GERARD HOWLIN: Revolutionary artists led the Rising, yet witless governments kill off art

Heather Humphreys is peripheral as a minister and the arts will suffer yet again. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins

Consideration of the arts takes up 600 words in a 160-page programme for government, writes Gerard Howlin

Last night at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, the Taoiseach gloried in the talent of Irish artists.

Our culture was showcased in an evening programmed by the extraordinary actor and director Fiona Shaw.

Sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, choreographer and dancer Colin Dunne, the National Symphony Orchestra and more, gave of the best our country has. In an inner ear I hear the applause. We are lucky, of course.

These are people who sometimes, in modest ways, are supported by the State here and are accessible to us.

But be clear, the support offered, over a lifetime of training, work, sometimes failure and for many only occasional success, is a drop in the ocean that separates the arts in Ireland from the glamour of last night’s gala in Washington.

The greater difference from the life of artists off-stage here is not fame or fortune, it is respect.

Years of gnawing cuts have taken a toll on the nurturing ecosystem of support that allows aspiration become art. Venues, festivals, creative companies, and individual artists, all feel the impact of cuts in a sector that, if not everywhere, largely operates on a shoestring.

Still, the show goes on.

Artists do more with less. Extraordinary works of epiphany were made over the past five years.

You see, being an artist is not a job. It is a vocation. You do not make art for a living. You live to make art. On the coarse subject of making a living, most artists do not.

Instead they suffer the patronising disrespect that they should simply be glad to be on show. That’s what happened in Washington last night, an act of disrespect.

The worst part of it is the unawareness of a state, which imaging itself as patron, but has more the character of a pimp.

In our Republic, simply being allowed to perform is considered adequate pay for artists. This is what they are, so this is what they do.

Last night’s event was Enda Kenny’s first public engagement with our culture since his reappointment to office on May 6. It is the first outing abroad since the centenary of the Rising of the reduced, denigrated political space for our culture at the cabinet table.

Culture, including the arts, but more broadly encompassing heritage, broadcasting, the Irish language, and sport could have been crafted into a single department. The promise inherent in the Rising as a cultural project could have been advanced.

If that act of imagination were impossible, the status quo of a Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht could have been maintained and better supported politically by a minister who could speak to and for our culture. Heather Humphreys can do neither, effectively or fluently.

Instead, heritage is wiped off the political map. The arts are further politically sidelined in a new Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht.

The Taoiseach, needing to prioritise regional development, could, as he did with defence, appoint himself as minister and put a minister of state in his department, with effective sole responsibility and a seat at the cabinet table.

Anything would have been better than the current outcome. The sense of denigration across our culture, including the arts, is palpable.

A national petition with the hashtag #ArtsDeptNow has been launched. It is an appeal for belated recognition from people, who have been belittled too often.

Only two ministers — Michael D Higgins and John O’Donoghue — succeeded in putting culture at the centre of the political conversation. The other six responsible were miscast, politically inconsequential, or both.

The incumbent’s predecessor, Jimmy Deenihan, was both. His ending of the effective autonomy of Culture Ireland, and assignment of the role of its executive to his own officials, was disgraceful.

His continuance of that power grab, by attempting to suborn the governance of our national cultural institutions to himself, was worse. For the first time, it deeply politicised the arts in the Dáil and worse, politically failed.

Ms Humphreys is peripheral as minister. Consideration of the arts takes up 600 words in a 160-page programme for government. Nothing to see here; move on. Such mention as there is almost entirely entwined around the regions or commemoration.

It is literally an add-on and an afterthought to an overriding political imperative. Ms Humphreys may be in charge, but she is, however, not responsible. The Taoiseach is.

People who arrive, having long looked in from the outside, want to do one of two things. They needily fit in regardless or they open up closed doors, allowing others a chance they were not as easily afforded.

The irony of Enda Kenny, elected age 24, to a Dáil seat he virtually inherited, for a party that never fully accepted him, frequently barely endured him and famously tried to be rid of him, is that he utterly misunderstands the empowering nature of culture, including the arts. It is a voice for those who have neither a stage nor means to articulate.

It is a gift of different languages, for those with few words. It allows the dull and disgruntled within us all move, see, and speak in ways which, left unaided, we would never do.

Instead, these possibilities are not only unappreciated, they are shunned by the State. In political choices made at the formation of this Government, an unimaginative, blinkered, distrustful approach was taken, again.

Fine Gael, in office now almost alone, see no intellectual or cultural side to our country. Its political personality in power is a caricature of the distrust and fear of the upper middle class for what cannot be controlled.

It sees the arts, like last night’s performance as decoration for the drawing room. Like jewellery or elocution lessons, it is an appendage to exclusivity.

The leaders of the Rising were artists. Culture then, but never since, was at the heart of the political project. The very word ‘art’ is now pushed down the lexicon of government. The word ‘heritage’ is banished.

‘Culture’ is too much to be even considered. What is this nervousness, this fear? It is the insecurity of a little people, who have been belittled too long. The need to hold on, overwhelms the exhilaration of letting go.

Tonight, in Washington, the celebration of our Rising continues. The Abbey Theatre’s new production of Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars is staged.

First produced 10 years after poets such as Padraig Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh made their transformative sacrifice, it was a searing critique of the dull, failing of a new state.

It caricatured ideology, made fun of flag-waving and pomposity. In the mayhem of the tenements, amidst the events of Easter Week, a well-dressed lady appears pleading: “For Gawd’s sake, will one of you kind men show any safe way for me to get to Wrathmines? … I was foolish enough to visit a friend, thinking the howl thing was a joke, and now I cawn’t get a car or a tram to take me home — isn’t it awful?”

The play as the sign of our State’s attitude to culture, is prophetically perfect; an occasional appendage to exclusivity.


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