During the centenary year, politics must realise arts deserves better

An infrastructure of people, ideas, and places built up in better times has been ground down, writes Gerard Howlin

During the centenary year, politics must realise arts deserves better

On Friday, New Year’s Day, a flag-raising ceremony at Dublin Castle inaugurates 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising. Cór na Óg, RTÉ’s talented youth choir will perform. For the State to take centre stage, to project its ideals, it must be accompanied by culture, surrounded by heritage. It’s just a shame it is all for show.

Artists are a constantly sought chorus, enhancing the public realm. It is no accident that Dublin Castle, redolent with history and magnificent public architecture, has been chosen. Architecture too was included in the Arts Act 2003 as an art form, in the hope that, in humble homes and public spaces alike, Irish citizens could live better lives.

In 2016, many issues are at stake, not least the remembrance of history, the re-examination of values, and a general election.

These overlapping events, the bare-knuckle boxing for power and a reflective but ultimately more influential consideration of who we are and what we stand for, coincide. I predict for most politicians who stump on the public stage, little consideration is given to this wider culture, especially the arts and heritage that signify our country.

It is the sense of place that so strongly identifies every Irish community, from Ballymun to Ballyferriter. It is our song, our dance, our literature, and our landscape that give us all breathing space and a speaking voice beyond the obvious.

Consideration, if any, is politically disparate, belated, and, whether intended or not, fundamentally belittling.

Fifty years ago — the 50th anniversary of the Rising — there was much to-do with flag raising. And so there should have been. But what shaped the next half century were influences as disparate as the arrival of television, the abolition of censorship, Vatican II, social action centred on the demand for decent housing, feminism, and the power of ideas.

De Valera presided over Easter 1966 but in months was brought to within 1% of the popular vote of losing the presidency to Tom O’Higgins.

It is artists and intellectuals, more consistently than others, who articulate the future as well as the reality behind the propriety of current public conversation.

Care and curation for our built and natural heritage, the nurturing of people within their own place, is seldom prioritised.

Edna O’Brien, in her unveiling of a hidden Ireland, and Father FX Martin, with his demand to respect what was irreplaceably valuable at Wood Quay, only steps from Dublin Castle, were the kinds of people who shaped the era. Who recalls now the craw thumpers who condemned O’Brien or a local government minister like Kevin Boland who railed in the Dáil against “belted earls” and “left-wing intellectuals”, stereotypes to him, of anyone who protested either the destruction of heritage, or the shoddy building of the day. The Heritage Council was set up in part to give thought-leadership and assistance in the field.

Instead, against their advice flood plains were concreted and we are awash in the consequences.

The undermining and marginalisation of the Heritage Council and the Arts Council and the separation elsewhere of the heritage functions of the OPW are examples of how the State calls for pretty pictures on big days but fails to make either the organisational changes or small regular investments that make a difference.

That failure was underlined again in November’s budget. Amid profligacy elsewhere, Arts Council chairwoman Sheila Pratschke called it right when she said her budget of €59.1m was “a devastating blow to artists and arts organisations already struggling to survive”. Curiously, she was largely a lone voice as most preferred to mumble, wait, and see.

With both organisations, particularly the causes they care for in extremis, further funding of €1m for the Arts Council and €500,000 for the Heritage Council was found out of necessity and included in the Revised Estimates Volume. The worst was avoided so that, amid State ceremony, public decency can be preserved, for now.

The chance in 2016 is for an incoming government to bring arts and heritage back from the political and policy margins. Only two heavyweight political figures occupied the designated cabinet seat successfully, Michael D Higgins and John O’Donoghue. Higgins remains in fashion, O’Donoghue isn’t. In this government, Jimmy Deenihan had the distinction of being the only arts minister demoted mid-term.

His incumbency was a demoralising disaster. The fracas of Limerick as City of Culture and his assault on the independence of the national cultural institutions were shameful episodes. Heather Humphreys benefits by comparison, but has failed to articulate a vision or participate in meaningful debate, beyond set-speeches. The photograph is her preferred medium.

Kevin Boland meanwhile found a worthy successor at the Customs House in Alan Kelly. The minister is determined to follow Boland’s example in degrading our built environment, allowing a new generation of shoe-box apartments and creating ghettos again.

Architecture as art is dead to him. His response to those who want apartment sizes bigger than 40 sq m studios as demanding “gold-plated” standards and living quarters “only the rich and famous can afford,” echoes Boland’s contempt down the generations.

An infrastructure of people, ideas, and places built up in better times has been ground down by a lack of resources and leadership leaving arts organisations wearied to the bone.

The high-profile event on Friday disguises the fact that State organisations with expertise to give are sidelined, resented. Only second-rank politicians are sent to a job, seen politically as of little account.

Insidiously there is an inbred resentment within a civil service of generalists towards public service agencies of specialists. Unable to do their job, the default mechanism is to seek to control.

Politicians say they appreciate the arts and love Ireland’s heritage. Love does not mean, however, gazing at each other but in looking together in the same direction. The political focus is always on the set-piece, the big project rather than the long term or the nurturing.

I hope 2016 will be a success in its own terms. But as it has been deliberately semi-detached from the department nominally in charge — itself only intermittently capable of delivering either administratively or politically the thought-leadership or resources required — major change is urgently needed.

That opportunity occurs only once in the political cycle, when a government is formed, responsibilities are realigned and a capable politician sent to do the job.

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