Festival of standoffs airs some used linen

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

THE 40th annual National Arts Festival has come and gone, and with it the usual clutch of minor controversies.

Disagreements are part and parcel of the festival experience, adding grit and texture to what might otherwise become a self-congratulatory exercise for the various communities that constitute the South African arts sector.

Independent Newspapers journalist Mary Corrigall kick-started things with a provocative piece suggesting that the festival programme has become both "unwieldy" and "predictable", and that it remains fatally skewed towards theatre — to the detriment of the visual arts and dance.

Audiences also came under fire for their demographic uniformity (pale and post-40, or so the accusation goes) at a Think!Fest panel. As Eusebius McKaiser, Andile Mngxitama, Aryan Kaganof and I discussed the state of debate and public intellectualism in SA, anxieties about race and transformation were applied to those who had gathered in the Rhodes University lecture theatre.

Has the festival changed — insofar as this can be assessed by attendance at events, as well as the nature of these events — or changed enough, since 1974? Since 1994? Mngxitama and Kaganof thought not. To the credit of everyone present, this question resulted not only in antagonistic confrontation but in robust argument and a dose of introspection.

Along the way, however, Kaganof threw a curve ball by suggesting that all this talk about talking could become a pointless endeavour. Having spent much of the time filming his fellow-panellists on a smartphone, Kaganof indicated that his own views would be better expressed through the medium of film.

I couldn’t help thinking of a quote from Goethe that a literary colleague of mine has posted on his door: "When ideas fail, words come in very handy." Kaganof seemed to be turning this claim on its head. Perhaps, rather than offering aid or salvation, words fail to capture our ideas or to generate the new ideas we seek. Perhaps we should privilege other languages and alternative vocabularies, whether visual or auditory.

One could compare this distinction between "talking" and other modes of expression to the always-contentious relationship between creation and criticism — that is, between artistic production and its formal reception. This ancient dynamic has existed for as long as humans have been creating art. Its modern incarnation is the vexed mutual dependence of the artist and the critic.

Yet, as with any partnership, familiarity can breed contempt. 2014 Arts Journalism Award recipient, West Cape News editor Steve Kretzmann took it upon himself to slaughter a couple of sacred cows at this year’s festival. First Kretzmann got his teeth into Standard Bank Young Artist for theatre, Greg Homann, calling his Oedipus@Koö-nü! (which transposes Sophoclean tragedy into a South African context) a "tedious pastiche". Then he turned his attention to veteran playwright Mike van Graan, whose work has been something of a festival staple over the years but whose Return of the Ancestors was found wanting. "The writing is weak," he declared.

Kretzmann and Van Graan have crossed swords before, and Van Graan — himself not one to shy away from conflict — was quick to reply, challenging Kretzmann’s authority. Yet while Van Graan is not alone in bemoaning "the totally disproportionate power relations between the reviewer and the reviewed", there are as many voices expressing concern about the difficult conditions under which arts journalists ply their trade.

Artists need critics. Image, melody and drama have absolute value; they exist in and of themselves. But they are enriched and enlivened — they come to mean something — when people talk about them. Words do, after all, come in handy.

By Chris Thurman

Article Source: Business Day Live