Art in dark times

The Art of Life in South Africa is about an art school, Ndaleni, in what is now South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. The school, on the property of a former mission station, was established in 1952 and closed in 1981. If you’re looking at a map, Ndaleni is less than 100km from Durban, the biggest city in the northeastern coastal province of South Africa.

The closest town to Ndaleni is Richmond, which became infamous in the late 1980s and 1990s for political violence, first between the ANC and Apartheid proxies and later for internecine ANC conflict. Ndaleni was established to train art teachers for the Department of Bantu Education (responsible for developing education for the black majority after 1953). The adult students came to study for one year at a time. Importantly, the art school coincided with a very violent political period in South Africa’s history, of authoritarianism and bold-faced racism against black South Africa through South Africa’s own form of colonialism,  Apartheid.

At the heart of the book, as author Dan Magaziner writes, is the conundrum: This community of the students and their mostly white teachers came together to “nurture its own ideals and practices and promoted nothing less than a new way of being in the world,” but did so within the compromised institution of Bantu Education. They mostly enjoyed the experience and wanted “find of beauty, solace, and community within the ugliness of their times.” How does one write about this part of Apartheid, which is not the familiar story of resistance and martyrdom? As Magaziner asks: “What else was life in twentieth century South Africa, beyond the well worn keys” of the struggle? Magaziner suggests that “… the work of self making was ongoing under Apartheid, in ways that were beholden neither to the state nor to its opposition yet were nonetheless deeply implicated in the structures of their time and place.”

The following is an interview I, Sean Jacobs, conducted with Dan Magaziner to get a little more background on this extensive work.

What do you mean by “the work of art”?

The “work of art” is a concept I glean from the writings of interwar arts theorists, mostly progressive American and British theorists like John Dewey and Herbert Read. Both were anxious that mass education include aesthetic education; Dewey in particular argued that art did critical social work by ‘harmonizing society.’ His theory was essentially psychoanalytic: individuals proceed through tension to resolution and harmony. Art was how individuals managed their tensions and achieved critical resolution; by learning how to express themselves, whether in writing, visual arts, music, individuals combatted society’s stifling tendencies. The more people were granted the opportunity for self-expression, the more harmonious (and democratic) society would become. My book explores some of the ways in which these progressive concepts found their way to South Africa.

Yet, even while Dewey and others were generating these ideas, interwar thinkers associated with Functionalist Anthropology and Volkekunde (how anthropology was practiced by racist academics in the years leading up to South African Apartheid) – and even Négritude – were developing a parallel notion of the work of art , which also took root in South Africa. For thinkers like Bronislav Malinowski, the arts were where a community expressed its cultural integrity. Malinowski was one among a number of theorists who were appalled by the process of cultural erasure and homogeneity that attended some forms of imperialism. Instead, early cultural relativists insisted that the imperative to govern with humanity demanded that imperial powers do whatever they could to ensure the survival of cultural distinction – and that the arts were a vital sphere for the preservation of difference. So for these thinkers, the work of art was to enshrine the essential differences between communities. Not surprisingly, this concept of the work of art found an eager audience in South African raciologists, who saw the obvious utility of these ideas in the project of separate development.

As the book shows, these two concepts of the work of art flowed together in interwar South Africa and were institutionalized shortly thereafter. One, the conviction that every person benefits from the opportunity to do things with their hands and that this is critical to the fashioning of selfhood; the other, the faith that if different racial groups did art, the art that resulted would reflect their authentic racial selves, thus continuing the work of constructing racial difference.

Continue reading on Africa is a country

By Sean Jacobs