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Art and Culture. Our Lived Experiences

Culture is how you define an era. It is the pulse, the beat of the times. The tapestry that holds everything together, good and, or, bad. A tapestry constantly morphing and straining against the confines of its boundaries.
It is the everyday consciousness of the people. Their reactions that create what becomes norms in society. Streams of thinking that become the pool from which everyone drinks.
Culture is described as a system of learned behavioral patterns that cannot be attributed to genetic inheritance. Further, that it emanates from individual expression that is then adopted by many. I would say genetic memory also plays a role in informing individual expression.

So culture is what binds a group of people into a unit, a society. It is out of their deepest wishes that laws are created.
Art is not culture. Art is an individual expression of culture. It is the deepest expression of culture. It takes its influences from the dirt paths of the village, through the dusty streets of the township, via zinc iron and garbage bin plastic shacks, winding seamlessly up the high rise buildings, down deep into the ground, through the park where kids play oblivious to the ensuing storm of a gang shootout, past the protest marchers, through politicians, past the trill voice of the woman shouting ‘milies’ in this neighbourhood with wide streets and big trees and neatly trimmed flowerbeds, shaking up the club, dodging bills, selling souls, that-house-on-the-hill-won’t-buy-itself hustling, tumbling onto the red carpet of our dreams. Culture. Spilling out of your radio, television and into your living spaces to further keep you on the grind.

Art imitates life, they say. It mirrors our every day lives. Art is where we store our culture. Our memories of how experiences made us feel. Our memories of our existence. We unwind to music, and let the memories of all of our emotions wash over us. It gives us a feeling of being really here, and of our experiences being mirrored in others. It lends credence to our existence. We are part of something more. You will hear them say “iyandigodusa ke le ingoma”. You know it has hit home.

Music is not all of art, though I would of course, be biased enough to say it is the epitome of all that is art. In the way it moves its audience. Its popularity also speaks for itself. Closely followed by fashion. Music and fashion, the firstborn twin exhibitors of culture.

So we give reverence to music because it gives reverence to our lives. It is written in the ink of our heartbreak, on rose scented pages of our first love’s wonderment. After all, love, in its many forms, is our main reason for living. Love is the passion that fuels our engines.

Lately there has been a lot of unhappiness from artists. Saying that the art we are being sold is largely not the culture on the ground. It is not the experience of the people. Thus artists are not getting support.
I was recently part of a public debate where artists expressed a lot of frustration. Definitely the music quotas of big radio stations in this country give the impression of outside cultures, especially American culture, being the music through which we live our experiences. The social engineering that has brought this about is understandable in the context of misguided capitalism. I say misguided because a country is enriched by exporting its product. America is very good at selling itself. Americans create giants out of their own. That is one thing you cannot fault them on. Their music, and thus their culture, has become popular globally because they have always held themselves in high regard. And we celebrate and cheer them on for it, it is good. This adoration of America, especially in the financial climate we find ourselves in, has had a huge negative impact on local music. The impact has been felt heavily by the record labels. Who have been the repository for the wealth of this country’s creative musical intellect, some for close to a century. The record labels then have had to put a squeeze on artist budgets. Resulting in so many people never even knowing that artists have albums out. And the saga continues. We are now facing the risk of not having a structured recording industry. In that recording labels can no longer afford to invest in recordings that will not give them quick returns. The question is, can we afford to not have art that mirrors our everyday experiences?
What then becomes of us? I say the artist’s appeal should be to the public. The public has the power to expect more of itself and to demand more of others.

Article first published in Sowetan, 25 April, 2013


About Simphiwe Dana

Musician, Writer, Activist, Mom


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