The arts under threat

2010-09-22 00:00

ARTISTS are like the media. Through their creative expressions artists disseminate information. They contextualise ideas. They reposition our thoughts. They allow us to reflect on our world. They force us to be critical. They engage our minds in analysis. So, it is inevitable that with any kind of an assault on media freedom, an assault on the artistic freedoms of artists will also be likely to follow.

Given the past history of South Africa, we have been witness to how censorship can be a debilitating cancer which eats into all forms of expression that artistically and/or politically controversial.

In the old South Africa, Anna Sewell’s 1887 novel, Black Beauty, which spoke about animal welfare but also about how to treat people with kindness, sympathy and respect, was banned. The Nationalist Party government could ban any material if government bureaucrats deemed the work to be obscene, depraved, immoral or a danger to the state. And we all know just how subjective those moral judgments were.

Post-1994, the pending law-suit against political cartoonist Zapiro is a wonderful case in point of the attempts to curb media and artistic expression that is politically critical and controversial.

As vocal as we are about the freedom and independence of the media, we need to be equally adamant that the creative spirit of our artists must also always remain free.

The freedom of our artists to express themselves through theatre, music, dance, photography, and other art forms is already threatened by a funding climate that makes it incredibly difficult for most of them to work sustainably. We need to ensure that the freedoms of our artists will not be further curbed by pressure from law makers, prosecutors and self-appointed guardians of morality, taste and political whim.

The relationship between Hilton College and The Witness to support the Hilton Arts Festival is a valuable and strategic partnership. Hilton College as a centre of enlightenment is pivotal for nurturing individuals who will one day take up their positions as creative, critical and analytical leaders of our society. By positioning an arts festival on its campus, Hilton College affirms its strong commitment, and by creating a platform for artistic expression, it gives both its pupils and its community the access to one of our most basic freedoms — that is the right to be emotionally, spiritually and intellectually stimulated.

All kinds of artistic expressions no matter what their message, medium or quality are, will always have the power to enlighten, entertain and inform us. The line that separates the media and the arts is so thin that any curbing of the freedoms of the media will also apply to the way in which artists will be able express their ideas.

By accepting a Media Tribunal we will be authorising our government to decide what information is acceptable for us. By so doing, we will give it the power to impose the personal viewpoints and tastes of a narrow group of politically-charged bureaucrats on the rest of our society.

The assurances that politicians offer us about the proposed Media Tribunal and the proposed Protection of Information Bill must not give artists, writers, publishers and distributors a false sense of comfort that we will not have to navigate the murky waters of trying to protect what we want to do, say or think.

The South African Constitution enshrines the principle that freedom of thought and expression is essential for a free society. It guarantees our right as adults to access information and to be free to decide for ourselves, without governmental interference, what to read, write, paint, draw, photography, see and hear.

The arts — just like a good college education and like an independent media — must inherently be challenging and provocative. Any involvement by the government in deciding what information and ideas are fit for public consumption robs us of our constitutional right to make that decision for ourselves.

If our democracy is to flourish then we must cherish the independence and the freedom of the media. If we want to nurture a future generation of leadership then our schools and centres of learning must be places where the freedom to access information and the associated freedom of expression must be encouraged. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture and to cleanse our spirits, then we must guarantee our artists the opportunity to inspire us, to challenge us, to affirm us, to change us and most of all to instil in us the power to reflect and to be critical.

• Ismail Mahomed is director of the National Arts Festival. This is an edited version of a speech he gave at the opening of the 2010 Hilton Arts Festival.

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