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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 9, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

    A personal story on why the arts matter

    Laurence Mackin

    Last night, I met an English chap by the name of David and got into a friendly bit of banter about the power of art. His girlfriend is an artist, so he has been forcing himself to learn a little bit about it of late, and is enjoying the process, although he admits to wondering what all the fuss is about Picasso. He also lives in the centre of London, so has all the educational tools he could possibly want on his doorstep.

    David also cheerfully admitted that he held the impossible opinion that while he doesn’t think arts should be cut back more than other areas, he also doesn’t, as a taxpayer, want to fork out for it, and he raised the age-old question of where do you draw the line with funding, and at what point do you stop funding hospitals and start funding art galleries, when the purse is tight and the coffers bare?

    This enormous issue was tackled rather eloquently in this honest essay by AL Kennedy. In it, she grabs the bulls by the horns and says: “A straight – and completely mythical – choice between the baby’s incubator and a poem? The incubator wins every time. The poet would write the poem anyway. Poets will write less if they never get paid, thrive less, or give up. So we get fewer poems and, long term, the poems are part of why we try to make sure there’s an incubator there for the people we don’t know, will never meet, don’t understand, don’t like.”

    Read the full piece for her much more complete reasoning, but here is one very personal example of how funding for the arts is critical to our wellbeing. Over the Christmas, I was doing the usual tour of the relatives and we called into an older aunt of mine, Terry (incidentally, she claims to be the last virgin in Dundalk, but that is a very different story for a very different blog). Trying to keep up with Terry’s conversation is like trying to catch the wind. She rattles off quip after insult while battering you gently with questions and throwing in the odd appraisal: “That’s a lovely coat you have there. Where did you get that? Would you not shave that auld beard? Why haven’t I seen you in ages? Come here till I tell ye what that one up the road did to me the other day …”

    On this particular day, she was holding court in her tiny sitting room, and we noticed a painting on the wall that hadn’t been there before. It was a straightforward scene, an old boat dragged on to an estuary beach, the river running out on an evening’s low tide, with a few indifferent mountains holding up the sky. The colours were vivid and bright, the strokes were steady. It was simple, and lovely to look at, and stood out on the bare walls. I guessed it must have been a gift, or something that had long been in the family, and wondered why we hadn’t seen it before.

    My father asked where it came from. A short glance from Terry. “Ah, I did that auld thing.” It turns out that Terry goes to a day centre regularly, where older people drop in for a chat, a cup of tea and various social activities, one of which was an art class. (There followed a five-minute tirade from Terry at the extra fiver they were asked to stump up to cover the cost of art materials.) But afterwards, she told us how in the art class they were told to simply paint what they liked, so Terry painted the river in Dundalk and the boat, mindful that so many of her relations had worked at sea. She had never in her life before picked up a paintbrush, and has had no education in this regard. But the picture is every bit as sharp and joyful as her wit and her banter.

    “They had some fella down from Dublin and had an exhibition yoke, and I won first prize.” At this stage she couldn’t keep the quiet bit of proud satisfaction from her voice though she waved it away dismissively. “So they asked me to do another, and I asked yer man there [an accusatory finger fired in the direction of my father] to bring me an auld picture of the lighthouse so I can do that, and I’m still waiting on it, hey.” And with that we were back on to the safe ground of slagging and accusations amid slabs of cake and buckets of tea.

    The point is that this small art class has probably done more for Terry’s confidence and got her out of the house more often than plenty of other well-intended schemes. She tried something new, found a bit of joy in it, and something she could be proud of. A tiny bit of arts funding can work wonders when properly deployed and reach areas and people that are unresponsive to other approaches, as argued by Kennedy in her article that I referenced above. You don’t have to look far to see why funding the arts is every bit as essential as properly funding our healthcare and welfare systems.

    • derek says:

      eh AL Kennedy is a woman, you might want to change the article to reflect that.

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Aha. Oh. I’ll get my coat.

    • …funding for the arts is critical to ‘our’ wellbeing..

      This is the nub of it. The ‘we’ in state-funded poetry, for example, is a small clique of published poets who mop up all the money from the state and then the prizes for their collections, judged by those in the magic circle of Poetry Ireland. The poets who need the money least, get the biggest cut.

      For example, in 2006 I instigated an All Ireland Live Poetry competition, that was the idea of Gerry McNamara, who ran the Write and Recite weekly open mic in Dublin, and the idea was to have heats in every province and a rotating final. The first year, 2007, the final was held in Belfast, with the first and second prize being a spot in the Radio 4 Slam competition.

      By the third year, the final in Galway, everything was up and running, with transparent, democratic and a genuinely popular project of regional heats that produced a grass-roots winner.

      Poetry Ireland instigated their own ‘All Ireland’ day the year after we did, and spent a lot of money paying those they favoured, to read; very heavily subsidized and great for poetry. Our own project was done on a low-no budget, but was a genuine first and the kind of thing one would imagine the state poetry body would want to be involved in and promote.

      However, when I tried to get them involved, on a 60/40 basis, me putting in 60% of the meagre costs and they 40%, after the hard work was done, a genuine democratic and national live poetry competition delivered to them on a plate, I was informed that Poetry Ireland didn’t, on principle, get involved in live poetry competitions. When I pointed out that they sponser the live poetry competition for schoolchildren, I was told this was different.

      So, yeah, ‘our’ wellbeing, in my experience, means the middle class, well off poets who mop up all the state guerdons, whilst the grassroots community are actively barred from accessing a few of the hundreds of thousands of euro Poetry Ireland spend on the favoured few.

      This years competition was won by Clondalkin poet Colm Keegan, and this is a recording of one of the poems that got him top spot, Ireland Is.


      Ireland is an on-the-road machine
      Ireland is so far gone from Joyce’s Dublin
      Ireland is Cúchulainn with a hurley
      Ireland is English
      Ireland is Tír na nÓg
      Ireland is a ghost estate
      Ireland is a gloc pointed at someone’s son
      Ireland is a teen-brained new-age lap dancer
      Ireland is veins, butterfat with broadband
      & self hatred.

      Ireland is an on-the-road machine

      It’s existentially frightened out there
      It’s got alloy wheels and tinted windows
      It can tear ye limb from limb, or stop
      & offer you a lift.

      Ireland is so far gone from Joyce’s Dublin
      But still full of the dead, and snow, upon
      Quickly snorted cocaine breaths we go.
      Ireland is a badly bred famine-stricken
      Flea-bitten jallopy of a piebald horse
      Galloping down O’Connell Street,

      Ireland is Cúchulainn with a hurley
      Gurning off his head on creatine, punching
      The face off the referee, before sticking
      Him in the boot with sectarianism
      And the Disappeared…


    • Ted says:

      The points, yours and AL Kennedy’s, are well made but there’s a lot hiding or hidden behind the logic of supporting the makers of work, who may indeed make that work anyway.

      The discourse around funding the arts has drifted from the premise of support for the making of work into justifications based on economic outcomes which are seldom challenged within or by the ‘arts’ community. It’s a diversionary, apologetic logic which on the one hand tacitly undermines the value of art (‘for art’s sake’) and, on the other, shelters a burgeoning adminstration that mediates between the making of art and the citizenry. So yes, ‘the arts matter’, and yes, we should ‘support the arts’, but we need to be very clear that guiding principles deliver culturally valuable outcomes.

    • a.commenter says:

      Your aunt sounds fantastic…a piece of performance art in her own right…people like her are a vanishing breed…I don’t know her but I miss the Ireland she represents….A treasure….treasure her…!

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