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On art and honesty

“It doesn’t always have to mean something”, a friend barked back. We were watching The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish. The circle was all a bit older, degreed drama folk. I, waitering by my gap year in an industrial backwater, just couldn’t get screwball comedy. But it was not to last long. Two years later I was an addicted, marathon showgoer downing 26 productions in seven days flat at the Grahamstown Festival.

While it was clear that for the practitioner, art could be a jealous paramour, from the appreciator it commanded honest engagement only. I was more comfortable in this role. It did not require an artist’s sensibility. Art would not suspect the spectator, stem the viewer’s dissent, or ever demand total agreement from even the most devout enthusiast.

Since then I have seen art at its forefront many times, but sadly, also witnessed unscrupulous practitioners preying on the fears and ignorance of their audience to own rather than enlighten them. In South Africa such productions are often masked as the musical that recalls fallen heroes, the passion play, the one-man comedy (to cheaply exploit gender stereotypes), “good” music and “controversial” art.

Like the dishonest practitioner, the dishonest audience also exists everywhere: the reviewer, the viewer and spectators of art who do not engage honestly with what they are presented, but rather endorse whatever the prevailing view after rushing off to see productions for no other reason than to quell their fear of missing out (or so-called FOMO).

Nowhere is FOMO bigger than in Manhattan, where on a recent visit I chanced $100 on an “immersive, site-specific and interactive theatre experience” based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Staged across six floors of an abandoned Chelsea hotel, New Yorkers unfailingly describe Sleep No More as “cool”, “sexy” and “mind-blowing”.

Yes, chasing up and down dangerously unlit stairwells after scantily dressed performers along with hundreds of less dexterous, masked patrons, I did feel the anxiety Big Apple theatre reviewers seem to prize so much. Some of the physical work (that of the actors’ too) did move me.

It was only after the experience, while immersing my liver in a $20 glass of wine in the jazz lounge-themed waiting room, that Google first echoed my sentiments with a review by a London-based journalist: the only question Sleep No More sought to answer was how much could be made off a patron.


  • Coenraad Bezuidenhout has a masters degree in political economy and a decade's worth of experience in economic policy and public affairs. He currently heads up the Manufacturing Circle, a private sector lobby group representing - you guessed it - South African manufacturers. He writes here in his personal capacity on any issues of immediate interest related to politics, economics, public affairs and the arts.

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