Award-winning journalist Charl Blignaut advocates a popular approach to the arts, and he’s built his career on realising this. After creating the Mail & Guardian’s dedicated arts section Friday, he moved to City Press and brought #Trending to life: an arts critique slash lifestyle guide he co-edits with Gugulethu Mhlungu. The self-confessed poptart is an avid Twitter user and when he’s not sharing news around local arts and culture, he’s usually posting links to terribly funny reporting on the prophet who went to heaven (and got the selfie to prove it) and singing tokoloshe terrors. Everything else you need to know about the man in the cupcake print shirt holding a plastic pink flamingo is in the Q&A to follow, in which Charl chats about his history producing soap operas, the current state of arts journalism, and where to find the next pop.
Let’s start with a bit of personal history…what were you doing in the years prior and leading up to your current position as the arts editor for City Press?
Actually in a previous life I was also an arts editor. I started at Vrye Weekblad before democracy and arts edited Mail & Guardian as kwaito hit. I created their Friday section for them. As I recall we put Brenda Fassie on the first cover and did a Poptart Edition. So I guess not a lot has changed. I still believe in a more popular approach to the arts. After recovering from a horrible drug addiction I went into TV drama as a writer and then one of the owners of Moja Movie Factory. We wrote and produced mostly drama for mainly SABC1 (We did the murder mystery Mtunzini.com; Tshisa was initially about my experiences as a junkie). We also produced soap opera for a while. Squee.
How do you view the distinction between arts journalism and critical writing in South Africa?
So when I created Friday there was a whole art section. Twenty years later when I created #Trending for City Press the picture looked very different. What we have done is create a lifestyle product mixed with an arts review product but the lifestyle – fashion, travel, cars, tech etcetera – subsidises the arts coverage cos there are advertisers selling couches and computers and alcohol. But there are very few advertisers for arts except for the banks when they have a festival they’re sponsoring. One is safe with TV because of digital migration and the booming bouquets of programming that will come with it, though the SABC is now withdrawing print advertising. When I did research for #Trending, our readers replied that TV is their most consumed cultural product.
Do you think the current state of arts journalism in SA leaves much to be desired? What do could help us take a step or two in the right direction?
My brief to my writers is to take clever ideas and critiques and write them in normal language that we can all understand. I’m sure some people say I am dumbing things down, but I work for a mainstream Sunday paper and at some point we arts journalists got out of touch. This is not the academy or the wrestling arena. It’s a family newspaper with intelligent readers. The finer arts in South Africa, a project of white capital, has always enhanced its value by using difficult and exclusive words, fancy talk that only the in-crowd can access.
I wrote that story that became the drama of Brett Murray’s The Spear and I realised some things – that white satire and racism are entangled on many levels; that South Africans were struggling to ‘read’ artworks because of the exclusivity of the gallery space and also the lack of art teaching in schools; and that the image was mass-accessed online, that the gallery walls had been kicked down by the internet. So we launched a section full of clever critique in simple English and lots of visuals and a kind of a personal guide on how a critic would read them. Our mission is to get more and more people to come to love challenging films and books and photos and paintings by using inclusive language. We cover as many artists working on Instagram or blogging as we do artists from the gallery space.
So, to answer your question, yes, arts journalism is in crisis – one partly of its own creation. We need new language and new approaches to win back the space we have lost in our publications. Where arts journalism is happening now is online, we need to find ways of getting it to pay. But I am hopeful. We train a lot of interns here at City Press. I dunno what they’re feeding them but the kids are brilliant more often than not. My biggest concern – when I compare local students to the international students that spend time in our newsroom – is a lack of critical thinking frameworks that South African students are being taught. It happens only at tertiary stages and not enough at school.
How do you understand the relationship between artists and critics/journalists? And how do you cultivate these relationships of your own?
Hooh boy. There’s no way around this one but to know your ethical lines well. I am personal friends with a lot of artists, musicians, performers, writers. They know that I read their work even more critically because of our friendship. It’s a fraught situation in a country with a relatively small pool of artists and critics, where everyone knows everyone. But one has to be madly fair. I do think we need to get over the idea of objective journalism and focus on ethics and fairness. Of course some people respond so badly to a negative critique that they lose their shit with me, and in a way that’s easier because we know where we stand I will interrogate my review to see their position. And no, I don’t believe arts writers are frustrated artists. We chose our careers and to do that we need to know the arts intimately. Aargh! And my biggest dream is to write novels.
Who are some of the most important journo’s covering local art and culture?
Well, I’m a great fan of blog star Milisuthando Bongela, who worked with us before going back to the M&G to arts edit. *wipes tear* She foregrounds both the political and the traditional in every piece of cultural production she considers and writes beautifully. Kavish Chetty is a genius film critic, as is Roger Young. My colleague Gugulethu Mhlungu is just brilliant at pop coverage because celebrities trust her and she knows her stuff. I wish Percy Zvumoya would just come back from Zimbabwe already. I think Lloyd Gedye and Niren Tolsi rock over at The Con Mag. Oh God, there are so many. Why are you doing this to me? Kwanele Sosibo writes like a dream and Lwandile Fikeni – our visual arts critic – just won arts journalist of the year for good reason. He has amazing and relevant analytical skills. Tseliso Monaheng’s record of Joburg street culture – especially in his photos – is going to be so valuable when he’s my age, which is 45 by the way. I know. And how brilliant are Jamal Nxedlana and the Bubblegum Club kids?
I most recently bought a Lady Skollie. I love Kudzanai Chiurai and Steven Cohen. Thando Mqgolozana is hugely important as a novelist. Also Masande Ntshanga and Zoo City. Neil Coppen is doing great things in a collaborative theatre space – his whoonga play is on the #Trending cover this week. I am a fan of Nakhane Toure’s lyrical and songwriting skills and Moonchild Sanelly is the business. She’s my favourite artist in the world right now. Lebo Mashile forever. Musa Nxumalo and the new school of photographers are exciting and I think our designers are awesome – Pola Maneli, Tiger Maremela, Sindiso Nyoni. More power to them. I like my art political in case you didn’t notice. Jenna Bass is a film maker to watch. And Dean Hutton is so important to the gender space in art.
What’s your take on awards – for both, artists and writers? Do they have merit?
Yes! Money! We are all pretty underpaid. May the awards continue till Jesus comes back.
Speaking of. You were named South Africa’s Arts Journalist of the Year two years in a row. Did this open up any unique opportunities?
Yes, I paid off debt with the money. No, it was rare to be acknowledged in this space and I was surprised how chuffed it made me feel. But I stopped entering because we need more transformation in arts journalism and I have committed myself to training young reporters and critics ahead of entering awards.
What advice would you give to young local creatives wanting to forge a career?
Be a TV writer. Lol. Kind of. You need to be flexible in a narrow market. Use social media, know radio, TV and print. Know your history. Know the laws and distribution platforms that are relevant to your work. Start a blog, be adaptable. Watch and read everything you can. Go to the street because that’s where the next pop is coming from. Love yourself. Don’t do drugs on a daily basis.
You’re very active on Twitter. What role does social media play in your life and work?
Twitter is for work, Facebook I call FacialBook, it’s a more controlled space. I met Thando and Lauren Beukes and hundreds of other friends and contacts through Twitter. I genuinely believe you can’t be an arts journo today without social media. Just to be able to DM an artist to make contact for an interview is already a mega reason to be on if you can afford it, let alone the sharing of ideas and the picking up on early leads in breaking stories.
And finally, from the twerking tokoloshe to prophet Mboro’s heaven selfies, what’s with your love of absurd news?
I love trashy art and B-Grade and once even had a blog called Poptartology because inside this hilarious space there are unique histories that show who we are as a nation and what has shaped our pop consumption. The best history of technology you’ll ever read is a history of pornography and how it drove the evolution of media distribution. Take a Chappies bubblegum and look at its history and you have so much there.
Charl likes what he tweets, and you might too. Follow him @sa_poptart.