Critical Arts, Monographs no 2: Retrospective, 1983Critical Arts, first published in 1980, arose out of the demise of Speak, a magazine which despite its stimulating legacy, was destined to die financially. Where Speak had attempted to provide a vehicle for South Africans of all disciplines to find indigenous directions and to popularise these to both students and informed readers, Critical Arts was designed to perform a much more modest function to a far more restricted readership. Like Speak it provoked controversy, although of a different kind and from different sources: unlike Speak which did not challenge academia per se, Critical Arts set itself full square against the orthodoxies propagated by moribund Drama, English and communication courses taught at South African universities.

Critical Arts was a journal in a hurry; those associated with it felt a pressing sense of urgency – the advent of broadcast television coincided with the Soweto disturbances in 1976, which in turn had a effect on popular black theatre as rituals of resistance. Afrikaans cinema had just completed a genre cycle and ethnographic film was not yet on the agenda of anthropological or media discussion. Advertising was boosted by television and the press and popular magazines were faced with abruptly changing readership profiles, marketing strategies and consumer attitudes. The polemic character of Critical Arts and its continual questioning of ideological pre-conceptions, both within university departments and the wider university environment, have tended to place the journal at odds with particular establishments – mainly because such critics fear for their academic ‘neutrality’ and thereby automatically reject ideas with which they intuitively know they cannot agree.



Critical Arts called itself “A journal for Media Studies” and plunged headlong into academic discussions of non-elitist topics (often disparaged and dismissively spoken about) such as South African cinema, television, popular forms of theatre and drama, and advertising. Its articles on literature per se, which remain few and far between, did not quite meet the same distaste or bewilderment since that battle has long been fought by numerous journals aimed at developing an interest in local literature. In addition, the study of African literature has attained a certain, though by no means pervasive, academic legitimacy through the tireless work of people like Stephen Gray, Jack Cope, Peter Horn, Tim Couzens and Mike Kirkwood, to name but a few.

Certainly the more radical stance taken by the journal was received with reservation by more than one English-language drama department. Their active (and perhaps defensive) anti-intellectual and anti-academic stances are indicative of a wider misconception of their raison d’ etre which they see as the inculcation of ‘marketable skills’ and an emphasis on the bourgeois notion of art as a ‘civilizing influence’ whose main function is to develop cultural ‘taste’ and a ‘refined sensibility’ among young adults.

The pragmatic approach derives primarily from skills and attributes required by our capitalist economy and which are continually reinforced by the ideological assumptions about ‘culture’ encoded in the Arts pages of newspapers, magazines and specialist journals.


CA Monograph no2, 1983

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