Tuesday 12 November 2019

Emer O'Kelly: For art's sake, we must not pander to politicians

From left, Pat Moylan and Orlaith McBride of the Arts Council and Enda Kenny view Patrick Scott's 'Meditation'
From left, Pat Moylan and Orlaith McBride of the Arts Council and Enda Kenny view Patrick Scott's 'Meditation'

Emer O'Kelly

The Arts Council, the government body for the promotion of the arts, is 60 years old. The Taoiseach acknowledged what would seem to be the importance of the occasion by launching an exhibition of visual arts works from the council's own collection.

The current chair of the council, Pat Moylan, explained the exhibition as celebrating the fact that "primary amongst the [aims and achievements] of the council have been the support of artists in the production of their work, and opportunities for the public to see and experience art".

The arts really mattered to us in Ireland, she added. "They unite our communities in good times and bad, and they help to define us as a people."

If only; with due respect to Ms Moylan, that's garbage. She was giving us the often-repeated line used by politicians in speeches written for them by civil servants. In bad times people actually resent the arts: they resent what they cost, and they see full-time artists as wasters and a drag on society. Outsiders respect our artists, but having swallowed the empty prating by politicians and other public figures about (for instance) the tax-free status of creative artists, they are horrified to find that the majority of creative artists in this country don't earn enough to reach the income tax threshold in the first place.

Many people like their art easy and recognisable, a series of instant mirror images across the art forms: literature with situations they identify with, visual art that's undisturbing and unchallenging, theatre that is either escapist or a snapshot of daily life, music that is banal and repetitive. And politicians pander to that.

But art is supposed to be uncomfortable. And it is for the Arts Council, charged with the furtherance of the arts, to ensure that what the taxpayer supports is challenging and disturbing, even ahead of its time. Not for the sake of its disturbance value: not everything that is new is necessarily good; but in realisation that the comfortable and instantly popular has an easy audience and can by definition look after itself financially.

The Arts Council may be a government agency, but it should fight governmental resentment of the argumentative criticism that is always inherent in fine art. The council should remain at arm's length from government rather than be perceived as endorsing a socially engineered/civil service vision, and should map a way forward on behalf of artists: giving its necessarily straitened financial support to art that stretches horizons and stimulates minds rather than rehashing the indigestible pap of instant identification with the theory that "everyone is an artist".

Recently there has been a quaint pretence that the "traditional arts", notably traditional music, are superior to the fine arts because they are "part of what we are" and therefore require positive discrimination. Yet those involved in the traditional arts never tire of telling us that they are mainstream and massively thriving and popular. The positions contradict each other.

The Arts Council's task is to cut through the posturing, to recognise the real rather than the politically correct needs, and to defend standards by giving its stamp of approval only to work that soars. This is particularly the case in times of recession, when full-time artists are in particularly straitened circumstances and may be tempted to toe the market line, producing art that will sell even when they know their work could be so much better.

Indeed, it is the Arts Council's job to explain (and to market) the genuine accessibility of soaring work, rather than parking it with a shrug that says "elitist".

The Arts Council's budget for the year is €63m. That is down by roughly 30 per cent from the height of the boom, a decrease that is massively more than in most other areas of national life. The decrease makes government assurances that we value the arts and their contribution to our society, in employment as well as what could be called spiritual terms, ring very hollow.

Equally, employment in the arts must tailor itself to the making of art, rather than arts administration. There will be very little reason to defend the Arts Council's position when the balance of spending tilts towards administrative organisations rather than full-time professional artists. The value of art remains largely indefinable ... except for such people, who find that they can't afford the rent for a studio or fuel to keep their fingers supple enough to write. And they are the ones who matter.

So now more than ever, it is the job of the Arts Council to have the courage to be exclusive rather than be the willing slave of popularity-seeking politicians. It has to find the courage to narrow its focus and defend only the excellent in art.

Sunday Independent

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