Art is economic bread and butter - so why don't we put jam on it?
Art is not a luxury but a vital necessity in any functioning democracy. We need to realise that, writes Carol Hunt
Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30
Theodor Adorno famously wrote that all art is an uncommitted crime. Which sounds appropriately pretentious for a philosopher, but what he meant was simply that by its very nature art challenges the status quo.
There's a powerful argument to be had for saying all art is political. Some artists may disagree, but historically there's a lot of evidence showing the impact of art when used as a weapon against oppression, injustice and inequality, however opaquely or inadvertently. Even when there's no overt political intent, art will always mirror or challenge a society's norms and values.
As Nina Simone said: "How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?" Which is why there's often an uneasy relationship between the status quo and artists. Nothing can point up the Emperor's New Clothes as effectively as a novel, play, painting, song or cartoon can.
Just think of Swift's Modest Proposal. From the satire of Aristophanes to Picasso's Guernica - a painting which launched a human rights movement - art communicates with us in a way that political dialogue or academia will never be able to do. And so there's a reason why artists are often the first group to be silenced by oppressive regimes. Artists can be controlled in many ways; through blasphemy laws or censorship, harassment or imprisonment, or even by death.
Pakistan is mourning one of its most famous singers, Amjad Sabri, who was shot dead in Karachi by Taliban militants who were opposed to his performances of music from the Sufi tradition. And though we may not go as far as executing our artists here in Ireland, we have a pretty good record of trying to silence them through various other means, including censorship, poverty, blasphemy laws and sheer indifference to their efforts.
For the most part, politicians don't get the value of the arts, or if they do, they see them as something to be feared, contained, kept tightly on a leash, begging for scraps from the budgetary table. That's when they're not using them as cheap PR stunts to impress visiting dignitaries before they put them back in their under-funded boxes. This is despite the fact that Ireland is, quite rightly, famous for the quality of its art and artists; in literature, music and theatre. Irish art and culture is worth a fortune to our economy and yet art is still not appreciated as the golden goose that it is.
But our artists have flourished here despite the poverty, censorship, the lack of appreciation for the work that they do. Some would even argue that it is because of these difficulties that some of our best artistic work has been created. But, from Swift to Yeats and on to the works of O'Brien and McGahern, Irish artists have not just held a mirror to injustice, inequality and state censorship but inspired wider society to effectively challenge and change it.
Which is why nobody should have been surprised at the recent government decision to downgrade the Cabinet arts portfolio by throwing it into a mismatch of briefs. The new Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht, Regional Development and Rural Affairs has been accurately called a "Frankenstein" department which covers the "Bean an Ti, ballet, bogs, and broadband". The message is clear. As far as the Government is concerned, artists are there purely when they need a bit of culture on the side; they're useful for a bit of marketing abroad, but don't be giving them notions that they're intrinsic to the health of the nation or God knows what the hippy buggers will get up to.
The arts community responded with a petition, and last Wednesday we saw Fianna Fail's arts spokeswoman, Niamh Smyth, introduce a motion to the Dail which called for the arts to be designated a "distinct and clearly defined Cabinet portfolio" and for cross-party support for the development of Culture 2025 as a national arts policy. During the debate, Smyth mentioned that the leaders of the 1916 Rising understood the importance of the arts in national life and that it was ironic the Government "chose the centenary year to put the arts further into the corner". Although, if one assumes that the aims and aspirations of those rebels, as laid out in the Proclamation, are anathema to the current status quo, then it makes sense that they would regard the potential power of the arts community to foster dissent, to express resistance, expose abuses and start important conversations, as something to be controlled. And what better way to control artists than to ensure they must beg for a living?
Last week in Cannes, writer Caitlin Moran commented on the fact that "it's no longer possible for working-class kids to get into creative industries" because they have to do unpaid internships and be supported by their parents. "No one is allowed to be on the dole anymore," she said, "and it's f***ing boring." This isn't new. In 2014, Helen Mirren said that acting had "become the preserve of rich kids whose parents will fund them through drama school". This is now true of most of the arts world. In film, theatre and music, it's become impossible to do the necessary working-for-feck-all that every artist needs to do with all the strictures on "being available for work" that the atypical starving artist on welfare faces. Which is probably why an amendment was added to the Dail debate last Wednesday, demanding the removal of the "availability for work" requirement for registered artists on Jobseekers Allowance in order to allow artists to do unpaid work.
You may not think being able to receive welfare payments should have anything to do with working in arts and culture, but as anyone in the business will tell you, it's the difference between being able to work on your craft or being forced to get a job in the bank.
And if you think it doesn't really make any difference to society whether some layabout artists are allowed to do their thing while living off the system, let me tell you a story from personal experience. When I worked in theatre we didn't have Jobseekers Allowance, we just had the dole. We called it our Arts Council Grant. And without it a small theatre company would never have been able to produce a play which had a dramatic impact on Irish social and political life. An impact which is still being felt today. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that - even if I do have personal skin in the story.
In 1992, the first play that exposed what had been happening in our Magdalene laundries was produced by a theatre company in Galway called Punchbag with no funding. It was written by an ex-postulant nun, Patricia Burke Brogan, who had worked in one of those laundries and it was called Eclipsed. It won a Fringe First in Edinburgh, but more importantly, when it opened in Dublin, Gerry Ryan devoted a week of his radio show to women telling their stories about life in the laundries. This topic had never been discussed openly in Ireland and the airwaves were swamped by women who had never before got the chance to be heard. Nobody listened to them. But suddenly they had a voice.
An Irish Times political column said: "Every TD should be frog-marched into see it [Eclipsed]". It was art exposing the dirty, hidden laundry of Irish life. And everyone who worked on it, including myself and my husband, was in receipt of the dole - it would have been impossible to make if we "really" had to be "available for work". Of course, in a democracy which prided itself on supporting the arts, we wouldn't have needed to be, we would have received state funding. But in its absence, we still found a way to get the message out, of course working while on the dole is not sustainable or desirable, but it was doable, and it's a way of getting the message out that is being denied to young artists today.
I've often argued that in a functioning democracy "arts are a necessity and not a luxury" and that's before we begin to consider that art is our economic bread and butter in Ireland. We enjoy a thriving cultural economy which adds considerable benefit to the richness of our lives; mentally, creatively and economically. Yet Ireland has one of the lowest levels of public funding and support for arts and culture in all of Europe. Why?
Too many teachers, not enough playwrights, painters or musicians in Leinster House? Art matters. Hugely. It's time our Government realised that and gave it the attention it deserves. Not just scraps from the economic table.