Wednesday 22 May 2019

A battle between book writers and bookkeepers

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

You wonder how these ideas start. Because they have to start somewhere, in this case in the vicinity of the Arts Council, where the notion was formed that artists receiving the €17,000 a year stipend (the "cnuas") as members of Aosdana, may be required to furnish proof that they are "working artists engaged in productive practice."

How did they imagine this would work?

Say there's this 80-year-old poet who has been "silent" for some time - in the mind's eye he receives a visit from the Poetry Inspector, who voices his "concern" about the situation, to which the poet can only respond that the value of his genius is by its nature unquantifiable in these bureaucratic terms, his work being an exploration of the human condition and not something that can be measured by the yard, as it were.

But then, are the inspectors not supposed to know such things already?

They are the Arts Council after all, not some branch of the Department of Agriculture that can call on more tangible methods of assessment such as counting cattle or approving the dimensions of a silage pit.

If a farmer is "silent", as such, no farming gets done. But if a poet is "silent", he can be making a statement as meaningful in its own way as his most powerful stanzas - he may, for example, have made an agonising judgment that poetry is no longer an adequate response to the monstrosities of the age, though the petty official may wonder why he ever thought that it might be adequate in the first place.

Would there then be some very ugly scene in which the poet is issued with some kind of Final Demand to produce a few verses whether he likes it or not, or else have his "cnuas" cut off?

This is art, my friends, it contains elements of mystery which may not be visible to the bookkeepers.

If you did a time-and-motion exercise on Tolstoy, that most famously abundant of writers, you'd probably find that an astonishing amount of his time was spent with no motion of any kind going on, save that endless gazing into the interior of his being which the more shallow observer might call "staring into space", or even "sitting on his backside."

And if that same observer were to see James Joyce lying on his sofa all morning, he would probably mark him down as "absent", unaware that what Joyce was actually doing there, was forging the uncreated consciousness of his race in the smithy of his soul. And doing it before lunch too.

And no, you can't really put a number on that, though in this country we had agreed on €17,000 a year for approximately 150 members of Aosdana as a roughly acceptable estimate, until some genius of an administrator got this notion that there might be a better way.

That this world of existential doubt and pathological insecurity could be corrected in such a way that it would all add up, that you could make this clear distinction between "working" artists and non-working artists, when of course the only reason anyone does it in the first place is that it's better than working.

Such indeed are the ambiguities of the whole Aosdana business, I already find it possible to hold completely contradictory views on it, at all times, and to regard this as normal.

I am against Aosdana, on principle. And I am also in favour of Aosdana, on principle. It's just that they're different principles.

The first principle is one that is probably endorsed by many members of Aosdana themselves, or indeed by anyone who has thought deeply about art and money and society. It was articulated by Anthony Cronin himself, the founding father of Aosdana, in an interview he did with me for this paper in 2014: "our most eminent writers are admired by society at large, and somehow I feel a little dismayed and uncomfortable about this.

"Even though in a sense I worked to promote it. Nonetheless it doesn't accord with my deepest and earliest experiences. It doesn't feel right."

Cronin recalled that in the days when the Irish government was against all forms of art, "anything that was any good was unofficial. Whereas now it's changed and the good is officially good."

So there is this instinctive objection - "it doesn't feel right" - a sense that even a wretched stipend of 17 bags coming from such official sources, brings a kind of respectability, a condition in which no great art can live.

But then I think of the second principle, which is the fact that Aosdana and the Artists Exemption and suchlike are not just ways of backing up our claims to be an artistic superpower, they are things that we actually thought of ourselves.

Or at least Anthony Cronin did.

And they have survived despite the ideological objections of various economists who, when they weren't busy failing to predict the Crash, were arguing that these artistic types were receiving privileges not accorded to business people for their outstanding creations.

Somehow Aosdana survived all that madness, and all its own madness, and now there is this fresh madness, this attack on the very nature of art itself, on the belief that a person can be looking out the window for about three years, and still be working very, very hard. Without that, we are nothing.

Sunday Independent

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