Monday 18 December 2017

Just what does 'culture' mean in 2017?

Emer O'Kelly fears for the future of the arts in Ireland, as the way that we define culture changes

Heather Humphreys: It's politics, not art that seems to matter to the Minister for Arts - here striking a pose for art students at Colaiste Bride in Clondalkin. Photo: Tony Gavin
Heather Humphreys: It's politics, not art that seems to matter to the Minister for Arts - here striking a pose for art students at Colaiste Bride in Clondalkin. Photo: Tony Gavin

Emer O'Kelly

Fishamble, which subtitles itself the new play company, sent a Christmas email during December. The format was simple - it listed all the people with whom it had artistic contact and co-operation over the year, all of whom it considered as having contributed to the company's work. There were more than 200 names.

That's culture. It's also art in its imaginativeness. And if it's political (which it undoubtedly is) it's political with a small 'p'. It makes clear that the arts have a resounding and widespread impact beyond their immediate audiences in terms of contributing to the economy.

There was another cultural initiative over the past year on which Arts Minister Heather Humphreys has recently been congratulating herself. Among the achievements of 2016, the minister listed the presentation of a copy of the 1916 Proclamation and a National Flag to each school in the country. There was no outcry at this hijacking of the definition of culture; yet this action was blatantly political. (It was also historical, of course.)

However, it was cultural only in the sense that many people say: "The GAA is part of our culture." That doesn't make a sporting organisation cultural. If the analogy is carried to its conclusion, defining culture as the way of life in society, you could suggest that head-hunting is part of New Zealand culture, since the Maoris were once headhunters. Or human sacrifice is part of our own culture, because ancient Irish groups practised it.

If you define culture as the broad way of life of a people, then there are many cultures which it is not desirable to defend or preserve, such as slavery in the US, or apartheid in South Africa.

I can recall an earlier Arts Minister here making an informal (and presumably off-the-cuff) speech at an arts event that was part of Culture Night in Dublin a number of years ago, in which he discoursed enthusiastically about the cultural importance of greyhound racing and coursing. His audience, all of them involved professionally in the arts, were not impressed.

When the arts are politicised, as Ms Humphreys seems determined to do, we dilute their power and purpose. Encouraging creativity enhances us and helps to civilise us. But it does not make everyone an artist. Schoolteachers, bank officials, shopkeepers, nurses and gardai having a ball over a few months in an amateur drama association are not actors. Actors are people whose primary function in life is to earn their living from acting.

No amount of "community involvement" in the arts is going to improve the options for professional artists. What it does is reduce the arts to being part of the social services, something thrown into the political mix to keep people off the streets and out of the pubs. That's a worthy aim, but it also shows a contempt for artists and the work they make. Art is not easy, and artists, in the theatre as elsewhere, make it because it is central to their being, not a pleasant adjunct.

Every professional arts organisation, including in the theatrical world and also including arts service organisations, have always had to fight for their existence, even in the falsely-termed "boom years". Since the reality of the economic crash a vast amount of arts organisations have gone under - including small professional theatre companies, whose work may not have paid artists such as writers and actors very well, but which did make professional work, even if it wasn't always of a very high standard.

The political approach is becoming clearer every day, even in the welcomes given to the 1916 centenary celebrations as a "cultural legacy", and the Government's Creative Ireland and Culture 2025 policy document, both of which emphasised "community" at the expense of artists and their work.

The recent welcome announcement of funding for the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland was described by the minister as an "ongoing peace initiative", not as a musicians' initiative. Just as she also recently thanked everyone involved in the 1916 centenary programme "from across the political spectrum".

Ms Humphreys may not realise that she has made her priorities so disappointingly clear - but it's politics, not art that seems to matter to the Arts Minister.

Which doesn't bode well for the 200-odd people who worked with Fishamble last year, most of them at considerable sacrifice, and for all other professionals in theatre (and other arts) in this country.

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