There’s an Italian Renaissance-style theatre in Pretoria, on Church Square. It’s been there for 80 years.
You will find it mentioned online in the comments section of an article called “The World’s Coolest Car Parks.” Because that’s what it is now.
The grand old proscenium arch still stands. The mezzanine layer of seating is still in place, and the ornate embellishments and columns remain beneath the dome that was painted indigo to resemble the night sky. But the floor of the once-opulent auditorium is tarred and marked with parking bays, and cars tick and cool under a painted night sky that now leaks, streaked with white.
A group of concerned artists called the Capital Arts Revolution is campaigning to have the theatre restored and re-opened. They held an event there recently, called Re:Capitoli. My friend Michael was holding a drawing thing there. He called it “Drawkward,” because when you wander unwittingly into a small anteroom to find the walls covered in blank paper, and a madman in tropical shorts rushes up to you brandishing a Magic Marker and says, “Hey! Do you want to draw with me?” it’s, well, awkward.
One or two people grabbed the pen and went for it.
Most people, though, reacted the same way. They looked horrified, and backed off, flustering, “Um – no no, I can’t draw. Really.”
When Michael persisted, though, most of them, again, reacted in the same way.
They got a look of avarice, like a small child who has been told it can have a cigarette. Then they took the pen.
They drew faces, and bugs, and butterflies, and (inevitably) willies. They drew on top of other people’s drawings. Some of them got a bit giggly. It didn’t seem outside the bounds of possibility that people might start drawing on each other. Michael was running around like The Pen Pusher. (“You want blue? Black? I got thick, thin, permanent, Fineliner..?)
Watching it, I thought about creativity, and spaces, and ownership, and how people feel they can’t just play in the sacred place called “creativity” without permission.
One does not simply walk into Art.
“Creative license” has always meant the permission granted to an artist to take liberties with the truth in the name of art. Now it seems creative license has become a VIP pass issued to an elite few, that allows them to enter the space occupied by Artists, while everyone else looks on in envy, doomed to live forever outside that charmed circle.
Here’s the ugly truth that no-one really wants to speak about: these days life inside that charmed circle more closely resembles life in one of the lower Circles of Hell.
We’ve ended up in a place where creativity is sold by the hour, and the creative process is organized according to the principles of industrialised mass-production.
Creativity is output. Efficiency rules. Margin is all. Costs must be kept down. And “costs” means “people.” So fewer and fewer people have to create more and more output in less and less time – while working longer and longer hours.
We paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. We cordoned off creativity and made it invitation-only (all the better to keep its market value high).
And now the sacred space is turning into a sweatshop.
We’re breaking creativity by making it the preserve of a chosen few and – at the same time – commoditizing it.
Why do creative people put up with it? Perhaps it’s because we’re made to feel we should be grateful to be part of a privileged elite, able to do what we love for a living.
What’s the answer? What kind of revolution are we looking at? I’m not sure yet. But thinking about it is keeping me up at night.
All I’ll say now is this: if ever a madman in tropical shorts rushes up to you with a sweet-smelling magic marker and asks you if you want to draw? Take the pen.