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Opinionista

While millionaires and politicians fiddle, South African art and culture burns

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Matthew Blackman is a journalist and co-author of Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in SA, and Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped SA. He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia.

Do cultural pursuits in fact have any value? Are our cultural institutions like galleries and museums simply a waste of money, a drain on state coffers? Or do art and culture have substantive functions in society?

While working in and writing about the art world from 2008 to 2015 I was often told in places such as art fairs or commercial galleries that art and culture are so important. I always nodded in agreement. Why wouldn’t I? My career (if it can really be called that) was largely dependent on people believing this. That is, sustaining the belief that culture has some kind of inherent value in society. Privately, by 2014, I was having my doubts. Just how could all the money that is spent (misspent maybe) on the visual arts be justified?

Just how could one person (a person called the collector) really buy a large piece of paper or canvas for the same price as a flat in Camps Bay? How could these people turn a blind eye to the suffering and poverty that exists around us while doing this? On those terms I became progressively convinced that culture’s “value” was deeply flawed. What was more, the question “what substantive good does culture bring to society?” kept on nagging me.  

When I was asked, on rare occasions, what is the value of art in our society? I answered “none that I can see”.  Some seemed to think that this was simply “your dry sense of humour”, others that I had sniffed one too many jars of turpentine and had gone stark raving off my nut.

But the truth is, I do not believe in art for art’s sake. And I still feel that there is very little inherent value in the visual arts industry. And yes, it does display all the signs, processes and motivations of an industry. It seems to me that much of it, with its champagne and canapé events, is simply conspicuous waste. Although of course I was often contemplating this while quaffing my free champagne and being saddened by my lack of VVIP (Very very important person!) status at international art fairs.

But are art and culture valueless? I remember sitting through a seminar some years ago listening to a member of a UK political philosophy department justifying just why governments should fund the arts. The argument was that the arts were an essential part of the nation; again the “inherent value” argument was raised. I walked away still thinking, but why? Wasn’t Dostoevsky closer to the mark in expressing that “boots are more valuable than the works of Shakespeare”?

So convinced was I of culture’s lack of real value that at one point, during my studies in the UK in 2016, I was close to packing this culture nonsense up. Perhaps, I thought, I should work on the ships in the style of Ishmael in Moby Dick.

And I was having another dose of these doubts when I found myself being borne along by my bicycle past the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Norwich. I was brought up an atheist (or at least I was never taken to church as a child). But my father’s side being Catholic, I have always tribally associated myself with the church of Rome. I got off my bike and walked into this beautiful pile of stones, largely because I thought it might be a good place to sit and reflect on whether what I was doing had any value.

I slipped onto a pew at the back only to hear the priest boom out: “And Moses said (pause) don’t give up!” That was enough. I got on my bike and rode home thinking how ironic it was that it took Moses from The Bible to tell me, an atheist, that I should carry on going with my studies. And that is when I began to realise why culture has some value. It is important not because of its mystifying “inherent value” but because it is a form of communication. Some ancient person The Bible names as Moses had communicated something of value to me.

What we call culture, in all its forms, are attempts to communicate. They are attempts to not only speak to your own community but to communicate across peoples and across ages. But what value does this have then in South Africa? South Africa has always been sceptical of broad-based communication. Our history is one of balkanisation, of division. We rarely speak to people outside our own communities. “You are talking k*k” is a regular refrain uttered to anybody who dares express something that reaches outside their laager.

But the culture contained in music, art, books and theatre often pushes out against a common or familiar discourse (of course to be fair it can also do the very opposite). Art, novels, plays and music are often attempts to communicate across the segregated divides. The value that culture has is that it can communicate thoughts and feelings that are not our own. It can also do the opposite and confirm prejudice or ideology. But at the very least it is communication and thought. And exposure to thought, feelings and ideas can produce benefits.

Some of our truly great people like Sol Plaatje, Olive Schreiner, the sadly forgotten Robert Grendon, Irma Stern and Ernest Mancoba (among many others), have all communicated something of value to our society, past and present. The tragedy is that so few South Africans have engaged with these people’s works. While at the same time rich South African art collectors only see two of them (Stern and Mancoba) as worth spending their money on.

What is truly tragic, however, in the post-apartheid period, is just how badly we have trampled on and suppressed our own cultural productions. Just why is it that the publishing industry is struggling to survive, our national galleries are in a state of neglect and dysfunctionality, and our theatres are now closed or closing? And this, while hundreds of millions of rands are spent at art auctions annually.

It is a situation made all the more tragic if one looks back at the traditions of the ANC, the UDF, the PAC, the Liberal Party and discover that their ranks were once filled with writers, artists, playwrights, and musicians. Could you name one member of the ANC or DA or EFF today who writes or plays music?

Culture, a valuable source of communication, is slowly grinding to an Eskom-like spattering dysfunctional mess, while millionaires and politicians fiddle and Parliament and our archives burn. DM

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  • An interesting point of view.
    P.S. Matthew: We believe that everyone is a VVIP at the Turbine Art Fair, but we would be delighted to welcome you at the Preview on the 21st of July 2022 in Johannesburg.

  • What a one dimensional view on Culture and creativity. The Daily Maverick and media in South Africa are equally to blame for the lack of engagement that citizens find themselves in. You talk about artists from the past, who command large sums of money from collectors and compare it to political malaise.
    Actually, there is a whole vibrant amazing creative community making a living and improving our visual, audio and physical world every day. Maybe you should try and engage with this middle non VVIP part of the population and write about this everyday activity.
    Politicians do not have to be creatives, but give space and airtime to those in the industry trying to make politicians accountable for their lack of action and engagement.

  • “Arts” is the name we currently proffer for the expressions of our living – unique, ubiquitous, regular, different, patterned, nuanced and reflective. In the everyday expressions of living, we find the “art” as the reflector of these cultural things, as it has been since before people lived in caves. That “art” now expresses itself as the neoliberal, individual, self- aggrandized, neurotic, faux- value cultural persuits may not be due to politicians and wealthy people. It may very well be the true reflection of the culture of now.

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