Analysis

Saturday 26 July 2014

Not a golden moment when those who make teabags can decide on what's art

We have to stand firm against any attempt to undermine the role of the arts, writes Trevor White

Published 13/09/2009|00:00

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LAST week, I was asked to chair a panel discussion on the value of art, as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. I wanted to make sure that the debate went beyond platitudes about the inherent worthiness of art, so I asked the people from the Fringe to pick a panel that was not composed of the usual suspects. They agreed that we should have articulate, passionate voices representing all sides of the issue. The sponsor had other ideas.

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Two of the speakers proposed for the discussion, John Cooper Clarke and Amanda Coogan, were vetoed by Barry's Tea. Why? Because, according to a PR representative of the company, "they might say something controversial". Barry's Tea is, I was told, enjoyed by families, as if this gives the company the right to censor a public discussion in Dublin in the year 2009.

While the vetoed artists do, at least, have a new badge of honour (Too Strong For Barry's Tea) I cannot imagine how they might have scandalised Irish society. Remember: the discussion was not about suicide, prostitution or making love to plastic dolls. It was about the value of art.

A company decides to foster debate about art, but only if the speakers are nice, friendly sorts who won't say anything to upset the kids. An arts organisation that prides itself on taking risks sanctions censorship of the expression of ideas. Not exactly a golden moment. Yet these disgraceful antics are, at least, timely. In the very same week that this censored discussion about the value of art occurred, the Commission on Taxation unveiled its proposal to abolish artists' tax exemption. Can you think of a better argument for State support of the arts? I can't.

As things stand, your government recognises the special role that art plays in the nation's self-image. Most beneficiaries of the tax exemption scheme have average earnings of less than half the minimum wage, and some of their work is closer to self-expression (to borrow John Banville's withering phrase) than art. But that's not the issue here. The issue is that your government does not dictate what constitutes acceptable art. As long as their work is original and creative, artists are entitled to claim exemption on their income tax.

Imagine, now, a country in which marketing directors are the arbiters of what constitutes acceptable art. If the government decides to abolish the exemption on income tax, that situation may well come to pass. It is a frightening prospect.

Fear not. The State recognises that funding for the arts is important, and that trying to censor the expression of ideas is the first step on the road to totalitarianism. We are lucky indeed to live in a country where most discussions about the value of art are not controlled by people who make teabags. For the moment.

This article will embarrass Roise Goan, the director of the Fringe Festival. I am sorry about that. There is some excellent work in the Fringe programme this year, and it is unfortunate that attention should be focused on one miserable incident. But the greater good is served by saying all this in public.

A few weeks ago Roise told a newspaper, "There is a danger in this very difficult situation we're in now . . . whereby arts funding is going to be really challenged. Nevertheless, I don't think artists' voices will ever be silenced." Wrong. It is happening already. If you care about art -- in fact, if you care about Ireland -- I presume you find that disturbing.

Art is a big part of who we are. For the last 40 years, the State has recognised as much. Now is no time for abandoning all that. Now is a time for standing firm.

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