South African artists: A shabby state of affairs

Many years ago, a state funding agency suggested to playwright Nadia Davids that her one-woman show about Muslim women, At Her Feet, was not representative enough to be funded, but would be reconsidered if she wrote in a few more characters of different ethnicity. She refused.

And the recent debacle over Brett Murray’s The Spear, whatever one’s take on the actual work might be, revealed how shallow is the understanding of the role of the artist in a multicultural society.

If there is one community that has always battled for “economic freedom”, it is artists; even if novelist Sinclair Lewis observed: “In other countries, art and literature are left to a lot of shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti, but in America the successful writer or picture-painter is indistinguishable from any other decent business man.”

Artists must eternally struggle to create the material conditions in which they might actualise themselves, balancing their physical needs with their spiritual expression; their individual aesthetic sensibility with those of the broader public or their patron.

Under South Africa’s neoliberal dispensation, artists are largely left to the mercy of the markets. Where the state is involved, the market paradigm has “unintentionally” seen the vast majority of funds go directly or indirectly to centres and institutions that favour commercial work and spectacle.


Work that is deemed worthy of state patronage must tick either enough boxes (transformation, people with disabilities, doing workshops, raising awareness of social issues), or it must serve political ends. Perhaps it is only fair for artists who want the public purse to support them to accept this absurd criteria.

Tragic disinterest

Both the government and our corporate culture seem to view artists as entertainment to liven up events or express national pride. The artist must endlessly contest how he is seen by society.

So the artist is left struggling with these giant forces – the commercial imperatives of capitalism or the pressures for extraneous political correctness to gain the socialist subsidy.

Unlike their counterparts in the United States, by and large our wealthy citizens and sports-mad big business are tragically disinterested in artists.

But despite a feeling of genuine solidarity with the artist’s struggle, it is easy to feel irritated by this blubbing for the state tit. There is such a sense of entitlement. Artists who used to receive subsidies under apartheid, but who can’t even manage to raise an audience today, are outraged that their patronage has been withdrawn. Then there are emergent artists who have hardly proved themselves, who are borderline professional, but are demanding astounding subsidies and preposterous salaries. One wishes to say: Get on with it; prove your worth and relevance, and then ask for assistance.

I have made the point before in the M&G, that in the 1960s, Ben Masinga didn’t sit back for producer Ian Bernhardt and the Union Artists, but struck out on his own. Sam Mhangwane toured for 12 years with his own musical. Gibson Kente left Dorkay House and without subsidy and in the dark days of apartheid managed to sustain three touring companies in continuous employment through the 1970s paying his best actors handsomely.

Ironically, while these legendary entrepreneurs were running successful black theatre companies in the townships, the more ideological Black Consciousness theatre was funded from abroad and under white tutelage, and often performed overseas.

Was it because this work is less interesting to audiences and is rather sustained by political sensibilities? Is history poised to repeat itself?

Crisis point

At a recent congress of international theatre critics I attended in Europe, Professor Savas Patsalidis of Aristotle University spoke of how “theatre rediscovers its community at moments of crisis”.

Greece is convulsed by an unprecedented economic meltdown, and yet its artists continue. Athens will see 400 productions this season, even though most of the performers will not be paid.

“Some take it as a challenge,” says Patsalidis. “Others as a mission or vocation; others because they have nothing else or better to do … They want to re-establish their links with the community, its politics, its environment and the spectators’ experiences.”

The Athenians have come up with a host of performance interventions, such as theatre equivalents of flash mobs, theatre on public transport, in private living rooms and abandoned offices; even staging performances as part of the ongoing riots and protests in the streets.

Is South Africa not also a society to some extent in social crisis, still recovering from the shockwaves of the fall of apartheid?

Last month, one Cape Town-based company, The Mechanicals, set an example. They staged a full production of King Lear, possibly the most interesting the city has ever seen, under the superb direction of Guy de Lancey, with a cast of 15, including actors of such calibre as Graham Weir and Jeroen Kranenburg. They often rehearsed with parts being read as actors were absent, busy with paying jobs elsewhere; they lost some people along the way.

But in the end, they pulled it off, with everyone working not for financial reward, but for the love of the theatre and a belief in their art. They were out there doing their job.

“Form a union,” was the advice Pallo Jordan gave artists when he was minister of arts and culture.

But certain arts institutions, such as philharmonic orchestras, and opera and ballet companies, cannot hope to survive even for a day without private or public sponsorship.

A lost opportunity

And opera companies are now in revolt. Seven of them from across the country have banded together as a unified voice (the South African National Opera Association) against what they say is “the National Arts Council’s arbitrary decision not to award any company funding for 2012/2013, without notification”.

And there seems to be a grave lack of appreciation for just how employment intensive an industry is the arts. Cape Town Opera (CTO) left for the UK last week to give 38 performances over seven weeks in six cities.

The tour will bring in R2.9-million of the overall R14.7-million in remuneration paid to South African artists by the company in 2012.

The CTO is “currently negotiating 13 offers for tours over the next two years which would generate +R20-million in remuneration … but our application last year to the DTI Jobs Fund to expand our touring capacity, and to fulfil this kind of demand, was denied,” Elise Brunelle, CTO’s financial manager, wrote in an email to me.

One could argue that the way forward for the artists of South Africa is to lobby and to stand together; two things artists have historically never been very good at. The Creative Workers’ Union of South Africa did manage to kick up a fuss when local artists were initially excluded from the 2010 Fifa World Cup opening ceremony. They have hardly been heard of again.

The government and the private sector are big on lip service and acknowledging the artists’ importance in the abstract, but have to date overall dismally failed to respond to this constituency.

Mike van Graan, playwright and veteran activist in the arts, summarises this uphill battle: “The divisions within the arts community – principally, highly skilled and resourced Afrikaans practitioners and audiences on the one hand and ‘the rest’ on the other – represents a failure of vision, imagination and strategic management as the ‘haves’ in terms of skills, resources and expertise have got richer and the have-nots have generally been left to scrap over what public funding is made available; a huge opportunity to utilise the skills, expertise, resources across the country has been lost through political short sightedness and an absence of vision.”

Both struggle and struggling artists have been left out in the cold. Who knows what talent the country is allowing to wither away.

What is governmen’s role? Brent Meersman discusses these issues here

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