Is a truce needed between art and the public? Art is often criticised for being elitist, a “luxury” enjoyed by collectors, art aficionados and the bourgeoisie. Art is perceived to have some quality, some distinction that prevents it from pleasing mass palates. There is some truth to this view when one thinks of commercial art concerned with the production of art “products” for sale.

However, given our context in Africa; our history, the post-colonial state and all the grim realities that come with it, there is need for other ideas and conversation about art beyond the mere production of “products” for the market. Artists and art practitioners have the capacity to engage with society as civil servants (I do not mean government employees), as practitioners who serve/save society in a variety of ways rather than only aspiring to what I call “equal the oyster”; that is to be swallowed alive by the market as genius after producing the rare cultural effort or product. Art can move from pleasing a few to affecting and effecting mass palates. Artists and cultural producers gifted in creative thinking and creative analysis possess skills which can potentially offer interesting solutions to some of society’s most intractable problems.

Take for instance Antanas Mockus, twice mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, who was known for his surprisingly artistic, philosophical and often humorous solutions to everyday problems in Bogota. Mockus explains that in nudging human behavioural change, one can understand human behaviour as governed by either motivation or regulation. Regulations can be legal, moral or cultural, leading people to alter their behaviour in fear of legal sanction, guilt or rejection. Mockus juxtaposes these fear induced stimuli against positive influences such as social acceptance, trust and reputation. Mockus was inspired by statistics that reflected that people respond better to being motivated in relation to principles of trust and reputation than regulation in fear of legal sanction, guilt or social rejection.

Using this information creatively has the potential to change the way in which we approach issues ranging from policing to immigration. “Trust” and “reputation” are the key words. If these two words underpinned the ethos and thinking from the first citizen to city council town planning, as well as the private citizen domain … needless to say society would look quite different! Acknowledging this, one questions the rationale of continuing to pour resources into legal regulation without counter-balancing these actions with investments in moral and cultural sanctions. Sounds naïve? These are not just sunny thoughts; when Antanas Mockus entered office, he fired the corrupt traffic officers of Bogotá and hired 420 mime artists to make fun of traffic violators, because it turned out that Colombians feared public ridicule more than being fined. This philosophical, artistic approach to leadership and solutions helped Mockus transform Bogotá in his first term, cutting the homicide rate by an impressive 70% and the traffic fatalities by 50%.

As such, our current systems of managing citizens’ behaviour by enforcing legal sanctions alone need to be counter-balanced by something else. We could ask, how do we relate morality and law? In a society where human life is cheap, legal regulations have to be creatively underpinned by an emphasis on morality and taboos that reify the sacredness of life. If our behaviour and morality is imbued with respect for the sanctity of human life, we could have avoided the massacre at Marikana, for example. This kind of thinking requires creative skills which exist in abundance amongst artists and cultural producers. In other words, artists need to speak to the world! Involvement of artists in creating and implementing public policy and solutions could also activate fluency in communication aimed at diverse audiences. It takes creative mechanisms to do that; speaking at multiple levels and understanding that aesthetics and cultural production have to manoeuvre through different levels of subjectivity to make sense. So, too, do social solutions.

There is a lot that art can do in relation to society and the public. In three different parts of Africa, art spaces and projects have cropped up in somewhat unexpected places: Njelele Art Station in Harare, Zimbabwe; Les Studios Kabako in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo; and Boys’ Quarters Project Space in Port Harcourt, Nigeria come to mind. The location of these spaces is strategic, often in places where society must psychologically or physically transcend and transform; “forgotten” places set amongst the forgotten “wretched of the earth”. Perhaps as a direct result of their very position, downtown Harare, poor and impoverished Kisangani and Port Harcourt, these art spaces return the gaze back to us, allowing society to express itself from its core through various forms of cultural production. They coerce us to look around us and see how we are from our core. Such spaces are part and parcel of producing a civic; providing space for experimentation, debate, communication, articulation and critique at a distance from power.

Art, therefore, has a monumental role to play in the very production and navigation of modern life, it is more than just a collecting collector’s item for the rich. Whereas traditional or mainstream art institutions are still largely based on principal notions of scarcity and the genius artist; alongside them we need art spaces and practitioners who use creativity to get things done and contribute towards fixing societies. Art spaces imbued with a societal ethos can serve as acupuncture points, allowing for circulation and catharsis. In the context of Kisangani and Les Studios Kabako, according to Faustin Linyekula, “the most important thing is not the aesthetic object. Art is not important. The most important thing is to believe in something, in a context where it is impossible to believe in anything — even God.” Art can heal, critique, offer solutions and holds the possibility to restore faith to society among a variety of other possibilities.

As the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera puts it, “I don’t want an art that points at a thing; I want an art that is the thing.”


  • Mike Mavura is an independent researcher based in Cape Town. He has lectured politics and international relations at Rhodes University where he is also a PhD candidate in international relations. Follow him on twitter @mikemavura


Mike Mavura

Mike Mavura is an independent researcher based in Cape Town. He has lectured politics and international relations at Rhodes University where he is also a PhD candidate in international relations. Follow...

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