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Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Mike van Graan comments on Fourth World Summit on Arts and Culture

The fourth World Summit on Arts and Culture, a project of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA), will take place in Johannesburg from September 22 to 25, hosted by the National Arts Council of South Africa. Mike van Graan, Programme Director for the Summit, will write this weekly column in the build-up to the Summit, raising some of the themes and provocative issues that will be debated at the event.

Two of the primary divides in the world today are poverty and culture. Culture has probably overtaken poverty as one of the greatest threats to global security. The recent debate about banning the burkha in France and the rise of nationalism in Europe generally, are responses to perceived threats from immigrant communities with a culture different to that of the status quo, and irrespective of even the middle class positions of many within the immigrant community. Similarly, while they share the misery of poverty, refugees from Somalia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique and the under-classes of South Africa are divided by culture, accounting for the ongoing xenophobic violence.

In a post-9/11 world, and with the Cold War and its ideological divides now assigned to the scrapheap of history, culture is the primary global faultline.

The World Summit on Arts and Culture – held every three years in a different country – will be held in a so-called developing country, and in Africa, for the first time. The event provides a unique opportunity for policy makers, funding agencies, development organisations, artists’ networks, think tanks and multilateral cultural bodies to reflect on the state of the world and its implications for the arts over the ensuing few years.

Such a global gathering allows for key debates to be initiated, for visionary ideas to be launched and for networks to be consolidated so that the Summit is not be an end in itself, but a catalyst that will leave a lasting legacy for the global arts fraternity, and in this instance, for the African arts sector in particular.

South Africa has long been regarded as a microcosm of the world: a wealthy elite on the one hand and a huge underclass burdened by poverty on the other, with the inherent tensions within and between these further layered by racial and cultural conflicts.

It is an appropriate time and place for a global gathering on the theme of the Summit: Meeting of Cultures: Creating Meaning through the Arts, a theme that resonates across a world that is increasingly divided by values, beliefs, religion, traditions and history – in short, by culture.

What do these cultural divides mean for the arts?

Music, theatre, dance, literature, film and the visual arts are seen by some policy makers and politicians as possible bridges between cultures, as safe, non-threatening points of entry into understanding “other” and as facilitators of “intercultural dialogue”.

Yet, the arts can also play a divisive role, reinforcing cultural faultlines as shown by the literature of Salman Rushdie or movies that spark protests by Christian groups or the drawings of a Danish cartoonist or exhibitions that depict religious icons as gay. What effect will the political imperative and the need for social cohesion across cultural divides have on the arts if they are burdened with facilitating intercultural dialogue? To help to make the world a safer place, are public authorities demanding “safe” art?

Many artists hate being – or feeling - conscripted for any cause, even ones they believe in. If they are to use their creative skills for “the public good”, then they want to choose to do this, or not. On the other hand, politicians, government officials, development agencies and public funding bodies often give the impression that when artists or arts projects are supported with public funds, it is legitimate to expect them to align their creative work with the “national interests”, as defined by those who inhabit political power at the time. In an increasingly security-conscious world in which culture is one of the roots of global tensions, is it acceptable for artists to be “conscripted” in the cause of building intercultural communities at local, national and international levels?

What would this mean for South Africa? What if the NAC makes available funds for artists to create art that rejects xenophobia and that affirms good relations with refugees from other African countries? This would be considered in the interests of the greater public good. But what if an artist decides to make an art work that calls for the country’s borders to be closed to foreigners in order for government first to address the needs of impoverished South Africans? Should the artist be prevented from receiving public funds to create this art because it is not consistent with “the national interests”?

For further information about the World Summit, see