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The Craft Opinion Brewery (T.C.O.B.) #16 by Leonidas Michael


(*Reconstruction & Development of the Soul)

While writing the T.C.O.B. article on of arts, culture and social cohesion in South Africa ( T.C.O.B.#10 .), I became conscious of ever more facets to the discussion. Points and counterpoints engendered new perceptions. New perceptions renewed the desire for discussion. But I thought it was already possible for me to affirm that South Africans had much to gain from pursuing the discussion vigorously and honestly.

Ever the optimist, I should like to take what I said a step further. I believe that Arts and Culture, because of its potential to shape perception, its transcendence of selfish interests and its primordial inseparability from Human existence, is an essential part of what Mandela called the RDS – the Reconstruction and Development of the Soul.

But let me temper the optimism – if only to stop it from becoming blind – with a little polemic. The best way to do this is to reiterate the fundamentally unpleasant observations that I made in T.C.O.B.#10 :

  1. there are strong moves to appropriate the discourse on social cohesion for partisan ends
  2. the discourse itself is becoming detached from what South Africans actually live and experience

I concluded that these pointed to a weakening of civil society and proposed that we could buck the trend by giving Arts and Culture (A&C) a more prominent role. In my discussions with other people, however, three objections were persistently raised against my proposal:

  1. A&C is itself detached from reality therefore has little or no influence on peoples’ behaviour
  2. A&C is a luxury that entertains the people who can afford it, not a social or civil necessity, certainly not a priority
  3. A&C lacks objective standards, making it susceptible to being perverted for partisan ends

I do not reject these objections out of hand. In fact, I think they are good pedestals on which to raise stronger and more interesting proposals.

So, yes, A&C is a relatively ineffective means of influencing peoples’ behaviour – marketing and propaganda share the honours here. The role of poets, playwrights, sculptures, musicians etc., however, is to find effective ways of perceiving human existence. If, in order to fulfil their role, these idiosyncratic people use methods detached from reality, they are no different from physicists, biologists, mathematicians, chemists etc. who employ theoretical abstractions as they search for effective ways to perceive the natural world. In this context, perception is rather more than a marketeer’s or propagandist’s sleight-of-hand. It is a pillar of human behaviour, and A&C is an important tool in its construction.

All over the world, A&C relies on subsidies and often fails to turn a profit. It is regularly one of the first victims of budget cuts. Now, I may be a poet, but my upbringing forbids me from passing over the bottom line in silence. Indeed, A&C is a luxury. But again, nuance is required. A&C is an indispensable luxury. It has never been absent from human society. Regardless of the stage of technological development or organisational complexity, human beings produce A&C. The San tribes of the Kalahari, despite the extreme hardship and precariousness of their existence, still found the time to grind pigments and evolve an aesthetic code in order to create their marvellous rock paintings. To dismiss A&C as an optional extra seems to me to go contrary to the wisdom of the ages. A more useful discussion would be how to make this indispensable luxury accessible to more people.

Regarding the point about Objective Standards, a clear distinction must be made. The appreciation of A&C may very well be subjective – like I said, we are not discussing marketing and propaganda here. But it does not follow that the production of A&C cannot have objective standards. I am not one to believe in “anything goes.” There is a difference between good A&C, bad A&C and plain charlatanism. Establishing the standards is certainly difficult. But is this task easy in any field of human activity? History is full of examples of how the so-called exact sciences have been perverted to serve partisan ends not to mention human vice. Not even the covenants of the simplest truths – religions – are exempt. Nonetheless, it seems the likelihood of such perversions diminishes when people do what they are competent in. So, going back to A&C, let’s rather ask how we can ensure it is produced by artists, not by the stooges of political and economic interest groups.

If Arts and Culture could be all the above would it not be a significant factor in the reconstruction of the soul of a nation? In other words, would it not contribute significantly to the development of individuals who understand for themselves what links them to one another?

We have to believe it’s possible.

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The Craft Opinion Brewery (T.C.O.B.) #16 by Leonidas Michael


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