The State of the Arts


The 13th Time of Writer Festival hosted by the Centre for Creative Arts (University of KwaZulu- Natal), began on Tuesday, March 9 at the Elizabeth Sneddon.  Mike van Graan – writer, playwright and arts activist, delivered the keynote address entitled “The State of the Arts’.  Here follows an extract from this  pertinent address:

Mike van Graan: “There is no better metaphor that illustrates the state of the arts today than the recent furore around our Arts Minister and the black lesbian photographic exhibition.

But there is a broader frame for this 13th Time of the Writer Festival as it takes place in a most significant year for Africa.  Not significant because of the FIFA World Cup, but rather because 2010 marks 50 years of independence for no less than 17 African countries.  

The first point about the Innovative Women exhibition is that it took place on Constitution Hill.  The Constitutional Court is the ultimate arbiter of what is good and bad, what is right and wrong, not in terms of some individual’s arbitrary moral prejudices or any party’s political agenda, but in terms of the country’s Constitution, the highest law of the land. Our Constitution affirms the fundamental right to freedom of creative expression and outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  What this incident has shown is that it doesn’t matter if rights are guaranteed on paper, those in power will always seek to create democracy in their self-serving image, so that the artistic space for freedom of expression can never simply be assumed; it needs to be asserted and defended in practice constantly.

This incident took place in August 2009 and yet the story only broke six months later.  The question is why?  Which brings me to my second point.  I think it has to do with the culpability of artists in disempowering themselves.  At the time, there was probably outrage, but a decision was taken not to cause a fuss, lest the new Zuma administration be alienated, thereby compromising future funding.  Artists are complicit in their own disempowerment by keeping silent, by seeking to align their interests with those of the ruling elite.  Censorship is enforced today not through apartheid-era censorship boards, but through informal forms of intimidation and the threat of withholding public funds; the resultant self-censorship compromises the practice of freedom of expression and shrinks democracy.

The third point to take note of in this story is the Minister’s contention that the exhibition did not contribute to social cohesion and nation-building.  This goes to the core of the state of the arts in our country at the moment for it points to the conscription of the arts for some political or socially good end, rather than the arts being deemed to have value in their own right.  

Post-apartheid cultural policy in the mid-nineties has shifted away from a human rights approach, with Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights being the touchstone: “everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts…’ to a neo-liberal, market-driven cultural industries paradigm.  This has mean a shift away from “everyone shall have access to the arts’ or the “the doors of learning and culture shall be open’ Freedom Charter paradigm, to “everyone who can afford it or who has disposable income can access the arts’.

The fourth point arising out of this incident is that even if the minister rejected art for its own sake in favour of the more politically expedient, instrumental approach with the arts essentially being a vehicle for social cohesion and nation-building, her action makes no sense.  Unless it is her view that black lesbians are not to be included in the nation.  Or that social cohesion excludes one of the most marginalised groups in our society i.e. black lesbians.  More than 30 black gay women have been murdered for no other reason than being gay.  If the minister was serious about social inclusion and nation-building, then she would have made an extra effort to ensure that these women artists felt part of the South African nation.  

One of the reasons suggested for the Minister’s boycott of the exhibition was that the exhibition stereotyped black women.  Here is an exhibition by one of the most marginalised groups in our society, black lesbians, asserting their right to depict themselves as sensual, beautiful, human, loving and they are accused of “stereotyping black women’.  This is not only an outrageous act of intellectual dishonesty, but yet another appropriation of race in order to legitimise a foolish act.  For this is not the affirmation of blackness in the Biko sense of an inclusive identity for all those inferiorised by apartheid, nor of dignifying self-empowerment, nor the psychological affirmation of humanity and wholeness, but rather the all too common cry-wolf blackness that provides the banner under which opportunists pursue their self-enriching ends, fend off legitimate criticism, and in the process, compromise the real struggles of black people.  The women who are most abused because of their sexual orientation are so abused precisely because they are black.

In conclusion, the state of the arts is not to be found in the amount of funding available.  For, quite frankly, whatever the arts sector’s whining about the lack of funding, there has never been so much funding for the arts.  The Department of Arts and Culture’s budget this year is in excess of R2 billion, more than 12 times what it was in 1994.  The Lottery raises more than R250 million per year in funds for the sector.  And certainly, with better vision, with greater political will, with increased levels of competence and strategic management capacity, the arts sector can do much better than it is now.

But for me, the health of the arts is to be analysed in terms of the democratisation of our society: the space created for freedom of artistic expression and for the arts sector to engage with those in power, the energy and willingness of artists to fight for and defend their rights, and the access which the poor, the vulnerable have to resources, infrastructure and the arts themselves to improve their lives.

We are seriously wanting in all of these, and our democracy is the poorer for it. That will only change when the arts sector begins to follow the lead of social movements in other sectors, and take up the cudgels to advance and defend their interests.  No-one else will do it for us.

It is time of the writer, but also of the theatre maker, the musician, the dancer, the filmmaker and the visual artist to stand up and be counted.’

For the full programme and more information about the Time of the Writer festival go to <>  or call 031-2602506.


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