South African artists seem to be outraged by anyone who questions or challenges intellectual capabilities in the sector.

I allegedly made a provocative comment about the distinction between an artist and an intellectual. I argued that, generally, local artists are good in what they do and have won awards all over the world. I suggested that they stick to what they know best: singing, dancing or acting. Also I said that being an artist does not necessarily make one an intellectual.

Clearly this remark irked some in the artistic community. Everyone now wants to get into the writer or speakers’ circuit. Presumably, that automatically qualifies one to be an intellectual. In fact, being perceived to be an articulate, intelligent and thinking human being has made intellectualism fashionable nowadays. It is for this reason that we have a growing number of know-all pundits and gurus, including sophomores who think they know more than their deans.

The new trend is that everybody desires to be seen as an intellectual or guru of some sort. This ranges from reporters, marketers, radio talk show hosts, actors, singers, activists, academics and many other people considered celebrities or super-achievers in the performing arts, academia and communications industry. It would seem it is no longer enough to be a recognisable face, especially for artists. To this must be added an intelligent brain to complete the package.

Sadly, actors particularly are renowned and handsomely rewarded for internalising and repeating lines written by other people, for instance. Much as they are very good at acting out scripts they have read, it does not originate from them. The same with some singers or academics who, respectively, are not song writers or authors. But it would seem it is taboo to mention this in public. In fact, it can put one in great personal danger to state what is supposed to be common sense.

Some elements in the artistic sector insist that everyone possesses an intellect and as a result everyone qualifies to be an intellectual. It makes it sound like intellectualism is inherent in everyone with brains. Nobody on earth is incapable of thinking. In fact, everyone, including a clerk, dancer, actor, motor mechanic or cleaner applies intellect to what they do. If this were true, then everyone is an intellectual.

But I beg to differ with this view to pursue the line of reasoning that an intellect is not enough to qualify to be an intellectual.

My argument is that an intellectual is a rare breed of person who, according to bell hooks, lives and is committed to “the life of the mind”. Their daily existence revolves on critical thinking.

Unfortunately many people do not have the time or pleasure to do that.

In fact, it was renowned writer George Bernard Shaw who said: “Only 2% of people think; another 2% think they think and the rest would rather die than think.”

In fact, in every generation you find very few critical intellectuals who come up with original ideas that have not been thought of before. I hope I am allowed to say this but not everybody is an intellectual. Intellectuals are prophetic beings that push human development to greater heights, upwardly or downwardly.

We do need to make a distinction between an artist and an intellectual. It may be fashionable to have a picture by-line or sound bite on television but we cannot deny that there is a lot of juniorisation and, as a result, dumbing down of critical thinking. This has got serious implications for the meaning of our democracy.

Not too long ago Leslie Dikeni released the book Poverty of Ideas in which he grappled with this very idea of what constitutes an intellectual in our society. The elevation of celebrity culture where actors and radio personalities, for instance, are mistaken for the new intellectuals will ultimately result in poverty of thought, dreadful mediocrity and uninspiring national dialogue. After all, if you mistake public recognition and adulation for intellectual activity then we are confusing and distorting the definition and meaning of crucial concepts.

It is no accident that the Independent Electoral Commission will use popular performing arts figures in promoting elections. But I doubt that there is an intuitive link between being a celebrity and being cerebral.

Hopefully the artistic sector appreciates the meaning of freedom of expression and acknowledges that people do not have to agree on anything. There is an urgent need for us to open up spaces to allow those we do not agree with to present their ideas as a contribution to critical intellectual engagement.

We have a right to debate what it means to be a thought leader in this country. Is everyone who writes for Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader, for instance, a thought leader? Does having a column in a newspaper qualify you to be an intellectual? And what about artists who hold opinions they cannot substantiate in public?

It’s all very well to be outraged because someone has dared to make a distinction between an artist and an intellectual but every person has to earn their position in society. Academics, for instance, may be familiar with the works of great intellectuals like Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and Cornel West but possessing that knowledge does not automatically turn them into intellectuals. There are many academics who will never be intellectuals.

The current tendency in the country is to shout down or threaten people we do not agree with. We should be ashamed that this is happening in the artistic and political sectors where freedom of expression is sacred. Artists should be the first to defend the rights of a dissenting voice to speak. It is an intellectual thing to do. In a society where everybody agrees, it simply means only one person is thinking.



Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

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