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How artists reflect society: 'Stories help us understand each other'

What does it mean to be an artist and how does this help us understand ourselves as a nation better, especially in a society that is in transition?

In the second episode of the University of Pretoria podcast series A World of Answers, Aubrey Masango chats to head of English language and Literature Professor Molly Brown and international award-winning playwright Mike van Graan and artist in residence at the University of Pretoria.

My role as a playwright and artist is to reflect the society back to ourselves. We are a society in progress.

Mike Van Graan, Playwright and artist in residence - University of Pretoria

As a democracy in the making, Van Graan emphasises the importance of artist 'being at the coalface', pushing back the barriers to freedom of expression as well as to talk about concerns people are reluctant to address.

Post-1994 a lot of self-censorship has crept into our discourse...we tend to hold back for fear of being called fellow travellers of the apartheid regime, racists, or ultra-leftists.

Mike Van Graan, Playwright and artist in residence - University of Pretoria

But Van Graan says it is important as a playwright not to give in to such intimidation and rather centre these difficult issues in the public domain to achieve catharsis.

So then people go to the theatre and they see the kind of things they were thinking.

Mike Van Graan, Playwright and artist in residence - University of Pretoria

Brown says in many ways English as the language that carries the message in art is problematic.

On the one hand, there are languages dying globally, but on the other, English is a way we can talk to one another across borders and ethnicities and is, therefore important, she explains.

By an accident of history, English has become the most spoken language in the world.

Professor Molly Brown, English language and Literature head - University of Pretoria

Humans are above all storytellers, she says.

Literature is a big word. But stories are essential to everything we do.

Professor Molly Brown, English language and Literature head - University of Pretoria

Brown says at its root it comes down to empathy

Empathy is developed by exposure to story...stories are what help us understand each other.

Professor Molly Brown, English language and Literature head - University of Pretoria

The high level of violence in South African society is probably linked to low literacy levels and poor access to stories in all forms, she adds.

Studies show a correlation between engaged reading and high levels of empathy.

Van Graan says the arts are a way of helping make sense of the world.

The arts are a creative means for us as individuals and communities to try to make sense of our reality...to try and help us to interpret our social and material conditions in which we live.

Mike Van Graan, Playwright and artist in residence - University of Pretoria

Theatre and music may be used to both explore our realities but also to celebrate who we are he says.

The vast majority of the population are not however, the traditional audience for the arts, he adds, and so productions are not talking to the majority's lived reality.

The venues and productions need to be rethought, he agrees, and move into spaces where ordinary South Africans will access them.

Art is not concerned with correctness.

Professor Molly Brown, English language and Literature head - University of Pretoria

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