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Artists expected to toe the official line


Illustration: John Cogan.

Illustration: John Cogan.

Illustration: John Cogan.

It was recently announced that there will be an Irish Fiction Laureate, partly sponsored by the Arts Council, with a stipend of €50,000 a year for three years. The recipient would need to be an established author in Ireland and perhaps internationally, would have to be prepared to teach a few creative writing classes in UCD and in New York University, and to "participate in a number of major public events and promotions".

There seems to be a presumption here, that the Irish Fiction Laureate will not be doing a John Michael McDonagh on it, will not be the sort of person who feels free to disrespect the Irish novel in general, to speak darkly of the perceived inadequacies of rival Irish authors. The honour, after all, "will be used to promote Irish literature nationally and internationally". So it is indeed more than a presumption, it seems to be an explicit requirement, that the holder of the post will be "sound" on this particular national question.

If the Laureate is going to take 150 grand in total from the Arts Council, in conjunction with UCD and NYU, and the Irish Times, it is assumed that he or she will desist from slandering the works of others, or else be regarded as an ungrateful cur.

This is the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the McDonagh episode, and from the alarmingly wrong-headed reaction to the film-maker's comments from so many of his peers, from Official Ireland all round.

Of course, McDonagh was right, not just in his analysis, but in his refusal to accept the proposition that if you take money from the government, you're expected to keep quiet, to take a vow of obedience for the good of the cause - I mean, this is not the Soviet Union here, right? We don't have government-approved artists censoring themselves in order to conform with some idealised vision, do we?

Indeed, the only part of what McDonagh said that was questionable, intellectually or morally, was his concentration on the badness of Irish films in particular. Yes, most Irish films are bad, but then most English films are bad too, and most American films are bad.

It's hard to put an exact number on it, but the science fiction author, Theodore Sturgeon, estimated that "90pc of everything is crud", a proposition which became known as Sturgeon's Law.

It's a fair enough law, and yet, when McDonagh sought to apply it to Ireland, he was attacked by numerous members of the bourgeoisie, as if he was a civil servant of the 1950s who had broken out and uttered some terrible revelation about the state of the country - how could he take his wages from the State and still be so disagreeable?

Nor was there a great outpouring of support from other film-makers and writers defending McDonagh's right to express himself - perhaps they were too busy filling in forms.

So the Irish Fiction Laureate will have a fair idea of the territory which lies ahead. Given what we know now about Official Ireland's attitude to dissent, if the novelist in question has one of these moments of reckless honesty (which is not entirely unknown among novelists), a grim reception surely awaits on the morning after.

In the mind's eye, the wretch will be informed that we have our own honours system now, that the British Poet Laureate isn't getting much more than 25 grand a year, including expenses, that of course we've thrown in a few quid extra, and that, in time, we may be even talking about benchmarking - like, would it be too much in the circumstances to ask for a bit of restraint?

That analogy with the troublesome civil servant of the 1950s is valid too in terms of Official Ireland's abiding incomprehension of the artist.

Back then, the artist was considered a dangerous person, and rightly so. In a society in which only one point of view was acceptable, the notion of a Patrick Kavanagh just saying whatever he liked, and saying it very beautifully, was quite worrying.

Supposedly, now the opposite is the case, yet it is opposite in the sense of being bi-polar. If Official Ireland had actually overcome all those provincial attitudes of the past, in reacting to McDonagh, the first impulse would be to shrug; to think, 'fuck it, he can say whatever he likes'. Instead, the reaction revealed that the first impulse is still to recoil, to think, 'he shouldn't really be saying that, should he?'.

Though, of course, in these times of heightened cultural awareness, artists are discouraged from saying the wrong thing, not because in general they are hated, but because in general they are loved. The result is roughly the same, a sense of a prevailing orthodoxy that must not be upset, proving that overwhelming official approval of the artist can be just as much of a killer as overwhelming disapproval.

More so, indeed. Because now there is not a government minister who would be unwilling to stand beside the recipient of the Laureate-ship for Irish Fiction, whoever that may be. Indeed they'd be fighting one another to get into that picture, and no party to these proceedings would see anything wrong with that at all.

At least in the 1950s if they saw Kavanagh or Myles or Brendan Behan coming, they would cross the road.

Sunday Independent