Creativity and responsibility are siamese twins in art. One cannot claim to be truly creative without being responsible. However, writes EMMANUEL NGARA, the commitment of an artist to a cause should never be blind commitment. The artist should always retain the right to question motives. In that way the artist will remain faithful to both creativity and social responsibility.
If all art is a form of communication, all art is produced with an audience in mind. The process of artistic creation is an exercise in communication and as all communication must be able to communicate, it therefore follows that the process of artistic creation entails the responsibility to communicate. It can therefore be argued that there is no necessary contradiction between creativity and responsibility in art.
I know that there are philosophies like art for art’s sake, which can be contrasted to say the literature of commitment. But I say you cannot be truly creative without being responsible. The moment you stop being responsible you stop being truly creative. There are several levels of responsibility in artistic creation. The first responsibility of a literary artist, for example, is to provide aesthetic pleasure by using the rule of artistic creation to appeal to our imagination, emotions, intellect, or senses. An artist does not communicate like a politician or an academic or a sangoma. The first responsibility of a literary artist is therefore to use literary forms in order to communicate, as an artist should.
The second level of responsibility is to reality. A literary artist should reflect life in other words. He or she should communicate something to which we can relate, something that has a bearing on our experience as human beings. We should be able to say after reading a poem or novel or short story: “Aha that is something I can identify with, something I can relate to”.
The third level of responsibility is to society. An artist of note should be able to say something significant about social life. If art is a reflection of reality it should go beyond that which is simply human and probe into the tensions and contradictions of human beings as social beings. Here we enter the realm of what may be referred to as progressive literature, which poses questions about oppressions, traditional culture and so on. Protest literature and revolutionary literature belong to this category of art, which compels us to ask questions about relations between human beings. The fourth and final level of responsibility relates to the ultimate questions about life. These are literary works which go beyond questioning of relations between human beings, which go beyond questions of oppression and protest and revolution to make you think about the ultimate questions of life, works such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Arrow of God. After reading such works you don’t simply say, “yes I can relate to this” but you are persuaded to stop and reflect about life.
Now the first two levels of responsibility are largely a matter of skill and talent- being able to use artistic devices effectively and representing reality plausibly. The third level is largely a matter of ideology, experience and knowledge. A writer who is ideologically progressive is likely to produce art that questions the status quo and invites the reader to consider alternatives to the existing order. The last of my levels comes about partly as a result of a combination of ideology and a philosophical approach to life sometimes combined with spiritual insights.
The debate on African scholarship reminds me about the debates in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s on African literature. At one conference in the 1960s African literature was defined as “creative writing in which an African setting is authentically handled or to which experience originating in Africa are integral”. My favourite definition of African literature was formulated by a white South African, Nadine Gordime, who said that African writing is writing done “in any language by Africans themselves and by others of whatever skin colour” who share the African experience and who have an ‘African-centred consciousness’. Extending this definition to African scholarship, we can say that ” African scholarship is scholarship conducted in any language by Africans themselves and by others of whatever skin colour who share the African experience and have an African centred consciousness”.
Translating this back to the realm of art I would suggest that to be an African artist one should have the following attributes:
1. Identifying with the highest aspirations of the African people.
2. Striving to know and understand the history of the African people (from Ancient Egypt to the present).
3. Maintaining a healthy balanced loyalty to Africa and refusing to identify with certain extremist ideologies and practices that work against the interests of the people of Africa.
The last point brings us closest to discussing the issue of potential tension between creativity and responsibility. The genuine artist is always on the look out for possible tension between ideology and art, between politics and art. The artist should never blindly shout slogans like Chimurenga, Amandla or Aluta continua, for there may come a time when leaders–be they politicians or clergy–begin to sing a different tune to the original slogan, i.e. when Aluta continua or Amandla means something different from what they were originally intended to mean. In the language of Animal Farm as long as the senior pigs continue saying “Four legs are good two legs bad”, things are fine. If they begin to sing, “Four legs good, two legs better!” you know that the struggle has been betrayed and it is time for the artist to sing a different song from the politician.
Prof Ngara is deputy vice-chancellor in charge of student affairs at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa.