What makes Aosdána worth fighting for?

Opinion: The members don’t own Aosdána’s ‘half a rood of rock’ – they are tenants on it and the landlords are the people

Fri, May 23, 2014, 01:01

I have lived in important places, times

When great events were decided, who owned

That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land

Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

- Patrick Kavanagh

Is Aosdána worth fighting for? Most people couldn’t care less. And why should they? After six years of wandering a vast grey Burren of austerity, they are wondering should they emigrate to a less stoney place – or could it be that the green shoots coming up through the cracks in the pavement are real? The last thing they are worried about is Aosdána’s “half a rood of rock”.

The combatants, of course, think otherwise. But the struggle obscures the true size of the field. And, number-wise, the sides are woefully mismatched. On the one hand it seems that hordes of critics, as in Kavanagh’s poem, are shouting, “Damn your souls!” On the other hand, only a single Aosdána member has stepped forward to roar her contempt for the enemy. Audible dissent greeted this intervention at Aosdána’s annual meeting, but, apart from that, the body – as a body – has limited itself to trying to correct errors of fact. Meanwhile, members have gone on with their work.

Is that not enough? I used to think it wasn’t. So, many years ago, I proposed that Aosdána should hold an extraordinary general meeting to consider what we might do – as a body – for the country. The meeting was duly held, in the basement of the National Gallery, and a variety of interesting ideas discussed, for instance that the writers in Aosdána should co-operate in translating the treasures of literature in Irish and publish them as widely as possible in uniform editions.

Day jobs That didn’t happen. The explanation was simple. Members had more to be doing with their time. Most of them had day jobs and wrote, made or composed in the dawn or at night. I recall one member, a friend of mine, who had in his wallet a dog-eared scrap of paper filled with sums calculating how his family could survive if he gave up his job to live on the Cnuas, then about £4,500. In the event fate made up his mind for him – by way of illness. But, with the help of the Cnuas, he succeeded and is still succeeding.

On the subject of success, I met an artist at the recent Aosdána annual meeting who, because the market has collapsed, is thinking of applying for the Cnuas for the first time. This is an artist with a career spanning more than 50 years. The more sarcastic critics might occasionally think of such individuals.

“It is unlikely that the really angry ones will change their minds, certainly not the columnist in one newspaper who described the body as “a bunch of lazy, unproductive benefit scroungers”. There might, though, be some chance of persuading the journalist in another newspaper who said, simply, “I hate nit”. The main reason for her hatred is that the membership doesn’t include anyone who has written for RTÉ’s Fair City. But it does. It even has someone who wrote Glenroe – me.

Comparisons But members now realise that seemingly reasonable comparisons, for instance that Aosdána costs €2.7 million a year and Fair City €11 million, are the opposite of persuasive. In the present climate the L’oréal defence – “Because we’re worth it” – only makes the weather worse.

The sensible thing to do instead is to accept that the storm has reasonable causes which should be dealt with reasonably. The members, after all, don’t own Aosdána’s “half a rood of rock”; they are tenants on it and the landlords are the people. The “honour” part of membership doesn’t cost anyone anything. Otherwise, members in receipt of the Cnuas get a five-year lease, renewable and means tested every year. And the Arts Council has made it clear that the amount of the subsidy can’t be guaranteed in 2015. Tough, but, to a person on the dole, not tough.

Before getting on to an agenda for reform, it’s worth saying something about what most annoys the public: Aosdána politics. There is a surprise here. Few observers have noticed the way the situation has evolved. Over the years not only have activists been disappointed by the watery response to their various campaigns but the cumulative effect has been distinctly anti-political. Sometimes this seems pusillanimous: when, for example, Margaretta D’Arcy refused to stand for a minute’s silence to mourn the murder of PSNI constable Ronan Kerr (on the grounds that “politics is not part of Aosdána’s work”), members changed the rules so that now we mark only the passing of Aosdána members. It was the wrong deed for the right reason. As a soapbox Aosdána is a matchbox.

Actually, this evolutionary process has been speeding up in other areas too. Members are growing increasingly impatient with how little of our one-day annual meeting is devoted to the arts. Blow us down, isn’t that what we’re here for?

But never mind being blown down, what is Aosdána going to do now that some citizens are saying it should be blown up entirely?

Those who would like to see Aosdána exploded are not few. This is because some of those in favour of merely reforming the body would actually reform it to within an inch of its life, and thus it would die, and the death would be an ugly spectacle.

It is suggested, for instance, that reform should involve a reduction in size. But the survival of the fittest and the removal of the weak and unworthy could not avoid being a tawdry as well as a bloody, business? Nor would the Disappeared disappear. Would they not be entitled to compete for Arts Council bursaries, and against less experienced colleagues?

Mollified Another way to get rid of Aosdána would be to let it wither on the vine. Keep slicing the Cnuas until no one could live on it. But, of course, the easiest of all ways would be to close it down not with a whimper but a bang. The people wouldn’t care much; those calling for blood would get a feed of it; and Aosdána supporters might be mollified by ring-fencing its budget for the Arts Council to disburse on bursaries . . . . A big display of fireworks but no money saved.

In the present political climate such an explosive and bloody scenario seems unlikely, not least because the Minister for the Arts is well-disposed towards Aosdána. The next government, though, could well see advantages in such a decisive and populist move, particularly if a new coalition included militantly anti-tax parties and a smattering of Rindalists.

Of what? The answer to that question requires the focus to shift to Europe in general and to Denmark in particular. In that highly cultured and tolerant country a movement named after its founder, Peter Rindal, a warehouse manager, sprang up in the mid-1960s. Rindalism’s target was government subsidies for “abstract and unintelligible” art, associated with the romantic anti-traditional anarchism and sexual bohemianism of the young. Tens of thousands of voters supported the movement and fundamentally altered Danish cultural policy – the Abbey Theatre, for example, would be interested to discover what happened to Denmark’s Royal Theatre.

Rindalism One result is germane to Aosdána: during the 1970s, because of Rindalism, only one Danish artist was awarded a lifelong grant. But thereafter the system was restored and now in a country with a population of 5.6 million (and an amazingly huge budget for other artists) lifelong provision is made for 275 individuals. That is, pro rata, more or less the same as Ireland. The make-up is somewhat different though: along with 93 visual artists, 73 writers, 35 composers, 18 film and theatre artists, and 14 architects, there are categories Aosdána doesn’t cater for: 26 craft artists, 12 “writers of cultural significance” and four translators.

A final difference: “the spouses of artists who have received lifelong grants can apply for widow’s grants.” Denmark being Denmark, I suspect “widow” includes the relicts of same-sex relationships. The difference is worth noting because in a way it symbolises both the utter defeat of Rindalism and the realignment of Danish and EU cultural policies. But triumphalism or contempt for what was, and is, a genuine and defensible Christian conservative tendency in Denmark and throughout Europe would be unwise, not least because Riland and Ireland could one day, and soon, be more than similar sounds.

But that’s a discussion for another day. Now members of Aosdána and those who think it worth preserving have to start coming up with genuine reforms. Infuriating mechanical issues, such as the election process, can and must be fixed. And there may be something to be said for the Danish method of selecting candidates with the help of expert panels of artists, but peer election is obviously more open than any star chamber procedure. We have nothing to hide. Let the public see everything we do. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

And while we may have solved, by evolutionary means, the political soapbox problem, the wider social question – should Aosdána as a body be active for the arts and if so, how – will not wait on evolution. But the manure that has been heaped on the “half a rood of rock” can be spread as fertiliser. That’s what pitchforks are for.

Brian Lynch is a member of Aosdána’s committee, the Toscaireacht. He is writing here in his personal capacity


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