Cuts and a clueless power grab characterise this Government's approach to the arts
CULTURE SHOCK:IT IS TEMPTING to say that the current Government is the most philistine in the history of the State. But that would be a wild exaggeration. It is merely the most philistine since the end of the second World War. For 50 years it could be said that, even when official cultural policy was neglectful, it was not actively hostile. This claim would be hard to make now.
Roughly speaking, for the first 25 years of the State’s existence, cultural policy was dominated by prurience and paranoia. The young State did make some positive moves, such as making the Abbey the first subsidised theatre in the English-speaking world. But cultural policy was dominated by two major themes. One was a very badly executed attempt to revive Irish as the main vernacular language – a policy that arguably did more harm than good. The other was the idea, inherited from turn-of-the-century cultural nationalists, that there was an authentic (rural and traditional) Irish culture that needed to be protected from foreignness and filth (which amounted, pretty much, to the same thing). The idea that free artistic expression might be a value in itself, that the State’s existence might be validated by its vibrant modern culture, had little purchase on official policy.
There was little to choose in this regard between Cumann na nGaedhael, which dominated in the 1920s, and Fianna Fáil, which replaced it as the governing party in the 1930s. Both were led by men with no real interest in the arts: William Cosgrave admitted in 1924 that he had never been to the Abbey; Éamon de Valera went to the national theatre for the first time when he was in his 50s, to see a play about St Francis of Assisi.
Each has his signature piece of culturally destructive legislation. Cumann na nGaedhael’s was the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929, a response to the report of the official Committee on Evil Literature. (How apt that one of the books banned under the legislation was George Orwell’s 1984.) George Bernard Shaw remarked that, with this legislation, Ireland “has apparently decided not to be a cultured country”. (The Free State government had already, as one of its first acts, introduced censorship of films, but the banning of almost every serious Irish author was even more destructive.)
Fianna Fáil’s great act of cultural vandalism was the Public Dance Halls Act of 1935, which attacked traditional music and dance by placing dances under the control of the courts, the police and, in effect, the clergy.
Since the end of the second World War, however, the broad tendency of official cultural policy has been supportive. The Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra was allowed to expand during and immediately after the war years.
A new Censorship of Publications Act in 1946 was slightly more liberal, in that it established an appeals process under which some serious works (Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, for example) were unbanned. The interparty government of 1948 established the cultural-relations committee of the department of external affairs. More significantly, it established the Arts Council in 1951. It was just as significant that Seán O Faoláin, the most trenchant critic of previous State cultural policy, was appointed as its director in 1956 – making a statement about the council’s independence from government.