Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

What does government really think of arts and culture?

The attempt to turn a Donegal businessman into a senator inadvertently reveals the government’s real views when it comes to arts and culture

Beleagured Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys

Mon, Sep 29, 2014, 10:10


There are many things we have learned from the ham-fisted attempt to turn Kilcar convenience store and filling station owner John McNulty into a member of Seanad Eireann. We have learned that acknowledgement of a political stroke is something which brings government and opposition together. We have seen that incapable government ministers are often sent out to bat with a script drawn from the pages of Wikipedia. We have heard that membership of a body charged with managing and supervising a national institution is a thing to be handed out to friends and favourites regardless of competence or interest.

Most of all, we have final and conclusive proof that this government don’t really give a damn about the arts or culture. The use of board membership of the Irish Museum of Modern Art to gild the lily for a failed local election candidate seeking higher office was clumsy, inept and incompetent. It was a stroke with IMMA as the “ah sure, it will do” part of the machination. Leaving the ugliness of the manoevre aside from a moment, bringing the IMMA board into the picture showed just how the government view arts and culture and all those involved with those sectors: it’s just window-dressing.

You bring out the arts and culture lads and lasses when you want a bit of colour – if the government could get away with using Irish Models, they probably would instead because there would be less chance of blowback – and you just pay complete lip service to what you think about the arts. No doubt many politicians secretly think of the arts as a place which is full of dossers and stoners avoiding a proper day’s work.

It raises a couple of interesting questions and points. Let’s start with the sector itself. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had conversations with artists and cultural practitioners giving out yards about the themes above. Working at the coalface, they can clearly see the lack of interest and carelessness with which this government treats them. Yet they put up with it because they know that any opposition or even the mildest form of criticism will make them out as outspoken mavericks. Come grant-handing-out time, the outspoken mavericks are usually unrewarded for some reason.

Because arts funding is getting sliced and diced every single time and it has become a real case of more with less, there can be a myriad of reasons thrown out about why they’re not getting funding. But the nagging belief that they’ve been singled out because they chose to raise their head above the parapet and protest is allowed to persist. It ensures that artists become dependant on a system which actually has no respect for them – and worse, the artists fully know this.

It’s an abusive relationship, keeping them in their place. Artists won’t come out and criticise what’s going on because they fear getting singled out when it comes to handing out the grants, the awards and the bursaries. We saw it last year with the Music Network brouhaha and we see it every time the arts becomes a news story like this. The people who rarely speak out publicly are the artists who benefit most from the system as it currently stands.

Then, there’s the woman in charge of it all. While Heather Humphreys is not alone in gaining a ministerial gig to which she appears to be unsuited and unqualified (oh, for a round of short, sharp, succint ministerial confirmation meetings in the future where an independent scrutineer could interrogate would-be ministers about their suitability or otherwise for high office), her uncomfortable behaviour dealing with her brief last week was not just laughable, but downright insulting to the sector she is supposed to represent. But this should be no surprise – sure, the news section on her own website doesn’t contain an iota of information about her ministerial office. That her knowledge of the ins and outs of IMMA came from a script which she held on to for dear life rather than any first-hand personal experience was hugely telling. We may know that would-be modern art master McNulty never bothered his hoop to visit IMMA during his 13 days on the board, but what about the minister? What has been her practical engagement with IMMA and other cultural bodies since her appointment? What is her actual personal interest in the sector like?

The arts’ department is viewed as an easy number. You get your ministerial seal from the president, you get in the posh car for the jaunt to the office and you have senior civil servants happy to tell you what to do so you go along with them. It’s a department for photo ops and ribbon cutting, a safe harbour as you learn how to read your script, pronounce big words and practise your lovely smile. It doesn’t have to be like this, but when was the last time an arts minister went in with a mind of their own, refused to listen to what their senior civil servants wanted and came up with a strategy for the sector beyond the usual soft words and need for the industry to produce bed nights and tourism?

The metrics around the arts always produce a problem for a government: how the hell do you gauge the value of all this money you’re spending on artists and their fecking easels? Every other department has a clearly defined way of quantifying return on investment to use that ugly term, but how do you put a value on a piece of art produced by a grant-aided artist? Art is hugely subjective so you try to press tangiables into measuring intangiables. Hence, the bed nights’ metric as a way of working out how spending on arts can be measured. If you’re getting funding, you should be bringing in people who spend money. This may be grand to a certain degree if you’re running an arts festival or event, but the sector is not all arts festivals and events. Not all artists can or will or are able to produce something which will produce bed nights – and they should be under no pressure whatsoever to do so.

Instead, the arts are about producing a different kind of value, which makes the timing of all of this worth considering. We’re in the middle of a decade of centenaries and 2016 and all of that is on the way down the tracks. The government will want the artists, that nebulous mob of men and women, to reflect on all of this and what it means for Ireland in 2016 (you can finish the thought process here yourself with bon mots and cliches of your own choosing), but they’re probably worried about what some of the artists will actually produce. The Limerick City of Culture mess when then chief bottlewasher Patricia Ryan sought to get young Moyross rappers Nathan Keane and Calvin McNamara seeking to kick the truth to the Limerick youth to change their lyrics was an example of this.

Sure, there will be pageants and parades and artistic commemorations and the rest of those yokes, but there may also be art produced which doesn’t necessarily fit within the confines of that conversation and can’t be bartered for tourism euros. These works will be just as valuable but you can be sure those in charge of the pursestrings will not be as sure about that or what that art tells us about ourselves.

All of which leads us back to the bigger picture. Both those elected to office and those faceless members of the permanent establishment who run the various departments and administrations don’t really know or trust what the arts are about. They see the arts either as a soft news story (cue photo of performers acting the eejit at some funded festival or other) or as the material for a cute hoor stroke (cue the current fandango with our friend from Kilcar). They do not see the arts as what they really are.

At this point, we’d like to introduce John Tusa to bring the conversation to a close. He’s a man with a long and distinguished career in the arts and media, including stints running the Barbican Centre in London and the BBC World Service. There’s a lovely couple of lines in his recent book Pain In the Arts where he talks about why the arts are worth fighting for. You wonder what all the main protaganists in the McNulty story, from the minister to the taoiseach to the would-be senator himself, make of lines like these.

“The arts matter because they are universal; because they are non-material; because they deal with daily experience in a transforming way; because they question the way we look at the world; because they offer different explanations of that world; because they link us to our past and open the door to the future; because they work beyond and outside routine categories; because they take us out of ourselves; because they make order out of disorder and stir up the stagnant; because they offer a shared experience rather than an isolated one; because they encourage the imagination, and attempt the pointless; because they offer beauty and confront us with the fact of ugliness; because they suggest explanations but no solutions; because they prevent a vision of integration rather than disintegration; because they force us to think about the difference between the good and the bad, the false and the true.

“The arts matter because they embrace, express and define the soul of a civilisation. A nation without arts would be a nation that had stopped talking to itself, stopped dreaming, and had lost interest in the past and lacked curiosity about the future.”