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Art Talk, Politics Talk - Introduction
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These essays offer perspectives on a single endeavour: how to talk about art in a politically demanding milieu. My art talk, politics talk, arises from the specificities of South Africa; my observations from the dying days of apartheid in 1989, through the 1990s, to the contemporary scene. My observations – I trust – have applicability not only to a South African readership, but also to a wider literary, cultural and political community. The essays have appeared, in earlier versions, in various literary journals. Revisions, where deemed necessary, attempt to modify my own insights in the light of changing circumstances. While the essays remain discrete contributions which the reader may approach in any order, I have sought in the sequential arrangement to develop, cumulatively, several strong points of contention.

The society of my contention, South Africa, is a testing and teasing amalgamation of diverse, potentially divisive linguistic, cultural, religious and belief systems. We inhabit a postcolonial condition as a material condition, if by postcolonial we mean once colonised, now independent in politics, but bound at the ‘edges’ of the world to northern economic and institutional power; bound to regimes at the centre which impose their truth – as well as their pop culture – on our periphery. (Our periphery – I generalise – both hates and loves the imposition. We profess to hate US warmongering, but love US denim, fast-food, Hollywood, and smart information technologies.)

We inhabit, also, postcolonial forms of representation: interlanguage in the translatability or untranslatability of cultures; hybridism in the mingling of traditional, popular, and elite forms of expression, whether African, Western, or somewhere inbetween. These constitute our subjective, experiential understanding, our ideas, the art of living in a particular time and place. South Africa may be typified, accordingly, as Australia and Nigeria annexed to a single heterogeneity. The art talk, politics talk of African majority speech – in, say, praises – co-functions in a society of extreme inequalities with a culture of the book.

The context and text provoke a question to which there is no simple answer: is South Africa, Africa or the West? Do our two Nobel literature laureates, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, regard themselves as South African writers, African writers, postcolonial writers, Western-internationals, or world writers? One basks here in the recognition of achievement. At home, however, Gordimer’s novelJuly’s People was adjudged by a high-school literature committee to be not entirely free of racial stereotyping, and Coetzee, although recipient of presidential congratulations on his Nobel success, had been castigated shortly before by official ANC voices for his (white?) pessimism. Was Coetzee in his novelDisgrace – the censorial tone implied – suggesting that any African government is inevitably doomed to fail. Coetzee has relocated to Australia.

I point here to a correspondence of the literary culture to the political demand, whether in South Africa, Africa, or what postcolonial commentary refers to as the South of the world. The South may link Africa to India, or South Africa to the former eastern Europe. The art of storytelling, for example, places in comparison and contrast the Zulu folktale and the fiction of R.K. Narayan or Salman Rushdie. The politics of poetry invoke not only panygerics to ancient chiefs, but also the subtly subversive words of Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska.

As I am suggesting, a comparative method governs the critical pursuit. The method is not hierarchical: two nations, two languages, two great art works. Rather, the comparison is non-hierarchical in the mapping of a differentiated literary and social terrain. An alternative title might have been ‘South/North’, with on the cover a map of Africa, ‘upside down’. I do not wish, however, to be diagrammatic. Categories in the essays – Africa, the West, the South, the North, elite art, the oral voice – are utilised as conveniences to be qualified in the course of the argument. There is no singular Africa; there is no singular West. Art/politics talk in the 1970s and eighties was characterised by the exigencies of the times, according to which binary oppositions reacted to binary oppositions: white over black became black over white; African community in reaction to Western individualism; the popular statement in reaction to the personal lyric, and so on. These essays reconsider binary categorisations in a more flexible, arguably in a more challenging climate of sense-making, whether in ‘post-apartheid’ South Africa or in the so-called post-ideological world. What is evident is that literary culture cannot be understood in any erasure of its locality; neither in the South can it be understood in any erasure of a 350-year interaction with the northern hemisphere. Art talk, or politics talk, in Africa, more generally in the South, cannot proceed in isolation of art talk, politics talk in a conception of modernity; or, pressingly for aesthetic understanding, without considering the impact and influence of the major twentieth-century art movement in the West: modernism.

Modernism is a term that recurs in my discussion and, as the comparative method is central to the project, I pose a key question in the opening essay, ‘Modernism and Africanicity’: has modernism relevance to the South of the world? This exploration of an ‘ethics of aesthetics’ provokes the phrase, ‘artist and citizen’: the title of the essay on the sculpture of Andries Botha. These essays consider the credence of imagination in societies of narrow tolerances. It is a consideration that underlies the collection as a whole. How do we, can we, recover – for contemporary democratic purpose – traditional, often belligerent praises of chieftaincy? What is the contribution of the ‘Xhosa voice’ to the development of African literature? What is lost, what is gained, in Can Themba’s conflation of the short story and the journalistic record? How to interpret Ruth Miller’s poetry: poetry that from one perspective is private; from another, private within the political? If praises are traditional – are they not popular? – then ‘popular’ is the category of challenge in Mtutuzeli Matshoba’s African fiction. Is Mandela an African? The question inLong Walk to Freedom is not self-evident. Comparative discussion of an ‘idea’ of literature in Africa, India, the West, and from the perspective of the other Europe, re-positions the concepts South/North as global filaments. The new challenge is how to strike up conversations in sets of unexpected relationship. Politically incorrect, Roy Campbell offers an opportunity to re-visit modernism at the end of history; while ‘Story . . .’ – after apartheid, after the Berlin Wall – endorses the potential of human intricacy in a form of expression that prefers art talk to politics talk. The final essay, ‘African Literature, African Literatures . . .’, subjects familiar categories of mapping to the challenge of the project.

The challenge is to suggest that even in societies of the political imperative, art talk can contribute to ethical claims; that despite the assumption of truth residing in the North, the South of the globe can offer fresh perspectives on the valued life. In this the critic plays a mediating role: a role that has its own responsibilities, namely, to communicate the issues, the perceptions, the evaluations with a clarity that does not evade complexity. As Mandela confirms, there is no easy walk to freedom, whether in the realm of action or ideas.

 
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