We need politicians who understand that Ireland’s culture is thriving despite rather than because of state intervention
It seems especially daft during a summer when every second news bulletin brings reports of fresh global calamity but late July is considered to be the start of the silly season by many politicians and their spin doctors, a period when nothing of importance happens. If the denizens of Leinster House aren’t at their posts, the thinking goes, all serious work has ceased.
From a political playbook perspective, therefore, last week must have looked like a good moment for Heather Humphreys, the arts minister, to launch Culture 2025, a document billed as the first national cultural policy in the state’s history.
Culture is the drum that Irish politicians bang when they want to sound thoughtful and visionary but have nothing particularly insightful to say. Successive governments have sought to portray themselves as the architects and guardians of a peerlessly supportive environment for art and artists; chirpy babble about Ireland’s pre-eminence as an artistic haven is a tried and trusted crowd-pleaser.
Ironically, the timing of last week’s grandiose arts-blather turned out to be an artless miscalculation which simply served to highlight the yawning chasm that exists between political rhetoric about culture, and culture as it is experienced in the real world.
Ireland in high summer is a country ablaze with cultural endeavour, from music festivals to writers’ weeks, sports tournaments to street fairs. Just about every village, town and hamlet boasts an arts or heritage fiesta of some description. Some of these jamborees are little more than tourist-trapping, booze-retailing operations but most are rooted in local history or real artistic accomplishment. The teeming crowds attracted by these events attests to the depth of public appetite for cultural fare of all kinds, yet to listen to Ms Humphreys you’d almost imagine that the general populace was a mob of philistines, uncivilised boors who need to be awoken to the joys of creativity by the high-minded ruling class.
“I want to put culture at the heart of Irish society,” the minister declared during media interviews in which she solemnly intoned a small number of rehearsed lines over and over with the reverence normally reserved for Nobel-prizewinning poetry. “I want a society that values culture because a society that values culture is recognised as a more tolerant, more open society.”
It’s most unlikely that Ms Humphreys genuinely sees herself as the herald of a new era of enlightenment, bringing cultural sustenance to the hitherto famished plebs. Before her appointment as arts minister in 2014, after all, she was not a noted contributor to popular debate about any facet of arts policy. Nevertheless, the tone of some of her comments in recent days illustrates the thinness of the line between being a patron of the arts and being a patroniser of the public.
Ms Humphreys is notorious for her reliance on jargon. True to form, some of what she was trying to say last week was difficult to make out above the static and crackle of buzzwords like “stakeholder” and “process pillars”. In truth, however, Humphreys was at her most disconcerting when her meaning was all too clear. Again and again, she made the remarkable assertion that Irish people have developed a newfound respect for their culture and heritage — thanks to the 1916 centenary commemorations.
Here again we see how governments will always seek to knit the story of state involvement in the arts into a self-serving narrative. Ms Humphreys and her departmental officials have been justly praised for the breadth and diversity of the official programme of remembrance events. But it’s stretching things to suggest that the 2016 ceremonies were a cultural game-changer. Commemoration fatigue kicked in long before the programme of events petered out and, in truth, some of the musical and theatrical presentations were more than a little hokey.
The hype and hard sell in which Ms Humphreys indulged last week might have been more palatable if the policy document under discussion was worthy of the title. To nobody’s surprise, however, Culture 2025 is blander and drippier than a cheap icepop. Awash with platitudes but bereft of fresh thinking, it reeks of the can-kicking procrastination that has already become the defining characteristic of the Fine Gael-Independent Alliance coalition.
The would-be big idea at the document’s heart is a pledge by the minister to hold an annual “cultural consultation day”, a ritual whinge-fest at which “members of the arts community” will be invited to speak their minds and vent their spleens.
Fair enough. Consultations of this kind are sometimes useful but you don’t have to be clairvoyant to predict that most of what we will hear from the professional culterati will be appeals for more state subvention. Ms Humphreys concedes that arts funding has been slashed during the austerity drive and promises a sizeable spending increase over coming years. However, there is nothing in Culture 2025 to suggest that she or her officials have learnt anything from the mistakes of the boom years — an era when a bloating of the subsidised arts sector resulted in little or no benefit for artists or audiences.
During the Celtic Tiger, empire building of the figurative and literal variety became the name of the game for many in the state-sponsored arts. Cultural centres mushroomed. Visual arts galleries and theatres opened in towns without the populations to sustain them. Much of this proliferation was funded by local authorities with many of the resulting facilities resembling vanity projects rather than viable creative hubs. Like the bubble economy from which they sprang, the buildings became steadily more ostentatious the longer the good times rolled. When the bubble burst they were quickly exposed as white elephants.
The boom also saw the emergence of the dangerously stupid notion that culture is about “branding”: a means of enhancing the PR image of a place or its governing regime. Art was routinely described as a “product” while artists became known as “culture providers”. Artistic ventures without immediate tourist appeal were dismissed as irrelevancies. Judging by the language deployed in recent days, little has changed on that front either.
As a glance through the summer calendar of events in any part of the country will demonstrate, Ireland is a nation with a thriving and varied culture. More often than not, however, artistic enterprise has prospered in spite of rather than because of state intervention. Until this is understood by our politicians it will always be silly season in the world of national arts policy.