On July 8th, street artist Maser and website thehunrealissues.com placed a mural on the wall of the Project Arts Centre in Dublin's Temple Bar. The artwork featured a red heart on a blue background with "Repeal the 8th" written in its centre. It was a bold, bright work that lit up East Essex Street. It took fire on social media as news of its presence began to spread.
The response to the work was mixed. Many were thrilled that an artist of Maser’s renown was making such a statement. Others felt it inappropriate for an arts organisation, independent but in receipt of state funding, to be presenting such an overtly politicised artwork.
Since its founding 50 years ago, Project has always pushed artists to take risks and encouraged them to say the unsayable through a variety of artforms, to an audience that is open to challenge and debate. To argue that an artwork can or should not be political is anathema to me.
All art is, in some way or other, indelibly political because it relates to the workings of the society from which it emerges. Art can represent many things, and to suggest that it should not reflect current social issues or human rights is to concede to censorship.
From presenting performances by the Gay Sweatshop in 1976 to Seamus Nolan’s Corrib Gas Project exhibition in 2009, Project has always supported artists, perhaps controversially, who make work that addresses undermined or undervalued ideas and artistic messages that would otherwise go unheard, unimagined or unseen.
Period of uncertainty
I joined Project as artistic director in October 2011, during a time of great uncertainty for artists and cultural organisations. The financial crisis has had a deep impact on the cultural sector, and we are only beginning to realise the extent of its effects in the cold light of post-recession Ireland.
A healthy tension has always existed between the State and its artists, who are highly dependent on the State for funding and support but who also have a long history of challenging the State on the issues of the time.
The arm’s-length principle enshrined in the Arts Act (2003) establishes the conditions whereby artists and cultural organisations have the artistic and curatorial independence to create and programme work that challenges ideas and creates debate. For artists to make work that tests the limits of this principle is essential in a democratic society. The notion that any cultural organisation must always present a balanced viewpoint to any argument or issue goes against the very fibre of its existence.
Fear is not a reason to censor or silence an artist’s vision. Of all the responses to Maser’s work on the wall of Project Arts Centre, what surprises me most is that some citizens believe art should or can only be neutral – that an arts organisation should not present work that challenges the status quo.
In Project's founding documents, director Jim Fitzgerald says that "to wait for the revolution is merely to postpone it. I believe that we, the artists, must take action on our isolated front."
It is vital for art and artists to be at the centre of our nation’s great debates – as, indeed, they always have been. For a cultural organisation to be censored by a small minority creates a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression.
What the past three weeks have driven home to me is that Project Arts Centre in the coming years will continue to make possible the appearance and visibility of difference, and to accept the discomfort of unfamiliarity that comes with that. We must present politically challenging artworks, bring new bodies and new communities to our stages and contribute to the discussion around important social and political debates.
In a time of great global turmoil, art and artists need to have a safe space where their ideas and vision are cherished, and where bravery defines the work they create and the audiences they create it for.
I am not a political person by nature. But seeing how art has the power to influence and propel public debate has encouraged me to find ways to use my role to protect a space where artists can create work that is political in nature; that challenges the existing state of affairs; and that goes beyond the idea that art is, or should only ever be, “entertainment”.
To me, the power of Maser’s work is not the message it contains, but the legacy it has created. The imprint of the work on the building remains in many people’s minds (and on their social media), and is almost as powerful as the work itself.
Cian O’Brien is artistic director of Project Arts Centre