The recent Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) Arts and National Development Imbizo – Rethinking the Positioning of the Arts in South Africa – provided thought- provoking discussions and debate. Opening the discussion, Dr Barry Gilder spoke of ‘harnessing the arts’ to the development of South Africa.
You know me as a firm believer in the arts as a progressive enabler, a key to opening the door to many other sectors and engagements, but it is a little disconcerting if we continue to imagine the sector as an instrument and enabler alone, without acknowledging its sometimes startling and singular goal. This is particularly prescient when you read the words of artist Lucky Ntimani from Mbokota Village, Limpopo, who was recently quoted in the Limpopo Mirror, as saying, ‘To me, art is life, I do not craft my sculptures for the aim of gaining money. I dream and wake up to create.’
While I have never met Mr Ntimani, or seen his work, I think that the complexities of the creative are fixed in those two sentences, that the rights of the artist as a creator are not easily addressed, and could be perceived as a binary. The question that I was asked to respond to at the MISTRA Imbizo was: ‘Do Cultural Policies and Commercial Interests compliment or contradict one another in South Africa?’ This under the theme of ‘Multiple Dynamics of Creative Freedom’. And it is with Mr Ntimani’s two sentences in mind, that I have attempted to understand what it means to be an artist, and also to understand what the dynamics of creative freedom consist of, within the framework of our Bill of Rights. Less and less I believe in binaries, but rather in the idea of a spectrum or shifting range. I believe that policy and commercial interest could be aligned on a spectrum, or could shift to different points, depending on whose commercial interests, and what could be regarded as a positive outcome, as impacted by policy.
I also believe more in the line between core and flex as described by Common Purpose’s Julia Middleton in the book Cultural Intelligence. What is unshiftable, immutable to one’s personality and leadership, for example, versus where one is prepared to flex, shift and change in order to reach the aforementioned outcome. Likewise, to be an artist, one needs to understand the spectrum that core and flex offer in terms of their work ’The tension between self and the world’ in the world. So the idea that one could ‘dream and wake up to create’ talks deeply to Section 16’s freedom of expression in the Bill of Rights. It also talks to the idea that we have a right to our cultural
activities and dignity.
Understandably, that addresses one part of the spectrum, but further along the continuum, everyone also has the right to choose his/her/their trade, occupation and profession, as per Section 22. Now, this makes complete sense with so many professions, but the arts is not always simply a profession, it can be ‘life’, or, as I’ve quoted poet Jane Hirschfield in the past, ‘the tension between self and the world.’ In that attempt to find coherence and meaning in the world, we do see something necessarily different, where what is created is often not perceived to have market value, unlike the person who chooses her profession according to the basic needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy. So the multiplicity of dynamics is not only about policies and commercial interest, it’s also about rights and personal, cultural and even religious or philosophical value.
Thus, the artist must address a diversity of challenges that need to be managed if one is to achieve true artistic freedom – be it commercial, soulful, rights-based or ideally, all of the above.