Free education but not for arts students?

by Jessica Glendinning

On the day of the apocalypse when doctors and engineers have ceased to be relevant there will still be artists struggling to make sense of it all. That is an artist’s place in the world, reacting, reflecting and reimagining.

In the midst of the struggle against apartheid artists were in the front lines. South African artists, many of whom the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) has been privileged to acknowledge through our Lifetime Achievement Awards, created literature, music, theatre and fine art that challenged the system, disrupted white complacency and exposed the brutality of the apartheid regime to the outside world.

In the worst moments of humanity’s history artists have looked at the world squarely while others preferred to avert their eyes. Artists created spaces where people could meet and talk and envision a new future. And artists created monuments and spaces of memory and healing.

In the conversation around #feesmustfall UJ lecturer Philippa Robinson has suggested that free education for more important subjects could be achieved while arts students should not receive support. This suggestion, under the guise of ‘in times of crisis’, is simply exposing the underlying prejudice endemic in our society against arts and artists in the same way that South Africans so often expose their racial prejudice while ‘not trying to be racist’. As an arts organisation, but more specifically one which administers scholarships to performing arts students, we must speak out against it.

To debate the value of arts in society is an insult to the wealth of research available on the subject. Any person who actually wishes to be informed can be so, especially if they have access to a university’s journal subscription. Let us instead imagine, hypothesise if you are more scientifically aligned, a world in which we implement Ms Robinson’s suggestion.

We are now providing free education to sciences, engineering, medicine and teaching. All students, whether they have the aptitude or not, let alone the passion, will be pushed to study those few subjects. It is now the only option for most of our school leavers as in order to do this we have had to push up the costs of other degrees, probably in proportion to their perceived usefulness.

It would be nice to imagine that this would serve to level out the racial, gender and economic inequalities within these subjects but history suggests that this would not be the case. We still do not have universities that offer degrees in Zulu and Tswana, let alone Venda; second language English speakers still struggle through their (now free) English text books while their private school educated peers treat first year as revision.

Now let us turn our eyes and look at what is happening in the arts. First we should clarify, do we mean arts in the sense of creative arts or in the broader sense encompassing humanities? If so then not only the space of drama, music and visual art but also history, literature, languages and the social sciences are now the exclusive domain of the, mostly white, moneyed middle class. Those who comment on, interrogate and record our society are from one, increasingly narrow, perspective of our complex and diverse society. They all agree that poverty is terrible but none of them have experienced it, they all think it’s unfair but there is nothing that they can do about it. They don’t even know anyone who has experienced poverty apart from their domestic workers and the cleaners they sometimes see in the bathrooms. The world of the very people who are taught to examine our society has shrunk down to a Hyde Park dinner club.

An arts degree is not necessary to become an artist. Some of our best and brightest have little or no formal training. However, for myself and for many of my peers, our years at university were years of cultural exchange, interrogating ideas and exploring a world beyond our own. It certainly made us better artists and quite possibly more compassionate human beings.

You have only to look at the extreme divide on campuses to see that very few of the participants on either side of this great debate have taken the time to reflect on their opponents’ views or the experiences that informs those views. How can so many students remain ignorant of the daily struggles of their peers? How can it be so easy to bend our heads over our own books and pretend we cannot see the problems around us? What is the point of building structurally sound bridges if we ignore the structural damage in our society? What is the point of medical advances which save lives if we live lives of ignorance and narrow experience? What is the point of teaching our children if they cannot interrogate what we teach them? What is the point of all the pain and struggle and beauty of this world if there is no way to express it?

We need more art, we need more artists and more art lovers. We need more spaces of expression and debate and of open curiosity into the experiences of others. We, in South Africa, right now, desperately, need more art.