Monday 23 September 2019

Our 'Culture' becomes a giant aromatic candle

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Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

At the launch of the five-year plan known as Creative Ireland, the Taoiseach declared that it would "place culture at the centre of our lives, for the betterment of our people and for the strengthening of our society".

Now there's a few things about this that are not quite right, the first of which is the "five-year plan" aspect of it. Be they Soviet dictators or Premier League football managers, we have learned to be wary of men who present us with their five-year plans, as in other areas of administration they do not seem to have a plan coherent enough to get them as far as next Tuesday, and in general you would not be entirely confident about sending them out to the shop for a bottle of milk.

The title "Creative Ireland" is also a tad troubling, with its connotations of corporate branding, the way it seeks to divert attention from the deeper truth that the government of Ireland is perhaps at its most creative when it is enabling vulture funds to make the sort of money that would buy them a few dozen Jack Yeats paintings out of the day's takings.

And there are slightly discordant notes too, in the lines about "placing culture at the centre of our lives, for the betterment of our people and for the strengthening of our society".

People are already free to place "culture" at the centre of their lives if they see fit, there's nothing stopping them, it's just that some of them choose instead to devote their energies to things like being in Fine Gael, crying at Riverdance, and playing the invisible guitar at Bruce Springsteen concerts.

As for "the strengthening of our society", I can think of no great Irish writer or artist of any kind who had the slightest interest in strengthening our society, and if anything most of them did whatever they could to achieve roughly the opposite.

We must rid ourselves of this notion of "culture" as a kind of a giant aromatic candle which improves the fragrance of our living environment, rather than that ancient quest for truth and beauty and brilliance and profundity, on the part of men and women some of whom may be extravagantly anti-social by any normal standards, and who don't really care if their work leads to the betterment of anything, let alone something as ill-defined as "our people".

Nor could I completely get on board with certain other aspects of the plan, such as the notion that local authorities will select a new culture team, "bringing together arts officers, librarians, heritage officers, archivists, and other relevant personnel". Because it reminds me that most of the people who are making a living wage from "the arts" in Ireland, are not artists, unless in this new dispensation the unfortunates who actually write all the books and paint all the pictures are included in "other relevant personnel".

No, if there must be a relationship between the government and the artist, with all the difficulties and the complexities therein, it should come down ideally to two things - the government gives money to the artist.

And then the government goes away, expecting nothing in return.

That's it, really.

Which is why I am liking the part of the plan which advocates the introduction of "a new pilot scheme to provide income supports to low-earning artists through the Social Welfare system".

The Artists' Dole? There's nothing wrong with that at all, that I can see, and sure, even if one or two charlatans who are not true artists manage somehow to qualify for it, I would be relaxed about that too - I have found that the greatest threats to our civilisation tend to emerge from those a bit higher up the welfare chain than the characters who will be trying to convince the dole officer of the merits of their installation, so they can walk away with 200 euro. In fact, I'm not worried about those characters at all.

I am more concerned with upholding this core principle, whereby the government gives the artist money, and then the government goes away, not knowing or caring if the artist will immediately take that money to the liquor store, to spend it all on cheap whiskey, in order to get him started on the great work: Why I Hate The Government For Giving The Artist Money to Buy Cheap Whiskey.

Indeed, we need far more ingratitude in general, on the part of artists towards the respectable folk who are always trying to associate themselves with creative types, there are too many nice people writing nice books these days, and saying nice things.

And that is not good for "the arts", it is not good for anyone except our old friends Official Ireland, who are getting far more out of these arrangements than they are putting in.

And anyway, long before this Creative Ireland vibe, our record in this area has not been too shabby. The Artists' Exemption is still an excellent idea of ours, because it recognises that artists really are engaged in work the true value of which is incalculable by officials of the Department of Finance, and because it is indeed ours, and nobody else's.

It may be the one of the few things an Irish government ever thought of, that somebody else didn't think of first.

All the rest is public relations.

Sunday Independent

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