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Are artists part of 'the problem'?

April 8, 2011

During this week, Juliano Mer-Khamis, the founder and director of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, Palestine, was assassinated. Shot dead in his car by masked gunmen. One tribute describes him as someone who was “totally committed to his belief that experience with art is a means to exercise freedom”.

Also this week, one of the most well-known (and outspoken) artists in China – Ai Weiwei – was detained by his government, and according to reports, like dozens of bloggers and dissidents arrested in the last few months, his name has just about been removed from the Chinese internet.

Meanwhile, in Cameroon, the musician Lapiro de Mbanga is to be released this week after serving three years in jail for his song “Constipated Constitution”, which was critical of the political status quo.

Are these artists exceptions? Or are they the ones we come to know about through international campaigns highlighting their bravery and consequent persecution?

Artists often have the image of being “other”, of not being “normal”, and are variously dismissed, marginalised or tolerated for being “creative”, for thinking differently, for not being conformist. And yet, for all the sometimes aspirational, sometimes “cool” status of being “unconventional”, artists – generally – can be pretty conservative, and, unless there is a counterhegemonic movement that has reached some kind of tipping point in which artists can find protection, we artists tend to align our interests with those of the status quo. Of course, we might think critically, we might even voice our criticisms around dinner tables, in pubs and in our dressing rooms, but when it comes to really speaking truth to power, and to acting it out in our creative work, we’re generally a cowardly lot!

Some would argue that artists are no different to other human beings and also have needs to pay the rent, put food on the table, pay school fees and deal with rising fuel costs. Why then, should artists be obliged to do and say things that could alienate those in power or those with resources or their primary middle-to-upper class audiences and markets who help to sustain their tenuous lifestyles?

No-one seeks to be a martyr for art or for freedom of expression or to go to jail or to embrace – relative - poverty by challenging those responsible for perpetuating injustices and inequities. But then, who will speak truth to power? What is the role of artists within any society? Is it any more than entertaining and giving pleasure to elites? To seek affirmation from audiences, critics, buyers and awards judges? To produce art of technical excellence, and to deliver it professionally?

The production and distribution of art does not happen in a social vacuum, nor on an island with no context. Theatre, music, dance, visual art, literature and film are created and distributed in national and global contexts characterised by vast inequities between rich and poor; by rabid discrimination on the basis of nationality, gender, sexual orientation, education, age and a host of other factors; by ongoing and massive environmental destruction and by violence – institutional, military and criminal – being wreaked on human life and dignity. Artists inhabit, and are influenced by this world. Whether we recognise it or not, our creative work, the choices we make about what we will say and how we will say it, our decisions about where our work will be shown (and thus who will have access to it) - these all contribute in some way to maintaining, reinforcing or challenging an economic, political and social status quo.

Embedded in our creative work, and in the institutions through which we distribute our work, are values, ideas, worldviews, ideological and moral assumptions that contribute (whether through silence or overt expression) in multi-layered ways to perpetuating or challenging hegemonic discourses and behaviour.

As artists we are taught that the arts are a reflection of our society, that the role of art is to hold up a mirror to our society. If we evaluate our work over the last number of years, what does our art say about our society, about the world we inhabit, about us? Whose stories do we tell? To whose music do we dance? Whose images do we put to canvas?

There are many arts-related organisations that do exemplary work: monitoring and exposing the suppression of freedom of expression; providing refuge to artists in exile; fighting for artists’ mobility against narrow nationalist economic and security concerns….But these are often led by arts managers and cultural policy activists rather than artists. My experience of artists is that they care little for matters beyond their own micro artistic practice, that they fail to read and try to understand the broader national and global context in which they work and the dialectic between their work (and the challenges they encounter) and the macro economic, political and social forces that impact directly or indirectly on the production and distribution of their work. Artists care little for cultural policies and make no effort to interrogate the international conventions and regional treaties that their governments sign, so that they have very limited understanding of both the possibilities (and responsibilities) that these bring. Artists are less likely to challenge government than to seek the blessing of political parties whom they believe will protect and advance their micro interests, even when decades of history prove otherwise.

It may seem unfair to lay a huge burden of “artivisim” on the shoulders of a sector that genuinely struggles with finding decent and regular work, but the truth is that the arts sector is a relatively privileged one.

The question is: in whose interests will we use our skills, our knowledge, our talents, our public profiles, our access to the media, our networks, our resources and our opportunities? How would the masses of people on the underside of contemporary history view artists? As part of their problem?

1. The views expressed in this column are entirely those of the writer and are necessarily representative of any of the organisations in which he is involved.
2. This column may be forwarded by the recipient to any other interested party, and may be reproduced by any publication or website at no charge, provided that writer is acknowledged.
3. To engage with the content of this column or to provide feedback, go to www.mikevangraan.wordpress.com

Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent. He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses local expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector. He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.

For further information, see www.arterialnetwork.org, www.africanartsinstitute.org.za and www.mikevangraan.co.za

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