Feature Articles

Notes from the frontline of the culture wars by Michael O Loughlin

(Poetry Ireland News, November/December 2010)

Last year I found myself having, for the umpteenth time, a peculiarly dispiriting experience in the realm of culture. It will be familiar to many of you. I was at a cultural gathering, in this case the dinner and award ceremony of the IMPAC Prize in the Mansion House. The then Mayor got up and made a speech to the assembled literary masses – it was the usual stuff, about how Ireland produces so many writers, how everyone in Dublin has a story, how proud we were of our writers, and so on. She even uttered the words, and I know, because I wrote them down, inside the back cover of the prizewinning novel: ‘Dublin values literature.’ Was I the only one there who had to suppress a desire to stand up and shout: 'Oh yeah? Oh yeah? How much exactly does Dublin value literature? SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!

A Modest Proposal: The next time you attend a literary event, bring a vuvuzela. When a politician starts on with this guff, start blowing it to drown him/her out. Until he/she shows you the money.

The unfortunate thing is that the success abroad of some writers born in this geographical area has let the state off the hook. Writers are not expensive. Opera houses, professional symphony orchestras, world class art galleries, cost money. In this respect, Ireland has always fallen between two stools. We don't have the kind of solid state support enjoyed in Northern Europe, nor do we have the kind of philanthropy enjoyed in the USA. And in a sense, the Irish state has been lucky in its writers. Partly due to their background, partly due to temperamental inclination, few of our leading writers can be accused of any critical attitude to the state. No Harold Pinters here!

Part of it, of course, is old-fashioned sleeveenist clientelism. Don't rock the boat, keep your head down and we'll see what we can do for you. In recent years I have heard many bizarre conversations occasioned by the change from one Minister of Arts for the other. I cannot say how humiliating it felt that the future policy of the arts in Ireland should depend on the half-remembered teenage enthusiasms of a vestigial frontbencher, or his wife’s taste in frocks. Nods and winks, local pieties. There are those who would argue that this is a pragmatic approach to the reality of the situation. But I beg you to consider for one moment: does this attitude inhibit, even to a tiny degree, a robust and critical assault on the behaviour of those in power?

I recently gave a reading in a small town in Ireland, in an old library hidden behind a gleaming, new, state-of- theart-arts-centre. As I skirted the arts centre to find the library, I could not help but notice the deafening lack of activity. A closer scrutiny revealed a handwritten note which informed me that the centre's café was open at lunchtimes for coffee and sandwiches. There were a few faded posters. That was it. This is it: to even the most sophisticated politicians the arts are clog-dancing, amateur dramatics and school choirs. With now and then a nice touring play from the Abbey.
Above all, it can't cost real money. And it has to be something that politicians will feel comfortable appearing at. The politician's ideal: an arts centre without any artists (but lots of 'community' activities). Community = votes.

Yes, I know the relationship between the state and the state-subsidised artist is a complex one. Readers of Foster's magisterial biography of Yeats will remember his forensic examination of the nationalisation of the Abbey Theatre. Stalin tolerated Bulgakov because he thought The Days of the Turbins was a bloody good play. No Éamon de Valera he. The National Theatre of Scotland recently brought us Gregory Burke’s Black Watch. The Abbey gave us...well, fill in the gap yourself.

Most depressing moment of my life. After a long, and I thought, constructive, talk with a senior arts administrator, he said: ‘But Michael, you have to remember, this state spends more than 80 million euro on the arts every year!’ A paradox: why are the people who administer the arts at the highest level, often the people who despise them the most? I'm embarrassed to have to say this out loud. We all know this to be true, and yet we have to pretend not to. The arts are not educational. The arts are not good for your health. They are not an economic activity. They may be one of these things, or they may at times be all of them. But that's just a by-product. Art is the enemy of culture, in the sense that culture is always something dead, something safe, something which has been assimilated. Art on the other hand, should retain the element of danger, the idea that it can go in any direction not dictated by its financiers, or even its practitioners.

I recently attended a ceremony in The Garden of Remembrance on the National Day of Action for The Arts. Jack Harte, Director of the Irish Writers' Centre (which receives zero funding from Dublin World Capital Of Literature, Dublin The Writers’ City, Dublin Unesco City of Literature, etc.), gave a moving speech in which he recalled the example of the poets of 1916. Pearse, Plunkett, MacDonagh, all literary men, poets and educators of progressive social views, were the founders of our nation. Not the solicitors and the priests and the doctors, and certainly not the political class of their day. They cannot be blamed for the fact that the state which came into being was almost exactly the opposite of the one they might have envisaged. It may say something about my own political prejudices, but this was something I had never actually thought about before: these men are our colleagues.

You may say, there's a contradiction here. I want the state to massively increase its funding for the arts, placing special emphasis on opening them up a broader public. And I want the state to abandon any idea of obtaining any quantifiable benefit from the arts. Yes, that's about right.

Michael O'Loughlin's new collection of poems, In This Life, will be appearing soon from New Island.

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