North is spurning fundamentalism – only to embrace philistinism
Opinion: It is not snobbery to reject the notion that art is a form of benign social engineering
Loyalists liked pumping iron and reading porn mags, while the Catholics pondered Foucault and were ever so cultural ... or so it was believed. Photograph: PA
In the end, the show did go on, and no lightning bolts from the sky were observed. Having slapped a ban on a spoof Bible play appearing in a local theatre, on the grounds it was blasphemous, a unionist-dominated council in Co Antrim reversed its decision and the performance went ahead.
The brief episode served to increase sales for the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s touring production of The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) , and to reinforce the perception Northern Ireland is overrun by wild-eyed fundamentalists with a deplorable appetite for censorship. Who’d have thought it?
In truth, such incidents are rare these days and ultraconservative Christians generally reserve most of their firepower for issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. The last big row over religiously motivated suppression in the North was almost 10 years ago, when Belfast City Council withheld funding from the Vacuum , an arts magazine, after it published twin issues on the respective themes of “God” and “Satan”.
Unionist councillors claimed it encouraged devil-worshipping, and demanded an apology from the editors before they would consider handing over any more cash. (They didn’t apologise, relinquished the funding, and kept on publishing regardless.)
Since then, religious hardliners have proved to be surprisingly unbaitable, leaving many artists secretly longing for the days when the merest flash of an exposed nipple, let alone a giggle at the Almighty’s expense, would generate a fair-sized protest. Such interventions guaranteed public attention, as well as conferring a delicious sense of notoriety and subversiveness. It isn’t the same now: you can – usually – do what you want.
Censors vs philistines
The healthy survival of the arts in the North is threatened not by censorship, but by a thoroughgoing philistinism among the political classes and beyond. At first glance, this ignorance, which ranges from bored indifference to proud rejection of all cultural pursuits – as though enjoying art was some kind of epicene self-indulgence, to be repressed at any cost – appears to be the special preserve of the Protestant community. That perception is reinforced by the folk mythology which says that loyalists imprisoned in Long Kesh pumped iron and browsed porn, while republicans tussled with Foucault and studied for their PhDs. It’s well-known one side owns culture while the other side just likes to march.
Cliched rubbish? Well, yes. philistinism has no boundaries; you can be a gormless gombeen under any flag.
Indeed, there is a developing sense, in certain unionist circles, that they are being denied something significant or, perhaps, valuable. To this end, William Humphrey, a DUP politician and senior Orangeman, has succeeded in initiating a Stormont inquiry into the alleged exclusion of Protestant working-class people from the arts, theatre in particular, as though the doors of Belfast theatres were barred to anyone who looked like they might be a loyalist.
The Prods are not the fundamental problem. What really sucks the life out of any artistic endeavour in the North is the near universal assumption, from the Minister for Culture down, that the arts have to be for something, such as improving our health or raising our self-esteem or, most inevitably of all, “bringing the two communities together”. This cloying notion – another, more insidious form of philistinism – instantly reduces engagement with art to a tick-box exercise in which value is determined not by the quality of an aesthetic experience but by whether it was fully accessible, comprehensible and relevant to the widest possible range of people.
Dopey public art
That becomes the overriding point of the endeavour. We have almost turned dumbing down into an art form on its own, albeit one that satisfies nobody. Spare us another dopey piece of public art that supposedly “epitomises the principles of democracy” or “showcases the new story of Northern Ireland”.
There’s nothing to be proud of in increased participation if what you’re asking people to participate in is simplified and sanitised and meaninglessness.
It’s not snobbery to resist the covert anti-intellectual agenda that can’t see art as anything more than a benign form of social engineering, or as a means to reduce your blood pressure, or as a way to put a smile on your face and make you forget your Troubles.
With religiously inspired censorship, the danger was clear. Not so with this vapid tide of populism which seeps in everywhere and poisons by stealth. Whisper it quietly, but maybe it’s better the devil you know.
Fionola Meredith is a freelance journalist