The pitfalls and shortcomings of artistic canons

Generations: Keoraptse Kgositsile, Phillipa Yaa de Villiers and James Matthews are some of South Africa's literary torch bearers. (Supplied)

Generations: Keoraptse Kgositsile, Phillipa Yaa de Villiers and James Matthews are some of South Africa's literary torch bearers. (Supplied)

A cursory historic and thematic review of literature produced in South Africa pre- and post-1994 suggests a skewed, dominant and unavoidable preoccupation with the collision of racist and exploitative politics in the country’s social and artistic imagination.

The literature produced under the insanity of apartheid, one that can loosely but rightfully be regarded as South Africa’s canon, largely dealt with the politics of politics and of identity. In a nutshell, such art concerned itself with the recording, analysis and critique of the then status quo (repression, racial prejudice, economic exploitation, etcetera) in a multiplicity of artistic disciplines, including through literature.

The apartheid censor’s guillotine chopped at both artist and artwork with reckless abandon — falling on music, works of literature (specifically, fiction and theatre), films and (documentary) photography; all were deemed to be inciting and subversive. This reaction to art not only prompted a tenuous and dangerous relationship between the state and the “governed”, but a more volatile standoff between the censors (read apartheid machinery) and artists in all their sectors and ideological leanings.
The pushback against apartheid savagery produced, albeit some of them allegorical rather than direct, fictional works such as Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K (JM Coetzee), Cry, the Beloved Country (Alan Paton) and Blame Me on History (Bloke Modisane). There are also theatre classics such as Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold” and The Boys, The Island and Woza Albert. Cinematic engagement with the Hitlerite temperament of the apartheid system produced films such as The Power of One, A Dry White Season, Oliver Schmidt’s Mapantsula and, later, Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina.

This artistic output, revolutionary as it is historic, included the poignant photography of Jürgen Schadeberg, Peter Magubane, Alf Khumalo and Sam Nzima, which rendered in freeze-frame and timeless images the brutality, effects and schizophrenia of the system.

And yet this contamination and tussle between politics and art is not unique to South Africa — it can be traced to the literary output on the wider African continent and the diaspora. A great number of classics in the African Writers Series and beyond were anti-colonial in their content and politics; the same or similar sentiments were expressed in the works of such writers as James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka and Richard Wright, as well as the political and public speeches of Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X). The anti-oppression and exploitation spark also gave impetus to music icons such as Jamaica’s Bob Marley, and selected tracks such as Billie Holidays’s Strange Fruit, Bill Withers’s I Can’t Write Left-Handed, and Peter Tosh’s Fight Apartheid.

The overarching and common thread that runs through protest and resistance art across time and geography can be summarised as a quest for, and projection of, political consciousness and human solidarity.

Former president Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech, delivered on the occasion of the passing of the new South African Constitution on May 8 1996, is quite vivid and instructive in navigating and articulating the complexities of African identities, against the backdrop of various political systems and the events that brought them into being.

The oeuvre of revolutionary and other modes of art in South Africa is receding into the shadows of canon, archives and memory, thus necessitating urgency in transition from the historic to the contemporary and the contemporary to the future. Historicity and the complexities and contradictions of representation have a bearing on the direction and content of individual artistic projects or whole artistic movements. It is the transitions and interdependence between established and emerging literatures that ushers in new waves and intensities of present-day social milieu.

The great irony of South African letters, at least at a superficial level, is that the contamination by apartheid of social spaces and thought is so pervasive that the recalibration of literature to explore and celebrate zones of normality remains partially hamstrung by the distortions and totalitarianism of the then apartheid state. Extended exploration of this trope is evident in texts such as George Orwell’s 1984, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Andre Brink’s A Dry White Season and, to an extent, Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy.

To demonstrate the stain of the past on current artistic pursuits, it is worth noting that the new wave of South African writing by younger writers has not yet convincingly crystallised into a coherent canon (defined here in terms of being exposed and subjected to rigorous scholarship at home and abroad, integration into the cultural iconography and heritage of the land, and deliberate exporting of the literature to interface with other global literatures and cultures).

This is not to say that totalitarian regimes are a prerequisite for the formation of a literary canon, or that the public imagination around what constitutes a canon is an exact science. On the contrary, a great deal of contestation against generally accepted works that are considered to be canonical is suggestive and indicative of the fact that the process and measuring tools of birthing a canon are not independent from, or unaffected by, prevailing social thought or discourse. There are uncomfortable questions that should be asked: how reviewable and final the crowns of canons actually are, what aspects of canons are resultant from myth making, and if canons are reviewable and prone to undue benefits by skewed academia or sophisticated public relations.

What new rules and levels of scrutiny need to be applied to subsequent works so revered as to represent the very best or worst in nationhood?

Canons, though not centrally or overtly, speak to complicated questions of ownership and belonging, which are largely driven by fluid and subjective instincts of identification and pride by those partaking in the consumption or elevation of certain artworks and personalities over others, for example, the way Brenda Fassie’s music or Nelson Mandela enjoy (locally and internationally) high-ranking endorsement as custodians and symbols of art, culture and moral leadership, respectively. Considerable challenges face the development and critical engagement with our state of nascent new titles by contemporary writers, or more specifically, young and emerging voices. These include a decline in intellectual inquiry and pursuits as pertains artworks by young practitioners or audiences, the very dynamic and at times catastrophic soundbite and fleeting engagement with life through social media platforms, and the fact that the nature of academia and curriculum content are themselves either mismatched with the social context or pressured to undergo far-reaching transformation in terms of inspirational and aspirational tropes in social re-engineering and public imagination.

A more intricate reading and unpredictable framing of canons is when the phenomenon of globalisation is thrown into the mix, such that the canonical are not only confined to their localities of origin, but to much more diverse, plural and far from homogeneous global audiences. This exposes the superficial and unsustainable borders around which high-value and revered artworks themselves become commodities in high-bidding battles.

The “purity” and sovereignty of nationhood over art can inadvertently become contaminated or swept away by the cultures of much stronger or exploitative nations (for example, Nazi art theft, the looting of African art and preservation in Eurocentric art museums and related institutions). In that sense, dominant global canons indirectly dictate the value of whole art systems of “lesser” peoples or artistic endeavours — and thus become, rightly or wrongly, dominant points of reference or global standards: Shakespeare, Hollywood, Renaissance art, Picasso, Beethoven and the like.

The question should be: At what point will nations consider and introduce cultural diplomacy to safeguard fair and equitable co-existence of artworks, in the same manner that trade deals and tariffs are negotiated and vigorously monitored?

South Africa is presently experiencing unparalleled productivity in the arts, including in literature. There are, of course, structural and institutional limitations to do with financing of art projects, balancing governance mandates and priorities with colonial legacies and competing developmental state policy imperatives.

More critically, however, is whether sufficient scholarly and policy rigour exists to update the existing literary and related artistic canons and infuse them with new voices that will themselves become canons in decades to come. These include names such as Thando Mgqolozana, Masande Ntshanga, Damon Galgut, Phillipa Yaa de Villiers, Nadia Davids, Niq Mhlongo, Lebo Mashile, Lauren Beukes, Yewande Omotoso, Mohale Mashigo, Fred Khumalo, Kopano Matlwa, Kgebetli Moele and Angela Makholwa to stand alongside luminaries and torchbearers such as Zakes Mda, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Antjie Krog, JM Coetzee, Lewis Nkosi, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Tsitsi Dangarembga and an expansive list of others. Deliberate thought and urgency are required in effecting the frameworks of canonisation, because the books — the truly excellent ones — won’t critique and elevate themselves.

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