Arts writing and reviewing in the South African media are in deep trouble.
This was the overwhelming message at the inaugural meeting of the South African Arts Writers & Critics Association (SAAWCA), held in Johannesburg on 11 June 2011.
A significant group of media critics, and a handful of academics, gathered to discuss this perceived crisis. As Mary Corrigall, founder of SAAWCA, said in her introductory comments, budget cuts and rationalisation in the media have resulted in newspapers and arts magazines routinely publishing press releases to fill the column space usually reserved for specialist arts reviews.
“There are less full-time positions for arts writers and critics, commissioning has decreased substantially and many freelancers have been earning the same rate per word for the last five years, though the cost of living has increased substantially. The situation has become so dire that a number of established writers keen to retain a public profile are offering articles and reviews for free.”
Although Internet sites dedicated to arts reporting and reviewing were helping to fill the vacuum, “not all of these have necessarily expanded the field”, said Corrigall.
“Many specialised arts websites are parasitical in nature, working as portals that feed off arts reports published elsewhere, thus avoiding commissioning their own articles or reviews.” In view of such conditions, Corrigall added, “we are forced to ask ourselves whether arts writing could be conceived of as a viable profession”.
In a sobering vein, Corrigall concluded as follows: “Perhaps the dialogue that we should be most eager to initiate at this point is one with ourselves. It is time to turn our critical gaze inwards. We need to start asking what it is we do, whether we are serving our various audiences adequately, and, most importantly, how we can make arts writing more sustainable. So while SAAWCA is concerned with discovering new forms of criticism, identifying sustainable new business models to support our craft is one of our most vital objectives.”
The podcasts of the panels presented here are an important indicator of the state of public reviewing in South Africa. The discussions are lively and of some relevance to the question how the fall in the quality, and quantity, of public arts reviewing and reporting in South Africa can be countered.
Panel 1: Bongani Madondo, Robert Greig and Gwen Ansell. Chaired by Chris Thurman.
Panel 2: Diane Coetzer, Christina Kennedy, and Edward Tsumele. Chaired by Chris Thurman.
Panel 3: Leon de Kock and Michael Smith. Chaired by Brooks Spector