GERARD HOWLIN: The arts community: Where some animals are more equal than others

There is something of George Orwell’s Animal Farm about the arts — “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

One much overused expression is the “arts community”. There is, I suppose, such a thing. But human solidarity is not its conspicuous feature. They stand on stage

together and bow while we, the audience, likely in the grip of a compulsory standing ovation,
admire the shared effort. Those in the spotlight are supported by many more unseen.

Even the solitary writer or visual artist is part of an ecosystem without which they and their work could not be formed, and would almost certainly never be found.

Art is a collective. Artists, however, are more likely to be individualists. They may work in packs, but they hunt alone.

From Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood to our own Gate Theatre, there are appalling allegations of abuse. It’s gender-based, which means older, more powerful men preying on younger, more vulnerable women.

We mustn’t forget Kevin Spacey, and that is not to mention other walks of life. But specifically in the arts in Ireland, abuse and discrimination against women is the alligator in the swamp. It is not the swamp itself. The ecosystem where this happens is the surrounding culture of the sector.

That culture has a name. It’s called bullying. Bullying is rife. Men do not have a monopoly. This much is common knowledge. But common knowledge in Ireland can be left unsaid for decades.

Ironically, it is the arts and artists who more viscerally and more completely interrogate what we cannot articulate. On this issue, it is astonishing, but perhaps not surprising, what is left unsaid.

Bullying, of which sexual abuse is an ultimate, but not the only outcome, is about power.

The arts is full of powerlessness. Before the term was invented, artists were the original precariat. They are jobbers, by and large.

Spalpeens standing at the stage door, waiting outside the gallery hoping to be included in the next exhibition or loitering where the powerful gather hoping to be noticed. They live from gig to gig.

The community they live and work in is both a source of many friendships and an arena of feral competition. That competition, so often the defining characteristic of that community, is fierce because so often, so little is at stake. The arts in Ireland are poor. Its practitioners are too.

Exceptions best prove the rule.

None of this is new, but much of it is accentuated now. On this page on Monday, Terry Prone said plainly that there is no lost golden age in the arts. There has always been power and the abuse of power. But the context has changed.


Before the Noughties, we were almost all poor together. Now artists, among our most talented and driven people, are economically segregated from their own age group and peer group from early on.

They almost never catch up. In a society where success is counted by the accumulation of shiny objects, their badge of honour no longer stands out.

The housing crisis has doubled down on the grinding pressure of life in the arts. First, arts organisations are losing their foothold in cheaper rented spaces. Artists looking for a home don’t find anywhere to rent at all. You would do anything for a gig. You would put up with a lot. Many have to.

The story of Animal Farm is not of heroism, it is of how abuse is first learnt and then reapplied.

With more mouths to feed than meagre rations can supply, the jostle up to the trough can be deadly.

Power, some of it piteously small, can be staggeringly swaying. Men and women capable together of creating work of epiphany can be remarkably indifferent to others.

Speaking truth to power is what they do for a living. Sucking up to powerful people is what they have to do to earn it.

Relatively few hold great sway. It’s a gig economy. You cannot be left standing by the road on the day of the hiring fair.

There is another dynamic. The arts is not a democracy. It is not a club, even if there are insiders. The arts is about the attainment of perfection. Nothing is ever good enough, or even final.

It is a world of licence where rules are cast aside so that we who are duller can better see by their lights.

It’s topsy-turvy. Those in that world live outside ours, the better to interrogate it. Into this misrule come people who we need because they don’t respect our rules. But in the resulting
cauldron, few rules apply.

The casting aside of convention is liberating. It creates a great open space for the mind, but a very dark place if common decency doesn’t apply. Too frequently, it doesn’t.

Ireland brings its own ambience to the arts. Besides the arts being poor, everything is small.

You are never more than an arm’s length away from those you might wish to escape from.

It’s only with luck that friends last for life, but enemies certainly will. Gossip, innuendo, and the sly putdown are all local currency. Joyce and Beckett went away for a reason.

There is a smothering parochialism in the arts in Ireland. The work frequently rises above it, but paradoxically the people don’t manage that as often.

The Gate Theatre has all the signs of a scandal that will profitably serve to allow the wood be mistaken for the trees. The arts in Ireland is impoverished.

The nature of power is disproportionate. It is too concentrated among too few. Yes, a code of conduct would help. Boards must be held to account.

But don’t fool yourself into thinking that a Gate Theatre or an Abbey aside, that that there is any queue of the eligible to serve with small and threadbare organisations.

Remember a simple truth. People stay in unacceptable situations because they have nowhere else to go. Art is a vocation, not a job. It is not a description of what people do. It is what they are.

Ultimately they are artists, for us, the audience.

It is our responsibility as citizens that the arts is better funded. It is especially our responsibility to ensure that funding is given in a transparent and accountable way.

There is a worrying reprise now at the very top, of the sort of petty control that for too long was evident at the bottom.

The politicisation of funding directly via projects picked by the department, rather than through an apolitical and accountable Arts Council, is repeating patterns of power in millions that were previously exercised with small change.

This is about patronage. It is about the need to be “in”. It is recreating anew a world where “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. That’s art imitating life.


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