Cuts and a clueless power grab characterise this Government's approach to the arts

Sat, Jun 9, 2012, 01:00

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.

This is not to say that the story of cultural policy since 1945 is one of great progressive achievement. Progress has been slow, piecemeal and inadequate. Key cultural institutions, such as the National Library, National Museum, National Gallery and National Archives, have had to struggle for the most basic of resources, including storage and exhibition space. Big ideas, such as relocating the Abbey, have come and gone, generating acres of comment and analysis and no action. Many important artists, especially performers, still struggle to make a living.

But the worst that any government has done since the 1950s is nothing. The most inadequate governments have been simply neglectful. I can’t think of one of which it could fairly be said that it was actively destructive of the fragile fabric of our cultural institutions. Now, however, for the first time since the 1930s, we have a Government that is moving beyond benign neglect to active harm.

It is pretty bad in itself that the programme for government has virtually nothing to say about cultural policy. There’s a bland statement about encouraging touring “in order to protect the State’s investment in regional arts infrastructure” – not, one notes, in order to create transformative artistic experiences. And there’s an equally bland aspiration to encourage more private sponsorship. But this wouldn’t be the first time a government was so cluelessly tokenistic.

Nor is this even the first time that arts organisations have faced serious cutbacks in funding, though the drastic effects of cumulative cuts likely to be in the region of 30 per cent have yet to be realised. What is new is the combination of cluelessness, cutbacks and a mania for centralised control. The enormous financial pressure on the whole arts and culture sector makes it crucial that the State has at least two substitutes for money. One is an innovative vision. The other is a determination to strengthen the institutional supports that can help individuals and companies to make the best of hard times.

That the Government has no vision is obvious. (Its appointment of an Arts Council with a conscious paucity of artists is telling.) What’s staggering is that the energies it is willing to devote to cultural policy are going into undermining the integrity and independence of institutions such as Culture Ireland and the National Library.

The only point of all of this seems to be a bureaucratic power grab. The enigmatic statement in the programme for government that “responsibility for policy-making will revert to the Department, while agencies will be accountable for implementing policy, assessing outcomes and value for money” seems to suggest that the goal is to reverse 50 years of progress towards establishing cultural bodies as the property of the nation, not of the Government.

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