Serving ‘the greedy brothel’

2012-09-05 00:00

KARL Marx believed that revolutions push history forward. For each civil and social revolt, a society is pushed closer and closer to his imagined socialist paradise. Neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci, corrected Marx, and said revolutions are not always necessary, all we have to do, to shift our lived conditions, is to stop consenting to the dominant discourses of capital. We have to stop buying the lies packaged and sold to us by governments eager for votes, and corporations eager for financial power. In short, to use Noam Chomsky’s phrase, we have to fight the political and social “manufacturing of consent” that allows us to put up with things as they are and accept dire situations as “normal”.

As we step onto this “normative” path, I have become aware of a South African, African and global context that is demanding of its arts and culture sector that it delivers two things. Firstly, that it offers this ubiquitous thing called entertainment, and, secondly, that it be about economic sustainability.

I would like to unpack these terms as a political act of my own: as someone who fiercely defines myself as an artist and as a cultural practitioner, and who remains angry that the work we do is either trivialised or devalued. And worse, that we ourselves have begun to consent to the political, social and cultural lies sold us about our own art.

Eighteen years into our democracy, I feel like we — as artists — are on the front line again. While we might not be facing riot police and bullets like other workers in our country, we as artists face the pervasive lack of care and absence of a remembered political history, which, like a bullet, is as silencing and as violent.

We accept as normal that the National Arts Council in March 2012, without consultation, can change the funding landscape of dance: a funding landscape originally created through consultative democratic process pre and post-1994. They have quite literally begun to shut down long-standing working and functioning dance companies and we, as dance artists, are being called greedy when we question these decisions.

We should not be shocked. The new echelon of young arts bureaucrats in South Africa, like many other bureaucrats in this country, are growing up in a cultural climate that honours the annihilation of histories; that feeds on the idea that artists are here to generate this thing called entertainment; that we are here to amuse the wealthy, the elite, and the culturally astute, and even the culturally not so astute.

We ourselves, in turn, begin to make art to serve this normative construct of “entertainment”. We have started to feel guilty and defensive if our work is political, if it has a social conscience. More than before, I am hearing young artists saying of their work, “it is entertaining, it is just a lot of fun, don’t look for anything deep”. Somehow we have begun to feel like pariahs if our art work carries a political ethos.

I am reminded of French theatre maker Antonin Artaud, who, in his search for a socially relevant theatre, in the thirties, called the Paris theatre of his day “a greedy brothel”. We, in South Africa, come from a long history of performance being part of a liberation struggle. We did not only dance and sing before the main event, we, in the historical absence of the ability to gather politically, were the main event. Arts and culture spoke to our deepest sense of who we were and who we could be, and now 18 years into that dream, we are being forced to serve another type of “greedy brothel”: one that prefers not to have critical arts, that is choosing generally not to fund it, and that has begun to normalise our arts as a leisure pursuit.

Further, if we consent only to understand our art and dance as “entertainment”, we run the risk — and we are witnessing this happening to us right now — of being seen as expendable: as that which can most easily be done away with in a society when faced with other more pressing “serious” political concerns.

And if we construct our arts and culture industry within the paradigm of “leisure” and as “entertainment”, then indeed, the catch phrases of becoming “economically self-sustaining” will follow very quickly.

One of the great gifts of the art sector in our country and our continent, is the way in which accessing arts and culture as a fundamental human right, is a way of humanising ourselves and understanding that arts and culture are our greatest asset towards a consensual critical democracy, and, indeed, the self-actualisation of a continent.’


• This is an edited version of a speech given at the opening night last week of the Jomba! Contemporary Dance Experience by the artistic director, Lliane Loots. The Jomba! Contemporary Dance Experience is running at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at UKZN until September 9.


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