The idea that art and culture are about rebranding is an insult to artists

Opinion: Cultural vibrancy is the opposite of bland positivity

In Limerick City of Culture: the Movie, Pat Cox is played by Oliver Reed, Michael Noonan by Oliver Hardy, Jimmy Deenihan by Ardal O'Hanlon and Conn Murray, the Limerick city and county manager, by Peter Lorre. They wear togas and golden sandals and lounge on Roman couches. Slaves are fanning them with palm leaves and feeding them peeled grapes but their faces are curdled with ennui. They snap their fingers and shout: "Bring on the dancing girls!" This is how they think art works.

The debacle of Limerick City of Culture tells us a lot of things about Irish politics – things we already know about patronage, bad governance and the inevitable costs of running a country as a series of personal fiefdoms. But it also exposes a more fundamental problem: an inability to think. It bears out a rule of thumb: in Ireland, every public project that is not rigorously thought through will revert to the default habits of machine politics. The City of Culture project has collapsed because no one thought about it properly and no one showed the slightest respect for art and artists.

There are three underlying concepts at work here. The first is rebranding: the idea that "culture" is a way to create a positive image for a place. As Jimmy Deenihan has put it, "It is about buy-in. Limerick must seize this opportunity to brand itself in a positive way, capitalising on its rich culture." Being City of Culture "will help to shape, brand and promote a new Limerick city". This is deeply misconceived: no one who goes to an arts event has the slightest interest in taking part in a positive branding exercise. Promotion is what PR companies do. Artists question, transform, challenge, disturb, mock, make strange. A thriving artistic scene enhances a place mostly by enriching its spiritual and intellectual life. The only "brand" it can create is one of vibrancy. But real cultural vibrancy is the opposite of bland positivity.

The second concept at work is “city”. The Republic has six cities: Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and (for ceremonial purposes) Kilkenny. Three of these – Dublin, Galway and Kilkenny – are very well served for annual festivals and jamborees. Cork, Limerick and Waterford have some excellent existing annual events but could certainly do with some cash to make a bigger international splash. But is this really what this project is about – rotating a biennial fund around three cities? What about Tallaght or Sligo or Clonmel? If there is to be such a fund, it would be much better defined as “county of culture” or “place of culture”. Taking the “city of culture” rubric off the shelf without reference to actual Irish conditions shows the lack of clear thought.


And then there’s “culture”. In this context it means largely what artists and artistic organisations do. Artists and arts companies are very serious people. Those who function at a high enough level to be worth bothering with are not just “creative” in some vaguely mystical way. They work extraordinarily hard. They think deeply about what they’re doing. They plan ahead. Ask any serious theatre or film producer in Ireland what they’re doing in 2015 and 2016 and they’ll have a pretty good idea. Those who survive in the arts in Ireland are tough, intelligent, highly organised and relentlessly entrepreneurial. If you want to “capitalise” on their work, you might start by understanding them. If you want to understand them, you might begin by talking to them.

Casually insulting
The City of Culture process, on the other hand, has been casually insulting to artists. The 10-person board has just one professional artist – and, incidentally, just one woman – on it. I can think offhand of a long list of really interesting artists who are either from Limerick or have worked in the city – Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Mary Nunan, Mel Mercier, Michael Curtin, Clairr O'Connor, Gerard Stembridge, Darren Shan, Gabriel Rosenstock, John Liddy, Marian Keyes, Mary Coll, Amanda Coogan and many more. If some time had been spent talking to them, they might have pointed out that they do not wish to be called (as the official City of Culture "vision" calls artists) "cultural providers" who "export Limerick Cultural Product" as if it were bacon. They might also have pointed out that coming up with a budget in October for an artistic programme starting in January is as respectful of what they do as roaring "bring on the dancing girls!"

If there is a “blessing in disguise” – to quote Pat Cox – from this disaster, it is that we now have a perfect warning of what happens when politicians and bureaucrats try to use the arts without respecting them. Irish artists are much better at doing their jobs than Irish politicians and administrators are at doing theirs. If they spent more time with books, music and performances, politicians might learn something about rigorous thinking.