The idea that art and culture are about rebranding is an insult to artists
Opinion: Cultural vibrancy is the opposite of bland positivity
In Limerick City of Culture: the Movie, Pat Cox is played by Oliver Reed, Michael Noonan by Oliver Hardy, Jimmy Deenihan by Ardal O’Hanlon and Conn Murray, the Limerick city and county manager, by Peter Lorre. They wear togas and golden sandals and lounge on Roman couches. Slaves are fanning them with palm leaves and feeding them peeled grapes but their faces are curdled with ennui. They snap their fingers and shout: “Bring on the dancing girls!” This is how they think art works.
The debacle of Limerick City of Culture tells us a lot of things about Irish politics – things we already know about patronage, bad governance and the inevitable costs of running a country as a series of personal fiefdoms. But it also exposes a more fundamental problem: an inability to think. It bears out a rule of thumb: in Ireland, every public project that is not rigorously thought through will revert to the default habits of machine politics. The City of Culture project has collapsed because no one thought about it properly and no one showed the slightest respect for art and artists.
There are three underlying concepts at work here. The first is rebranding: the idea that “culture” is a way to create a positive image for a place. As Jimmy Deenihan has put it, “It is about buy-in. Limerick must seize this opportunity to brand itself in a positive way, capitalising on its rich culture.” Being City of Culture “will help to shape, brand and promote a new Limerick city”. This is deeply misconceived: no one who goes to an arts event has the slightest interest in taking part in a positive branding exercise. Promotion is what PR companies do. Artists question, transform, challenge, disturb, mock, make strange. A thriving artistic scene enhances a place mostly by enriching its spiritual and intellectual life. The only “brand” it can create is one of vibrancy. But real cultural vibrancy is the opposite of bland positivity.
The second concept at work is “city”. The Republic has six cities: Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and (for ceremonial purposes) Kilkenny. Three of these – Dublin, Galway and Kilkenny – are very well served for annual festivals and jamborees. Cork, Limerick and Waterford have some excellent existing annual events but could certainly do with some cash to make a bigger international splash. But is this really what this project is about – rotating a biennial fund around three cities? What about Tallaght or Sligo or Clonmel? If there is to be such a fund, it would be much better defined as “county of culture” or “place of culture”. Taking the “city of culture” rubric off the shelf without reference to actual Irish conditions shows the lack of clear thought.