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.




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  • backstage

    Unfortunately, there are few aspects of government expenditure which are not now ‘instrumental’. The expansion of government over the last 15 years has led to arms-length bodies becoming ‘shoulder-length’ bodies and arts funding is no exception. The strategies, aims and objectives for government funding of the arts must now link closely into the delivery of ‘super policies’, e.g. regeneration, health, diversity, etc, Arts funding is justified on the basis that it can contribute to these ‘legitimate’ objectives. Most of our MLAs couldn’t care less about the arts but when they are funded on the basis that they support and deliver on the higher-level policy areas, then arts funding is tolerated.

    However, while it is one thing for the arts to be subject to the pecking order of government policies, developed through due political process, it is quite a different matter for them to be subject to the personal preferences of a government minister. While most MLAs couldn’t care less about the arts (it’s not a vote winner), the DCAL minister is extremely interested in the future of the arts, or at least his personal version of what the arts should be. The minister’s willingness to promote his own views are a matter of record as seen in his notorious letter to National Museums NI where he requested that his personal interests, a longstanding matter of public record, be considered for development and promotion. If the minister acts true to form as he constructs the future of arts funding in the current budget review, then there is a very real possibility that we will end up with the minister’s personal views as the future basis for the arts.

    The arts in Northern Ireland are most certainly not going to be left independent of politics, and unless others are prepared to act we may find that the future is moulded in the image and likeness of the DCAL minister – Arts from the Ark.

  • RoryD

    Nice column BUT the 30 year state papers are being released. This is a web site that’s supposed to be up-to-the-minute — ok just up-to-the-day would be fine — unlike the slow, old news print folks. Wake up folks! I know there’s not much competition but this Darby and Joan approach just doesn’t cut it. This used to be a must-read site. Not so much any more.

  • Brian Walker

    RoryD. Confused? Why is the future of arts and politics a Darby and Joan matter and the state papers released under the 30 year rule up-to – the- minute? Or is it a mistake to take you seriously? Pass the port!

  • RoryD

    The ‘Darby and Joan’ reference relates not to Arts coverage but to the slow moving, bland and unimaginative way Slugger operates. The dogs in the street know that state papers are released at this time of the year and that 2010 minus 30 equals 1980 which means that the first hunger strike is going to be front and center, which if you are a blog to be taken seriously means you have someone who knows their stuff jump on it as soon as it is released. No prizes for that. But Slugger moves slowly and with such lack of imagination that ‘Darby and Joan’ fits quite well.

  • Brian Walker

    The dogs in the street know that some blog comment is completely bizarre!.

  • RoryD

    My comment is bizarre? How very sensitive you are.

    Slugger is a site that deals with the politics and culture of Northern Ireland yet it is slow and unimaginative in dealing with issues as they arise in the public domain. It’s not like the site is breaking stories so one would expect that it would be on top of the issues that an informed audience is interested in. It just isn’t — ask around and you’ll find that this is not an unusual point of view. Maybe you might want to think of improving the site in 2011.

  • granni trixie

    Point of information:James Ellis is not “unhinged” – he made the mistakes because he has an unusual medical condition which affects his memory and understanding some of the time.

    Robbie McVeigh is just being his usual self.