, a fragment from a war story that described the sky as more beautiful when contrasted with a wrecked city; one of Freud’s attempts at a definition of art. Two of the entries were questions Bruce had asked me during discussions when I was a student at the School. One was a probing question about art and the imagination, the other, in response to a rather bleak image I had drawn of a rubbish dump: “where” he asked, “is the pumpkin?” by which I understood him to be asking where the hope was in the image, or where the contrast. Both of these questions bothered me for some time and in the end have profoundly influenced the way I have thought about art. In a small way, my experience reflects Bruce’s particular brilliance – an experience many others, too, have shared – his provocative, challenging insights, at once providing critique, and the means to rethink one’s position in often surprising new ways.

Bruce’s tenure brought new vigour to the School. His legacy as a teacher is legendary. Right from the beginning, students of his sang his praises; his contribution to the post-graduate programme over the years was unequalled. At critiques and seminars, to which Bruce brought a new quality of rigour, it was his opinion we all waited, often anxiously, to hear. He has been both our fierce advocate within the University, reminding the centre (and us) that the creative arts are at the heart of the humanities and the humanities at the heart of the academy, and determined that we should make good this assertion by proving our intellectual mettle. As artists working within an academic institution, Bruce also insisted that we play the academic game, and show that we could play it well. He initiated the journal Artworks in Progress where artworks were introduced, and often intellectualised by the artist themselves, or presented with commentary or captions that provided the first interpretative point of access to the work. These articles may not yet attract direct subsidy, but the journal is an innovation, and pretty unique as a model in the literature of art analysis.