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‘Artists need to be heroes’

The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.

Towards the close of 2018, a commonly accepted time for reflection, I spent an afternoon digging through a collection of dusty boxes containing the various items I’d collected and saw fit to keep up until now – from childhood and my teenage years, all the way up to my final days as a university student.
     There were my beloved boxes of books (containing a frightening amount of Stephen King), shoeboxes filled with old trinkets, and one whole box dedicated to the notebooks I’d filled up over the years. The oldest of these notebooks came from my first year as a student journalist, while the later ones dated back to my first year as a working journalist in Johannesburg.
     I had promised myself there would be no room for sentimentality that day – everything that was no longer useful to my present life was to go – but still, I couldn’t help flicking through a few of those pages containing old interviews, notes, and hastily scribbled thoughts.

Dave Mann art performance
Esmé Berman

     As I did, an underlined quote stood out to me: ‘Artists need to be heroes.’ It was the only thing on the page and contained no attribution. I flipped through the rest of the pages, hunting for clues as to who may have said it, and when. I didn’t end up finding who the quote belonged to, but it had me hooked. Soon I was poring through every old notebook in the box, revisiting my naïve, impassioned, and occasionally proficient interviews conducted with whichever artistically inclined individual or collective I could convince to talk to me during my days spent in the small Eastern Cape town I studied in.
     But looking through all of those old words became somewhat disheartening. I had nearly forgotten that, in the days before I became aware of art as capital or as business – something to be utilised by brands to push product or garner pageviews – I had viewed it, undoubtedly, as something that was entirely capable of changing the world.
     About a week later, while browsing through a second-hand store in Mpumalanga, I discovered a 1986 publication entitled The arts in South Africa – A force for social change. The loose editorial theme attempted to look at the effects of the cultural boycott on apartheid South Africa, through a series of interviews with artists and critics from the country. One interview with artist Esmé Berman caught my eye. In it, she discusses the effects of a cultural boycott, and of art itself, in terms of shifting perspectives or calling attention to pressing issues.
     ‘It may begin by only reaching a small amount of people, but it does drift outwards and people and attitudes that may initially seem outrageous or avant-garde, ahead of their time and acceptable initially only to a few, gradually filter through into the minds of the wider public. That, I believe, is the function of cultural activity and – certainly in the visual arts – we have tangible proof of altered attitudes in this country,’ she says.

To read more about the artists, writers, musicians, and performers out there who are still committed to being heroes and to changing the world, as they always have, through a piece of music, a staged work, or even a single photograph, purchase the February 2019 issue of Creative Feel, or continue supporting our role in the South African arts and culture industry by subscribing to our monthly magazine from only R180.00 per year.

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