Study Guide

Master Harold... and the boys Art and Culture

By Athol Fugard

Art and Culture

HALLY. There's a nice little short story there. "The Kite-Flyers." But we'd have to find a twist in the ending.

SAM. Twist?

HALLY. Yes. Something unexpected. The way it ended with us was too straightforward…me on the bench and you going back to work. There's no drama in that. (927-933)

Hally is thinking of making art out of his life, writing stories of his childhood. But he believes he needs to inject some drama into it or it will be too boring. He doesn't know that there's a shocking twist to this story. We only learn later that Sam couldn't stay on the bench because it was for whites only. That is Fugard's art.

HALLY. [. . .] You know what he wants, don't you? One of their useless old ceremonies. The commemoration of the landing of the 1820 Settlers, or if it's going to be culture, Carols by Candlelight every Christmas.

SAM. It's an impressive sight. Make a good description, Hally. All those candles glowing in the dark and the people singing hymns. (1045-1052)

Hally's homework is to write a description of an annual cultural event, and he's sure that his teacher wants him to write about the celebration of the arrival of English settlers in South Africa, or the European celebration of Christmas. Notice that both of these events are associated with white South Africans, which tells you something about what the teacher considers to be "culture." This exchange also shows us Hally's cynicism vs. Sam's appreciation of the beauty that can be appreciated in anything.

SAM. Yes. I'll show you a simple step—the waltz—then you try it.

HALLY. What will that prove?

SAM. That it might not be as easy as you think.

HALLY. I didn't say it was easy. I said it was simple—like in simple-minded, meaning mentally retarded. You can't exactly say it challenges the intellect. (1175-1181)

Could Hally try any harder to be a jerk? Sam and Hally are arguing over whether ballroom dancing can be considered to be art. Sam, an accomplished dancer, knows that it takes an enormous amount of skill and practice. Hally defends his position, saying that it's just entertainment because, according to him, it is purely physical, not a mental activity. Hally's sure turning out to be an intellectual snob, a sure sign of immaturity.

SAM. [The waltz makes] people happy.

HALLY. (The glass in his hand) So do American cream sodas with ice cream. For God's sake, Sam, you're not asking me to take ballroom dancing serious, are you?

SAM. Yes. (1184-1188)

Sam tries another tack with Hally in the debate over the artistic status of ballroom dancing. Do you think that making people happy has anything to do with art? Hally doesn't, but Sam insists that affecting emotions is an important part of art. Fugard develops these two characters as a kind of reason vs. emotion thing. If something doesn't make intellectual sense to Hally, he can't accept it. Sam, on the other hand, has values that are based on feeling and experiencing.

SAM. You still haven't told me what's wrong with admiring something that's beautiful and then trying to do it yourself.

HALLY. Nothing. But we happen to be talking about a foxtrot, not a thing of beauty.

SAM. But that is just what I'm saying. If you were to see two champions doing, two masters of the art… (1192-1198)

He's tried intellect, emotion, and now Sam tries to convince Hally with another possible definition for art: something beautiful. Now the question is whether or not ballroom dancing is beautiful, and we're pretty sure that's not even a question.

HALLY. There's a limit, Sam. Don't confuse art with entertainment.

SAM. So then what is art?

[…]

HALLY. (He realizes he has got to be careful. He gives the matter a lot of thought before answering) [. . .] But basically I suppose it's…the giving of meaning to matter. (1201-1210)

If art is just "the giving of meaning to matter," it means that it's not the matter that makes something art. That is, a painting isn't art until someone gives it meaning. Which means, basically, that it's in the eye of the beholder. And that means that if Sam thinks the foxtrot is art, then it's art. You can almost se Hally painting himself into a corner (no pun intended).

HALLY. [Art] goes beyond that. It's the giving of form to the formless.

SAM. Ja, well, maybe [the foxtrot's] not art, then. But I still say it's beautiful.

HALLY. I'm sure the word you mean to use is entertaining.

SAM. (Adamant) No. Beautiful. And if you want proof, come along to the Centenary Hall in New Brighton in two weeks' time. (1212-1219)

We are still on Sam's side in this. If art is "giving form to the formless," then couldn't you say that someone having complete control over his or her body is art? Dancing can be entertaining, of course, but it can also be beautiful. Hally's argument is really falling apart here because it's not based in life experience. His arrogance is on epic display.

HALLY. (To the table and his exercise book) "Write five hundred words describing an annual event of cultural or historical significance." Would I be stretching poetic license a little too far if I called your ballroom championships a cultural event? (1287-1291)

Are you surprised that Hally would even have to ask this question? Of course a ballroom championship is a cultural event, right? Well, apparently in South Africa in 1950 a competition held among black dancers was not considered culture by their white fellow citizens.

HALLY. [. . .] Old Doc Bromely—he's my English teacher—is going to argue with me, of course. He doesn't like natives. But I'll point out to him that in strict anthropological terms the culture of a primitive black society includes its dancing and singing. (1299-1303)

Hally knows he'll have to defend his choice of cultural event to his teacher by appealing to its intellectual value as an anthropological study. This is pretty insightful on his part. It gives us some hope that Hally knows his teacher is a racist and that's it's unreasonable. Of course, the idea comes a little easily to Hally.

HALLY. [. . .] To put my thesis in a nutshell: The war-dance has been replaced by the waltz. But it still amounts to the same thing: the release of primitive emotions through movement. Shall we give it a go? (1303-1307)

Ouch again. Hally connects the native "war-dance" to the waltz as a manifestation of culture, but he's definitely not letting it into the realm of Culture. He's sure to use the adjective "primitive" to show that he doesn't consider natives dancing the foxtrot to be any more advanced than their dancing a war dance. So there goes our hope.

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