It’s time to close the book on archaic and elitist Aosdána

IT STRUCK a sensitive nerve when the poet WJ Mc Cormack, aka Hugh Maxton, this week defended Aosdána’s annual funding of €2.7 million by mentioning that Fair City cost €11 million. This fact was met, according to an RTÉ report, with laughter from the floor of Aosdána’s general assembly meeting at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham.

It’s time to close the book on archaic and elitist Aosdána

It’s not funny. There is nothing funny about RTÉ’s funding for the long-running TV soap which is said to generate in the region of €7 million in revenue for RTÉ and employs 250 people.

Employs, you understand. There is nothing laughable about creating jobs in the arts. Nor is there anything laughable about creating a 25-year-old series with storylines attracting regular audiences of half a million viewers. Thousands of writers try to do just that every year. Very few succeed and anyone who does has skill and imagination. Ask Clare Dowling who has written for Fair City and whose novels are international bestsellers or Liz Nugent who has also written for Fair City and whose first novel, Unravelling Oliver, has just been published by Penguin.

You won’t meet any of them at an Aosdána meeting, nor will you meet successful crime writers like John Connolly or Louise Phillips, or successful writers for a predominantly female market like Marian Keyes or Cecilia Ahern. You won’t see Maeve Binchy’s name in the archive either. If that’s all too low-brow for you, you won’t even find Emma Donoghue whose novel Room has sold two million copies worldwide.

Heavens! How common, making money out of art! Everybody knows that real artists are like monks except they are more politically correct. They care little for the things of the body but devote themselves selflessly to their art, in the hope that one day a friend will come knocking and say, “You have suffered enough! I propose you for Aosdána!”

The artist may, of course, decide for himself that the suffering has gone on long enough and try to buttonhole a friendly Aosdána member. One artist told me that she had approached three member friends who all refused for different reasons, including “I never propose anyone” and “All my proposals are turned down.”

She had given up, concluding you’d want a neck of pure brass or a lot of luck to get proposed. Maybe she’s just a quitter. Maybe you have to turn up at all the right events and get into conversation with the right people. It’s a bit like getting into college was in my parents’ day, before they introduced standardised entrance criteria. A bit like getting a job still is in certain sectors.

A lot like the kind of process most Irish people want consigned to the dark ages of our history. With an entrance procedure like this, it’s not surprising that there are so many minor talents in the loving embrace of Aosdána. There are some very well-known figures too, such as the visual artists Dorothy Cross and Camille Souter, the novelists Sebastian Barry and Colum McCann, the playwrights Brian Friel and Conor McPherson, the composer Gerald Barry, the choreographer David Bolger, to name but a few.

But you will also see the names of some artists of whom, even though I worked in cultural journalism in this country for more than a decade, I have never heard and of whom further investigation reveals little. There are some consistently and professionally sub-standard artists whose main claim to fame is that they are members of Aosdána. There are many brilliant artists who are left out.

The stupidity of the whole thing is rammed home when you realise that Aosdána only recognises artists who work alone — writers, visual artists, choreographers, architects and composers — and leaves out all artists who collaborate, such as film directors, theatre directors, actors, dancers and musicians. It’s a case of “some art is more equal than others”.

But Aosdána’s worse than just unfair. The thing that I hate about it is that it enshrines poor audience appeal as part of what it means to make art. I know that not all Aosdána members receive the laughably-named “cnuas” of €17,180 annually — nearly 100 of the 248 members don’t — but the “cnuas”, paid to those with an income of less than €25,000, is a major part of the identity of the organisation. When the novelist John Banville resigned from Aosdána one of his main reasons the fact that he did not need the “cnuas” and it is interesting that he has since published commercial crime fiction as Benjamin Black.

Aosdána couples poverty with our “specialness” as Irish people in a way which would have made Dev proud. Charles Haughey, who founded Aosdána, wasn’t keen on the poverty angle but he loved the idea of a throw-back to our mythical past, with the harpists harping on at the knees of the Gaelic Chieftains.

Unlike the unwashed Brits, but like the French who use garlic and eat cheese with holes in it, we would esteem our artists. We would honour our all-time big wigs with a ceremony which would thrill the heart of Bilbo Baggins: we would give them a golden torc and call them “Saoi.”

Aosdána has argued recently for the “cnuas” to increase and to be index-linked. Considering it comes from a shrinking Arts Council budget and thus accounts for a bigger and bigger percentage of it, this is crazy. But it’s not the money that gets me. It’s not the question of what Aosdána “does”.

WHAT gets me is the outdated image of Ireland which Aosdána presents as a tiny, off-shore island which is rainy and has no money but is special because it values art and particularly artists who despise the marketplace, such is their devotion to their art.

I believe Aosdána may contribute to the making of poor art. Though I believe the State should subsidise the arts, audience appeal is and always has been one important indication of quality. The arts are about communication, after all. Giving artists a permanent job description as artists may cause some to stop trying to communicate and may cause some to stop trying at all.

As to the argument that elderly artists should not be left destitute, I believe no elderly person should be left destitute, even if they are artists, parents in the home, carers or community volunteers and have few PRSI credits. We have to evolve a wider definition of work which includes art. Aosdána comes from the dying phase of post-de Valera Ireland in which I grew up. I still look back in wonder at the fact that, as a good student of English, I was not taught the structure and mechanisms of commercial writing. And I look back in wonder at the narrow, nation-building seam of Irish literature we mined at college, ignoring completely what the world was reading.

What has happened in the past decade is that more and more younger Irish artists have exploded what it is to be an Irish artist, embracing the narratives of the world to speak to the world. Aosdána is of the past and should be consigned to it.

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