Where politicians and art should meet
Opinion: Every politician, North and South should see the Art of the Troubles exhibition
‘As you enter the exhibition rooms at the Ulster Museum: a startling and deeply disturbing bronze sculpture of a woman in mid-flight, FE McWilliam’s Woman in Bomb Blast (1974), a timeless memorial to the victims of the 1972 IRA bombing of the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast. Image: © Estate of FE McWilliam/ Collection Ulster Museum
When did you last see a politician in an art gallery or at a poetry reading or a dance show or a play? With the exception of President Higgins and a handful of others, and celebrity events excluded, such a sighting is a rare thing indeed and this absence may explain a good deal about official attitudes towards art and culture in Ireland.
Plays, art exhibitions, dance and literary readings are for others and busy politicians don’t have time to expend on what they seem to regard as entertainment and diversion from the serious business of running state or county or European parish. It appears that politics and art are seen as entirely separate zones of life and interest and there’s little prospect of rewriting the musical to sing ‘The Minister and the artist should be friends’ – or even interested acquaintances.
This is a loss to both sides: painter, poet and dancer on the one aisle, TD, Councillor and MEP on the other.
The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said that all poetry and politics have in common is the letter P. I know what he meant but I think there can be a shared landscape of mutual understanding and respect between politicians and poets, politicians and artists in general. They don’t have to be best friends; they can maintain a healthy and respectful distance from each other but an open and honest exchange between the two aisles could be good for everyone. And it could make for a richer centre-stage.
After a recent visit to the Art of the Troubles exhibition at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, I came away thinking “every politician, North and South should see this” and then I realised what a preposterous notion this was. But why should it be so far-fetched to hope that our public representatives would take the time to see what artists have shaped out of the decades of war and suffering in our country? Is it a fear of the sometimes abstract language of visual art? It is a fear that they might see something to challenge their certainties? Or is it that many (even most) politicians secretly believe that art is irrelevant to the business of civic society and how we shape the future out of the debris of the recent past.
It has taken over four decades for a substantial collection of visual art relating to the “Troubles” to go on show anywhere in Ireland. A measure of how much things have changed for the better in Northern Ireland is the fact that the art is on show in the Ulster Museum, the same institution that failed to show some of the same work in 1978 because attendants refused to handle work they regarded as pro-Republican. A measure of how tentative the progress is: there is no programme or book or catalogue to accompany the exhibition, there was no official opening for it and many of the artists had no say in what work would be shown or in what context.
The artwork (painting, sculpture, conceptual art, film and photography) is drawn from the extensive collection at Wolverhampton art gallery and recent donations to the Ulster Museum from the art collection of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Some of the images from the exhibition sear into the mind and memory: a rainbow on a blackened door, a burnt-out car on the Border, a smiling Bobby Sands picked out in accordion keys, a faintly disturbing power-triptych of Ian Paisley Senior, Sammy Wilson and Peter Robinson, four meticulously drawn butchers’ knives, a series of dustbin lids transformed. And as you enter the exhibition rooms at the Ulster Museum: a startling and deeply disturbing bronze sculpture of a woman in mid-flight, FE McWilliam’s Woman in a Bomb Blast, a timeless memorial to the victims of the 1972 IRA bombing of the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast.
Thousands of people have gone to see the exhibition and I hope that at least some of the North’s politicians have taken the time to darken the doors of the museum to see what artists including Dermot Seymour, Rita Duffy, Jack Packenhan, Willie Doherty and Anthony Haughey have shaped from the bitter years and shattered moments of war in our and their country.
Art and artists have a lot to say and their creative disturbances of the fixed landscapes of mind, land and loyalty may help us all to look beyond the obvious, to question and perhaps re-shape our own assumptions and opinions. The work at the Ulster Museum and the ongoing work of many artists – North and South – are as relevant to the themes of history, blighted hope and the tentative shape of the future as many of the official events being planned for the 1916 centenary celebrations.
The words artist and politician have three letters in common but the gap between the two worlds sometimes seems immeasurable.
Art of the Troubles runs at the Ulster Museum in Belfast until September 7th.
Noel Whelan is on leave