A Johnny cuts a CD and off he rushes to a newspaper of his choice. The following day the world is told about this new debutant that has done so well for the world music scene. They would not waste space questioning the work’s execution let alone care about helping the reader make an informed buy, observes Rampholo Molefhe, long time arts activist and Talking Musica columnist in the weekly Monitor.
On the same page, there would be an ode of gratitude to the generously served finger snack treat at yet another visual exhibitor’s opening night at the National Museum’s gallery or some other plum sounding cultural space around town. Half the time the read is what the artist wants to hear. At worst, it’s a shameless word for word plagiarisation of the exhibited work’s synopsis as it appeared in the invitation note. “It is true that a lot of art reviews are just praise poems. This is made by the fact that a lot of us are just fans. We tend to feel that we have a duty to push their products to commercial success,” admits freelance entertainment reporter, Ephraim Keoreng.
And the freebies do not make it any easier for the Keorengs; the free backstage pass to the rock ‘n’ roll that makes the star-awed of writers more groupie faster than the average adolescent, and the complimentary CDs, T-shirts and videos. What with the fact that it is the journo who gets to sample the delights before everyone else.
“These may compel us to talk good about whatever the touch. It is more like returning the favour,” Keoreng confesses.
And for some less glamorous cousins of arts, like theatre, the free seat in the theatre hall does not elicit the same kind of excitement in writers. Re Bina Mmogo star and artistic director of the Ramotswa based Mama Theatre, Mpho Rabotsima, has long realized what a futile exercise it is to look for literary abstracts to cut off from newspapers to make one’s profile. For the most part what newspapers would publish would be a picture of a theatre performance which, for a good part of the time, would not be well captioned.
When they finally set out to write something they would not go beyond the characterization and the plot of the play. Although Rabotsima has seen criticism here and there, he said that it is often not constructive but self-centred indulgence on the part of the critic. It is about what the critic loves. If a work does not pander to his personal taste, it is torn apart, he observed. He is of the opinion that each play needs to be critiqued on its own distinct idiomatic context, that which makes the genre work or fall flat on its face if it isn’t there. You do not critique a work like Athol Fugard as you would a Stuart Baxter produced musical or a popular theatre piece a` la Edward Moroka’s Tlhwaa Tsebe Theatre Investments. They are different works whose intent and form differ, Rabotsima argued.
“If I want a helpful assessment of my work I would contact UB (University of Botswana) or Maruapula (school) because I feel they have a good understanding of what I am doing,” he said.Where does one start to write an art criticism that can cut it?
A critic should know the social history of his subject. If you do not know the environment of the artistry, it is difficult to effectively comment, offers Molefhe. He has come across writers that confuse Mbaqanga with jazz because they do not have a working knowledge of either tradition.
“Because the arts are often seen to be just entertainment, people think it’s all a plaything. People would talk of the works of artists like Phika Ditsebe and fail to put them in a social context,” hesays.
Gender heads, he continued, would talk of the works of segaba legend, Ratsie Setlhako, and accuse him of being sexist when they don’t understand the context he was living and composing his work in. Some would even nitpick at his songs that extolled Seretse Khama to the point of blurring the line between bogosi and presidency without bringing to the fore the socio-political context of the time.
“To this day, we still need to ask questions about their place in our society though,” he says. Lack of arts criticism reflects on a well entrenched intellectual backwardness that permeates all sections of society, Molefhe further observed.
“You hardly hear of debates on pertinent intellectual issues at the University of Botswana. Even parliamentary debates are narrow and flat. There is no vibrancy of intellectual enterprise in general in our society. Maybe it is all inhibited by the cost implications of publishing and all related ways of getting works out in the public domain. When you ask questions you are deemed to be manganga, which simply means that you like useless arguments.
That’s why politicians get away with a lot of murder. When you go to the clinic you never ask what you are being given. For you it is a given that the medical officer knows what she is doing. How many of us ask questions about what our children are being taught at school?” he asked, rhetorically.
There is, however, hope, Molefhe said. That is if people are encouraged to know that the arts are not mere games but an arena for the discussion, exchange and updating of ideas to bring forth new things to society.
“An informed and innovative society can only be realized through that. There can’t be innovation in a place where there is contempt for intellectual enterprise,” he said.
For him, even a discussion as seemingly literary as art criticism would benefit from revisiting the contentious issue of copyright. He argues that government needs to realize that copyright is not just about paying artists for playing their songs but creating work for them as well as growing a creative culture that would keep up the development of ideas.
“This will help in setting up standards. We need to set standards for not only our artists but for society as well. We should enhance the capacity of the society to look itself in the mirror, critique itself and reinvent itself,” he said. But the praise writing still continues because, as Keoreng admits, writers are yet to be schooled in art criticism. And this lack of depth in critical analysis of works of art, argues Reginald Bakwena, Thapong
Visual Art Centre’s coordinator, does not help the development of the art and the artist.
“Only constructive criticism will add value to our industry as it will help us produce quality works and educate one another. To be praised everyday only serves to blind us from our mistakes. Constructive criticism is corrective. You can’t be a master of everything. There would always be grey areas,” he reasons.
Not that Keoreng is not aware of the inherent dangers in the blind praise that is not only peculiar to the print media but all other mass communication mediums as well. The praise may become harmful in the long run as some of the artists may be deluded into believing their own hype to the point of developing a false sense of security and think that they have hit the big time before they actually do, he observed.
“We have seen how some flop and pack their bags home when they have to break into foreign markets. The problem is if you try not to join the boys in praise, you would be thought to be jealous. The artist would tell everyone that you are out to get him. One artist actually thought that I hated him because I was honest about his record and wrote what I thought was a fair assessment of it. There is little room for honesty,” says Keoreng.
The attitude can be understandable. Artists go through a lot to come up with their works. One may go on a gestation period that runs into years before he can find the inspiration and courage to walk over to a piano or a canvas to let it out. For such works that are written all one’s intimate self all over, it will be unrealistic to expect one to stand aside and watch some critic tear it all apart in a simple one-minute paragraph. The works are their little children. That is why Bakwena, an accomplished painter and sculptor himself, would advise the would-be critic to be sensitive and careful.
“Artists may think that you are jealous of them because they lack training. Most artists do not know that criticism is the way to go if we need to grow our industry. We need to realize that we come out in the public domain so that people can have an opinion of our works and comment on what they see,” he said. To work around the problem, Bakwena has resolved to fill the art critic void. He promises to roll his sleeves and start writing arts critique like he used to.
“I will start critiquing works and give them to media houses to publish. We need to learn to debate issues,” he said. At Thapong, they will invite a professor from the Tshwane University of Technology in April to come and run a workshop on how to critique art.
“As artists and writers we need to be able to interpret meaning from works so as to better inform the public out there. It is media that can help us educate people about art. That is why they would need to come to the workshop. They need to be able to define a painting, describe it and decipher its meaning and extrapolate as to the artist’s intent and the merits of his execution,” he said.