Dashiki Dialogues: Let’s talk about ugly

2011-07-29 16:14

Drunk with the cult of compromise, South Africans have ­forgotten how to talk about things they actually don’t like.

It seems that here at home, the emperor is under no threat of discovering his nudity, as the old adage goes.

I came to this realisation over the past week when I was amid crowds of film and picture
junkies.

Conversations there suggested that in our eagerness to move on beyond our ugly apartheid past and all the things we didn’t like about it, in order to move into that space where the sole national debate is about “how good we are doing” and “how lovely the rainbow is”, we ­unlearned the bitter grammar necessary to confront what’s ­ugly about our collective self.

We acquired a taste for ­compromising criticism for praise singing.

This condition plays itself out on many levels of our social discourse. One example could be how we treat anything to do with our most beloved former president, Nelson Mandela.

I mean, our jealous adoration – and some would say deification – of the man has gotten us to a place where we don’t know how to speak about what we don’t like about him, at least not publicly.

So we won’t talk publicly about the peril of domestic abuse which, actually, is so great that even our “pre-eminent leader” is faulted by it.

And last week, after watching an important film about another beloved icon of our land, Miriam Makeba, a friend asked a pertinent question: “Why do we make it feel wrong to not like a film [book or song] about Mandela or Makeba? So that artists and writers can get away with making shoddy work simply because they are done in praise of the rainbow and all its props.”

In popular cultural criticism this creates a tendency to avoid writing critically about bad art and choosing to focus on heaping praise on what pleases us.

This diseased predisposition works against us all. In art, inept creative workers need to benefit from robust criticism to show them where they went wrong.

You see, the problem is that failing to pronounce what we think is ugly about ourselves and what we do, means we don’t learn from our dreadful moments or mistakes.

I say we need a national ­discourse on ugliness so that on days when our sun is not so bright, we have the capacity to see through the faded spectrum of our experience.

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