I attended the festival in Grahamstown this year, and I have to agree with author Kimon de Greef that the National Arts Festival is indeed an elitist and very niche arts event. More can, and should, be done (and urgently) to make it more inclusive and diverse for all of Grahamstown’s, and the country’s, residents. But this is where my agreement with de Greef ends.
His article Festival of the rich: South Africa’s elitist arts festival on the blog thisisafrica.me (http://thisisafrica.me/south-africas-exclusive-arts-festival/) is actually a poor and obvious — if not crude — piece of journalism. It is a missed opportunity to really advance understanding and insight, build consensus and galvanise action around what is a very serious and complex issue.
Ultimately in any critique, you want to have impact. The impactful pieces make everyone sit up and notice because they deliver hard truths in a manner that all role players have no choice but to accept. They are authoritative because their ideas are original, and are written with sensitivity, balance and a grasp of the complexities at play. Sadly, de Greef’s piece falls badly short.
Some constructive criticism
Lack of balance: The pieces does not acknowledge the myriad activities and challenges that go into creating the National Arts Festival on a very tight budget. There is hard work, sacrifice and creativity that goes into creating a festival — from raising funding, negotiating with artists, venues, relationship management, and even the website build.
People have worked tirelessly, all hours, probably not for the pay they deserve. It is probably more a labour of love, a calling, than a financially lucrative career. The author makes no attempt to acknowledge this – so in turn basically gets the organisers’ hackles up. What this means is that they are likely to dismiss this piece. It will have no impact. If the right people aren’t listening, the piece is weak and does not carry authority.
It fails to offer solutions: Yes, journalists are story tellers, not problem solvers – certainly not of the inequalities of the festival and country that make South Africa one of the most unequal places on earth. But de Greef does not appear to ask any of the role players what potential solutions or recommendations exist, despite there being a university with many learned sociology, economic and drama professors on his doorstep.
Lack of context: the author seems to lay blame mostly at the feet of the festival admin staff (CEO Tony Lankester mainly) but where is the context? The injustices and inequities in our country are a collection of highly complex issues dating back to colonialism and are as old as the country itself. The festival is a product of the country, and multiple factors such as economics, culture, history, apartheid. The article glosses over this, and instead seems to simplistically portray the festival as indifferent to the issues at play.
Simplistic argument: the article reads like a cheap Hollywood blockbuster – villains vs. the heroes – when of course, like real life, it is more far complex. Like a Hollywood blockbuster we feel cheated because there is an emptiness to the plot and the story as a result of its over-simplification.
There are people not doing enough on both sides of Hill Street and outside of Grahamstown. There are stakeholders such as government, funders such as parastatals and corporates. All these players have a responsibility. Where in the piece is this analysed or acknowledged? At festival administration level there are efforts and concerns regarding making the festival more inclusive – and where is the acknowledgement of this? (I think we all agree that more can be done, and urgently)
No balance: a basic tenant of journalism is balance. You get many points of view to ensure that there is a diversity of voices and the reader is informed. Why did de Greef not interview festival officials to get their views? It looks like he only spoke to the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM). Where is the official festival’s view on the marginalisation of communities or what can be done? Did Lankester get a chance to say what the festival is doing to foster inclusivity, the challenges, progress and setbacks they have experienced in this regard? If festival admin staff rejected the author’s interview requests, then the article should say so (that tells a story in itself), but I am not sure that is the case.
Quotes out of context: the author took a quote from festival CEO Tony Lankester feeling “gratified” about the results of the festival. This was likely from a piece of PR specifically meant to talk about the festival’s growth. Yet it is used in a context in which it was not meant for: a piece on the glaring inequalities of the festival. It’s a cheap shot. I’d call it sophistry, but it is not sophisticated at all. The article is ultimately a disappointing and obvious piece. It’s “trendy”, and possibly cathartic, for the author. I’ve seen it countless times. It does little to advance understanding of the dire and simply outrageous inequities of the Festival, nor does it have meaningful impact on the role players who wield power to make these changes. The author’s heart is in the right place, but ultimately it’s a missed opportunity to pen something authoritative and original that has real impact. Please try again. – Matthew Buckland
Matthew Buckland is a former editor and MD of the Mail & Guardian Online and publisher of authoritative tech site Memeburn.com. He is a product of Rhodes University and a regular festino.