The Arts must remain independent of politics in 2011 and beyond

Two pieces from Fortnight extracted by Newshound over the holiday period are examples of the tense and difficult relationship between politics and culture in our slowly changing society. I hope a real debate will start on this in 2011, unfettered by moral or political  blackmail.    In How to Make Derry a Better City of Culture,  Robbie McVeigh tilts at a familiar windmill.

When Derry was awarded the title of ‘UK City of Culture’ the cultural antinomies were immediately obvious – what benefit in an empty title with no attached resources? Do we really have enough city or enough culture? What reference has this UK title in a city that is politically 80% Irish nationalist and has balanced precariously on the ‘edge of the union’ since partition? What irony that the Saville Inquiry – which finally absolved those Derry citizens murdered on Bloody Sunday of responsibility for their own deaths at the hands of the British State – may have resulted in the award of this celebration of ‘Britishness’ to the city?

Good question – does  Derry have enough city and enough culture? It poses the challenge precisely.   But surely the supposed irony is a burden only to  the biggest political begrudgers. Robbie must know that modern “Britishness ” is inclusive and multicultural to the point of abandoning any nationalism altogether, starting with the British kind. Instead, as Martin McGuinness spotted, this is all about seizing an opportunity.

More fundamentally, Robbie goes off on an ideological tack which I believe is wrong headed, if perhaps well intentioned .

The ‘City of Culture’ initiative makes an explicit promise to regenerate its host city – so in reality will it do anything to regenerate Derry? Cultural instrumentalism involves using the City of Culture project as a means of addressing and alleviating social and economic problems. These include community development, social inclusion and, more recently, social capital.

A contribution to regeneration yes, but “cultural instrumentalism?”   The term and idea is an ideological construct, not a given. This argument has to be nailed even if the state-funded organisers are too nervous to do so. All too easily they concede the field at the first mention of the word “poverty”. If you spend all the money first on infrastructure and people  first before you have ideas,  you’re risking disaster.

Put bluntly, although jobs are a desirable outcome. a cultural festival is not a job creation scheme.  The arts are about expressing ideas. Their value is intrinsic or it is nothing. The range of ideas can focus as narrowly or as widely as you like but has to have some reference to what people actually respond to and enjoy. The range should not be wholly self-referential (or self reverential) but must also look outwards.

I would love to see another exploration of why there were not more Bogside Women who did so much to force the Official IRA truce. Did public opinion in Derry really do all it could to wind down the IRA campaign? To what extent was the whole community prisoners of their own begotten, the IRA? It wasn’t all about army brutality. Some self criticism wouldn’t come amiss. To catch fire many good ideas go against the grain, otherwise they become mere propaganda . But please God , let there be lots in the programme that have nothing to do with Derry at all.  As important as anything else is to complement exploration with a sense of  enjoyment,   of having a bit of fun for goodness’ sake, and blow away the sourness that is sometimes mistaken for moral authority.  

In another Fortnight piece, playwright Anne Devlin sketches the rededication earlier this year of Sam Thompson’s grave in Belfast City cemetery. Although held under the auspices of the West Belfast festival and therefore SF inspired, it was also an elegy for the old cross community pre-Troubles NI Labour party.  At the event, who were the interlopers? Sinn Fein, plainly in charge; Tom Hartley presiding, the Leader himself a brooding presence, slipping in at the back as so often? Could the old cross community NILP of which her father Paddy was briefly a part see themselves as the real keepers of the flame of an old radical tradition? Anne was plainly uneasy, as she encountered organiser Danny Morrison

He has organised this event under auspices of the West Belfast festival. And the only reason I have turned up on these terms is the fact that he has stood up for Patricia Craig’s book. Asking For Trouble, her girlhood memoirs which involved the inevitable clash with the nuns over a reported kiss during a school trip to the Donegal Gaeltacht and resulted in her expulsion.

She is reading in the festival from her book and he has asked the school if she could read at her old convent thus bringing closure to everyone. But the school has refused, proving their obduracy once again. His defence of her free speech has changed my attitude to him. Until he winds me up: and I hear the words: you wrote a lot in the eighties. What was it Robert Kennedy used to say: if you write, you don’t shoot. If you shoot, you don’t write. Or was that the guy in the bath in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly? At any rate I’m tongue tied around Sinn Féin, there’s no other word for it.

As often happens at Irish ceremonies, black farce and chaos take over.  In an  elegy, James Ellis, a member of the original Over the Bridge cast, suddenly begins to bury “Ireland’s greatest poet Seamus Heaney ” with the very present Seamus standing beside him. Anne, appalled, intervenes as does Heaney himself but to only temporary effect. Is Jimmy attacking celebrity or is he merely unhinged? We will never know. The episode may be a tiny metaphor for most people’s experience of the past 40 years.

Do such events reinforce Sinn Fein as the real inheritors and transformers of protest to reform? Or however they evolve, can they ever shake off the stigma of monstrous anomaly, founded on rage, resentment and oppression of their own? The independent voices of art and culture as well as the processes of politics, will pass their verdicts.   Despite the ongoing need for public subsidy, we must ensure they are kept strictly separate.

 

 

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London