On Monday the 4th of February, The Alliance Française and Arterial Network hosted a pulsating public forum. The debate pivoted upon the social responsibilities of artists in contemporary South Africa and the panelists included some of the country’s most prominent political, intellectual and artistic voices. The chief issue on the agenda was whether artists are doing enough to critique present power formations or whether they sometimes over-step the mark.
The relationship between art and politics has always been contentious in our nation, especially considering that our cultural well-springs have been contaminated by Apartheid censorship. On this level, one can understand why Kirsty Cockerill, director of the AVA Gallery in Cape Town, maintained that artists should be allowed untrammeled freedom of expression. For Cockerill, it is irrelevant whether artists adequately arbitrate between truth and power because their only obligation is to cultivate virtuosity, ingenuity and imaginative vision.
Cockerill’s perspective is striking given that she often works with artists from disadvantaged communities who might be expected to reinvigorate their own socioeconomic environments. Interestingly, even though Cockerill does not think that artists should be beholden to any authority or restraint, she does endow curators and critics with the mandate of mediating between artists, the public and government.
Notably, not all the panelists agreed with Cockerill regarding the question of artistic liberty. Anele Selekwa, community activist and theatre practitioner, hailed the crowd with the cry of “Amandla” and was adamant that the artist has profound ethical and moral duties. Selekwa urged artists to effervescently partake in transforming society post-1994 and called for a revolution made jubilant through art.
Mike van Graan, Executive Director of the African Arts Institute, agreed with Selekwa that artists cannot afford to remain detached from their social milieu. Given that this was a cultural forum, it was startling that van Graan elected to recite a plethora of statistics pertaining to poverty, unemployment and corruption in South Africa. This had its desired rhetorical effect and reinforced van Graan’s stance that the gravity of political events such as Marikana has not been answered by a parallel uproar from artists.
Van Graan did well to draw attention to the fact that artists are influenced by their own class aspirations and that the work they produce is frequently dictated by market forces. Ultimately, van Graan contended that artists are not going nearly far enough in terms of articulating social malaise and defying authority.
Whilst van Graan offered vital insight into the way that the arts should respond to political crises, Imraan Coovadia, the award-winning novelist, made the salient point that art does not usually function in politically straightforward ways. For Coovadia, creative processes appeal to multiple desires and cannot be deftly assimilated into particular political agendas, moreover in the postcolonial context, a clear left-wing stance may have become obfuscated by recurrent “revolutions”.
Coovadia celebrated creative experimentation over forthright political art but also underscored that artists and the public need to be critical and self-conscious regarding the types of aesthetic experiences they find pleasurable. Humour, for example, can reveal a great deal about public value systems and Coovadia provocatively asked the audience why Julius Malema is so frequently held up to ridicule but the figure of Helen Zille is not. Coovadia undermined the position of the artist in effecting social revolution but did suggest that artworks have the power to revolutionise sensation and sensitivity on the individual level.
Audience members engaged passionately with panelists and questions were taken from a colourful crowd of playwrights, dancers and academics. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, the discussion was not always as nuanced as it could be. I would have liked it if the notion of “art” had been more lucidly defined or deployed in more precise ways. This is especially considering that different creative media such as literature, fine art and music cannot be one-dimensionally equated with one another.
Specific art-forms evoke diverse perceptions and, as one audience member pointed out, a genre such as hip-hop holds greater appeal to the working-class than many other creative media. Even if one were to accept that artists have unambiguous social accountabilities, these might well shift emphasis depending upon the medium in which an artist chooses to work.
The forum disclosed the challenges and pressures that art faces in South Africa both from government and the commercial sphere. I was left wondering whether it really matters how far artists go. Is the creative sector able to independently and legitimately critique socioeconomic context? In what way can seditious art realistically impact material circumstances?
These are the trials that Arterial network will have to tackle as the organisation promotes funding for the arts, defends imaginative freedoms and heightens cultural consciousness across the continent. The popularity of Monday’s forum gestures towards the fact that despite numerous obstacles, Africa’s creative arts are still infused with resilience and vigour.