Reflections on the intersections of art, culture and activism – Fellows’ seminar by Mike van Graan

20 April 2020

“The personal and the political. The macro and the micro. The individual and the collective. Art reflects society back to itself. Many believe that this is one of the primary roles of the artist: to hold up a mirror that reflects the good, the bad and the ugly (although there is seldom an indication of ‘to what end’?) However, few artists engage in both creative work and broader social or political activism. In this presentation, I will attempt to provide the rationale for my work that seeks to integrate my practice as a playwright with my activism in the realm of cultural policy,” said Mike van Graan, playwright,   consultant in the arts and culture sector, and STIAS Artist-in-residence.

STIAS Artist-in-residence Mike van Graan presented his webinar on 16 April 2020

In a wide-ranging presentation, Van Graan highlighted the changing emphasis on arts and culture policies within South Africa; bemoaned the lack of culture as a dedicated SDG goal; emphasised the need for a broader holistic understanding of culture; and, highlighted some of the practical challenges faced by artists. He started by reflecting on the current situation.

“The lockdown has once again highlighted inequality. South Africa is a metaphor for the world in this – 20% of South Africans earn 68% of national income, 30 million live in poverty and 30% were unemployed before COVID-19. This all feeds into the cocktail of social, political and violent othering. A child born in Khayelitsha does not have the same dignity and rights as one born in Claremont.”

“Such inequality makes a mockery of democracy,’ he added. “Fundamental and structural inequality is at the root of many local and regional conflicts.”

“We also have to ask whose values and ideas dominate? This depends on global and media reach and access to digital platforms. This speaks to ‘cultural inequality’. There is no platform that provides narratives and perspectives on global issues through an African lens. While CNN, BBC and French television can reach Africans, we do not have the means to win the hearts and minds globally.

“These are among the difficult subjects that artists need to place in the public domain for debate, scrutiny and catharsis.”

Changing emphases

Turning specifically to South African policies, he explained that in the early 1990s South African artists were, for the first time, given the opportunity to help formulate policy via an arts and culture task group which led to the development of the 1996 White Paper.

“The first premise of the White Paper was that everyone had the right to enjoy art. This is also the basis of the ANC’s Freedom Charter – the ‘opening of the doors of learning and culture’. The idea was that the state should make the resources available.”

“The current Minister has taken more than five years to revise the 1996 White Paper. This version has job creation as one of its key starting points rather than a vision for the arts. Policy proposals have shifted from a human rights premise to a more neoliberal economic focus with an emphasis on the creative and cultural industries.”

“There has been a failure of government to implement its own policies as outlined in the first White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage.”

“Policy makers often view the arts as luxuries. But Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states ’everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts’.  Human beings are not only physical entities but have emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions too, which is why the arts are crucial.”

“South Africa is a developmental state but we need to define development as being inclusive of human, social and economic development,” he continued. “The current policies emphasise the creative and cultural industries but economics cannot be the dominant factor. Art for its own sake is about human development, self-expression, human catharsis, even if it has little economic value.  Then there is art for social development, instrumentalising the arts for socially good ends such as using theatre to educate people about COVID-19. And then there is art for economic development.  All these require different forms of funding; there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.”

He also highlighted the lack of focus on contemporary works and artists.

“We need government not only to focus on heritage but to support contemporary art-making as this would affirm support for the constitutional right to freedom of creative expression.”

“Even in the more democratic states in Africa like South Africa there is a reluctance to support contemporary works because governments might not like what they say. Political authorities hate criticism. They don’t want to be questioned.”

“But,” he added, “such artists continue to produce despite policy and funding limitations.”

He recommended that arts and culture not be limited to one ministry but rather be cross-cutting across ministries.

“A silo ministry means there is no influence in other areas. I would want a co-ordinating ministry with culture desks in each department. We need a minister who has a holistic understanding of how culture has both positive and negative effects on society and how we should mitigate the negative.”

Turning his focus internationally and specifically to the SDGs, he pointed to the lack of a goal on culture.

“There was strong lobbying from international arts and culture organisations like UNESCO and the Arterial Network from Africa about including culture not least because many of the MDGs were not realised for their failure to take account of the culture of intended beneficiaries. But the argument to include culture in the MDGs was lost.”

“Culture is crucial to changing behaviour,’ he continued. “So as an example of the importance of culture, the SDG on gender equality cannot be achieved without addressing the patriarchal culture that underpins gender inequality. There were 87 000 reports of domestic violence to the police in the first week of the lockdown, again emphasising the need to address the culture that enables this violence.”

In discussion he addressed the practical challenge of funding.

“Often in Africa things are produced using international donors which usually means unequal power relations. It’s hard to address. There is often goodwill from the funders to change but it’s never actually challenged – those funded obviously don’t want to potentially alienate the resources. You need engagement as equals to ensure a changed conversation.” (Van Graan was commissioned by three European agencies to develop a toolkit to assist a few years ago on the theme ’Beyond Curiosity and Desire: Towards Fairer International Collaboration’.)

“It’s also difficult to get funding for young, emerging people entering the industry. Unlike more resourced countries, there is no dedicated funding for young artists entering the industry. As part of arts advocacy groups, we have tried to get publicly funded institutions to give opportunities to young directors, writers and so on.”

“The hoops you have to jump through for funding are often bizarre,” he added, “you sometimes get more points for the potential impact of your project on women, rural areas, people with disabilities, etc. than for artistic merit. Hence my earlier point about the need for different funding sources for art that have different human development, social development or economic development ends.”

He also spoke about the increased need for indigenous languages in theatre.

“There is an increase in the use of indigenous language in theatre. It’s taken a while to get there. We should be doing far more to make available each other’s stories in their original languages, by using technology to provide translation in our theatres and festivals.”

He also suggested that the current conditions offered new models for distributing the arts.

“In the last three weeks there has been lots of talk globally about taking festivals online and live streaming productions, concerts and even exhibition openings. This might be a way to increase access generally to the arts – for people who normally wouldn’t have transport and ticket money.  COVID-19 is providing huge challenges but also opportunities to do things differently, particularly if we learn how to monetise the use of technology in this way.”

“Culture is a major site of the soft power struggle,” he continued. “The arts and creative products are vehicles for disseminating ideas, values, ways of seeing the world. If this is the case, then the arts sector needs to form strategic alliances with other social movements that seek to change our society – and indeed our world – for the better.”

“It’s not just about us holding up a mirror to society; we also have to engage in the hard work of organising to change things. Artists need to brave up. If we want democracy, we need to practise it. We must push back against those who seek to limit our freedoms, ask the hard questions, and challenge the political dogmas of our time. Or we are complicit in the undermining of democracy, and in allowing others to create democracy in their self-serving image.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Supplied

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