Arts vs politics: We haven't got the balance right


AS BEFITS a man who values his poetic vocation as highly as his political ideals, President Michael D Higgins used his inauguration to deliver a speech which fused his two driving passions into a stirring vision of the Ireland he wishes to preside over.

It would be a nation where the “seedbed of creativity” not only enriched our culture but also society and even the economy. The new President praised Irish efforts in the realms of progressive idealism and artistic imagination, speaking of “our humanitarian, peace-building and human rights work”, in the same breath as those creative achievements which have “helped us cope with adversity, soothed the very pain which they describe so well, and opened the space for new possibilities”.

It was, in short, a clarion call that placed the arts at the very centre of Irish public life, an aspiration symbolised by his own election as head of State. But while the victory of such a culturally attuned figure provides an antidote to the fetishistic materialism of the boom, Higgins’s arrival in Áras an Uachtaráin also sends out a misleading signal.

Despite the assiduously cultivated notion that Ireland is a country where culture and politics enjoy a symbiotic relationship, our artistic and political worlds largely exist in a state of mutual misapprehension. Despite sharing a highly visible and growing interface over the past four decades, the two arenas have little in common. Much as CP Snow characterised humanities and science as “two cultures” incapable of understanding each other, so politics and the arts in Ireland remain separate, uncomprehending realms.

Given the historical precedents, this might sound odd. Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde, was a pioneering figure in the Celtic revival, the cultural renaissance that inspired many of leaders of the Easter Rising: as Higgins pointed out during the presidential debate on TG4, four of the seven signatories of the 1916 declaration were poets.

More recently, politics and the arts have seemed more intertwined than ever. Since the 1960s, Ireland has become nearly as famous for its pioneering measures in nurturing artists as for its imaginative output. And only last month, at the Global Irish Economic Forum in Farmleigh, politicians and artists were asserting the importance of culture in regenerating the country.

But the relationship between politicians and artists is ambivalent at best. Trumpeting artistic achievements may be a de rigueurexercise for Irish politicians, but it is a recent development, driven as much by self-interest as any cultural awareness.

“Over the past 30 years or so, politicians have co-opted the language, metaphors and expression of the arts as they seek authentication for themselves,” says Prof Roy Foster, biographer of WB Yeats and author of the 2007 study of modern Ireland, Luck and The Irish.

The exemplar of this tendency was Charles Haughey, who buffed his image as the would-be chieftain of Ireland by vigorously promoting the arts while in power. He abolished artists’ tax during his tenure as finance minister in the 1960s. As taoiseach he set up Aosdána, the remunerative artistic academy, in 1981. That these generous initiatives were taken by the most mendacious and divisive figure in modern Irish history underlines the ambiguity that runs between the two arenas. State patronage of the arts lay in politicians seeking validation, not because it was seen as a vital part of Irish life.

Even now, with culture apparently assuming a more prominent position in the public realm, it occupies an uncomfortable space.

Those writers, musicians and filmmakers who stress the importance of the arts at a time of national crisis see their role as inspirational: as Neil Jordan commented during the first Farmleigh summit in 2009, the culture industry had not failed the Irish people in the manner of other institutions.

BUT THE NEWFOUND enthusiasm of the political class (not to mention business tycoons such as Dermot Desmond) for all things artistic owes less to airy notions of “cultural capital”. Rather, the arts are viewed as a bedrock on which “creative industries” can grow and thrive, helping revive the economy. It is a reductive notion which some in the cultural sector are nonetheless happy to play along with.

This week’s Arts Council report on the economic impact of the arts estimated the so-called creative industries employed 78,000 people in 2010: however these cultural enterprises included the software and advertising industries and that 29,000 of the jobs were indirect. In pushing such a line, the Arts Council may be protecting its bailiwick, but at the expense of other, more intangible aesthetic concerns.

“The way that art is seen as this product that we can carry on making, regardless of multinational investment or financial crisis, gets away from the idea of art as enabling a voice from the counter-culture,” says Foster.

Sure enough, while Irish artistic accomplishments may be valued for helping restore the country’s battered image on the international stage – as shown by Imagine Ireland, the year-long programme of events in New York funded by State body Culture Ireland – our writers, playwrights, artists and musicians are less evident in everyday political discourse. Economists have largely usurped artists as the nation’s iconoclastic naysayers of choice.

Meanwhile, Irish arts ministers have generally treated the portfolio with perfunctory efficiency, as did John O’Donoghue, or with thinly concealed disdain, as in the case of Mary Hanafin, who made clear that tourism, rather than culture, was her priority. When the interests of the political and artistic worlds collide, the latter usually loses out.

In truth, it was always thus. For most of independent Ireland’s existence, artists were viewed by the State as disruptive influences, to be reprimanded or censored rigorously. Naturally enough, this led to a jaundiced view of the body politic being held by writers from Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan to John McGahern, in the process providing a counterfoil to the official myths of the era.

This scepticism was only reinforced by the experience of those artists who attempted to engage with the political class. Having imagined a free Ireland as the rejuvenated Cathleen Ní Houlihan, WB Yeats was appalled at the reality that followed, by turns violent and sullenly repressive. Yet Yeats continued to dally in politics, with dubious results. Disillusioned by his experience as senator in the increasingly Catholic-dominated Irish Free State, he flirted with the Blueshirts. The poet even met Gen Eoin O’Duffy – the quasi-fascist movement’s leader – peppering their discussion with arcane references to “historical dialectic”, to the presumable bafflement of the conservative Catholic demagogue.

If artists had little enthusiasm for engaging with the stagnation of de Valera’s Ireland and the tainted stroke politics that arose in the wake of Haughey’s generation of “men in mohair suits”, it was a different situation north of the Border. The febrile atmosphere of the civil rights era and subsequent catastrophe of the Troubles inspired an outpouring of creativity on the subject from writers and artists. Amid the tribalism of the conflict, writers and musicians were seen as figures who could straddle the divide, with writers and artists being given a role in the public discourse, a position unimagined by their peers in the Republic.

But encounters between the political and the aesthetic in the North were, if anything, even more fraught with misunderstanding and opportunism. The agonised nuances of artists were lost amid the ancient loyalties that drove the carnage in the wider landscape. Either that, or they were appropriated by politicians seeking worthy platitudes.

“Hope and history rhyme”, the much quoted-line from The Cure At Troyby Seamus Heaney (father of the present writer, for the record), may have become a fixture in speeches on the Northern situation, but it was the hard bargaining of the Good Friday agreement that brought peace.

ALL IN ALL, IT IS unsurprising that the world of art, with its qualities of reflectiveness, doubt and expression, should suffer when it intersects with the political arena, where compromise and ruthlessness go hand-in-hand. Art may have provided a narrative veneer for public events, and may be valued enough by politicians to warrant lip service and even some funding, but it generally plays second fiddle to the priorities of the ballot box.

That said, even token political gestures are better than none. “In England, you get the odd politician quoting Kipling,” says Foster, “but literature or the arts are not part of the lingua francain the same way as Ireland.”

And sometimes, a judiciously chosen line of poetry can convey a political ethos more effectively than any manifesto: Mary Robinson signalled a new, more inclusive kind of presidency by quoting Yeats in her inaugural speech: “Come dance with me in Ireland.”

Even so, Higgins’s ability to combine artistic and political integrity while winning the highest office in the land looks like a benign anomaly. Even in this case, ambiguities abound. For all his championing of the underprivileged at home and abroad, Higgins was ultimately seen as a cultural man by his political peers: he was, after all, appointed as the country’s first arts minister rather than being given a brief such as foreign affairs or social welfare. Similarly, he is cherished in the creative community for building up a cultural infrastructure and consolidating support for the arts as a necessary role of government, rather than the object of arbitrary munificence, a la Haughey.

Higgins’s success has come from an ability to operate in both worlds without quite belonging to either. It is tempting to paint his presidency as an inspirational symbol of an Ireland where arts and politics enjoy equal prestige and power: the reality, alas, is not so simple.