Culture is not an extra, an add-on

Culture is not an extra, an add-on

Alice Maher, Artist

The reason we are here today, and have been all week, discussing ideas, is because of an artist, Patrick MacGill. MacGill was a poet of the labouring classes, the ‘navvy poet’, forced to go abroad to make a living and finding little recognition as an artist in his own country until now. It is because of his work as an artist in the past, that we are gathered here in the present, to talk about the future. And if that is not an indication of the power of art I don’t know what is. Seventy speakers have gathered at this point in history to debate and exchange ideas about our society, three of them are artists and I am one of the three. So I come on this, the last day of the summer school to make the case for the arts as an intrinsic part of the cloth of our society, the weft and weave of which will wear very thin if close attention is not paid to its immediate demise and future condition.

No progress without creative thinking
Culture and meaning change and morph with time. What meant one thing yesterday may be very different today. And we must move with those changes. We can only speculate on what Yeats actually meant when he used the words, a terrible beauty. ‘Beauty’ is an ever-changing concept. ‘Terrible’, as a word, has moved from awe inspiring to ‘awful’. ‘Awesome’ has moved from inspiring to ‘cool’, ‘Cool’ has moved to ‘Hot’. And so we must look to, and tune in to, the changing metamorphosing body that is Language and Culture. You have to ditch this idea that Art is sitting down painting …Art is now a field of enquiry and it seeps into and overlaps with every other field of endeavour you can think of, into science, into education, into justice, technology, geopolitics, trade and tourism, in equality and diversity. Every government department and every corner of endeavour in Ireland gets a cultural input because we are all shaped by ideas, ideas that are driven by creative thinking which is made visible through the arts. That is how we have ended up here at the MacGill Summer School. A scientist cannot come up with a theory if the imagination is not allowed free reign. Justice cannot formulate policy if it cannot think itself into the space of the ‘other’. How can we know how women feel if we do not hear their voices, as we have heard so clearly this past year? Social change comes about through what is made manifest in Culture. The films, the plays, the books, the philosophy, the documentaries, the gatherings, that open our eyes and make us question what we see in front of us – questioning – the sign of a healthy open democracy. I am in agreement with our president that it is a mistake to corral education into certain areas solely in search of worker bees for an economy rather than for a society. The wheels of that economy may turn for a short while on the backs of those workers, but where will we find the creative thinking to plan and map a future economy, a future society? The STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are absolutely vital, yes they are, but they cannot progress without creative thinking, the big A that is missing in that acronym, the scarlet letter of Art which will give children the tool for a creative life in ALL areas. If you put the A into stem we get the STEAM to drive society, to heat it up and invigorate, detoxify and spark it….giving people the tools with which to enrich their present lives and see the Bigger Picture of a whole society moving forward. Because it is the creative thinkers of society that are antennae, the scout bees of the hive, all the time with the eye on the future, who scope out new ways and paths, always fixed on what’s out there, what’s coming down the tracks, lightening rods for energy and discovery.

The power of ideas
I was at a lecture last week where Luke Gibbons referred to the 1916 rebels as the ‘Avant Garde’ because, he said, they were well aware that they would die but they knew that their ideas and aspirations would live on in a future time, and so they have. So they were tapping into the future, into the now. That is the power of ideas, that is what brings us all together here. And that is what artists do, they tap into the future. Eileen Gray, lauded now and claimed as a great Irish artist in the 21st century, what was she doing with her chrome and her glass and her minimal architecture back in the Paris of the 1920’s…visualising the future that’s what, tapping into the now. Sometimes we do not recognise the future because the art is challenging, or wild, or contrary. I won’t even mention Joyce and Beckett and Edna O’Brien. Those artists too were projecting into the future, going ahead of the crowd, scoping out new languages and art forms.

So I am here today to plead that THIS generation will please be the one that DOES recognise the potential of art and creativity, the generation that DOES make space and time available to do the tapping of the future, the generation that DOES respect its artists and recognise their potential, and enable them to stay in this country to make their contribution, which they are so willing and so able to do.

Do you think the Broighter Collar – that golden torc from the 1st century BC – was made in the time, the weeks and months that it actually took to fashion the precious gold into a necklace of such exquisite workmanship that it is still hard to believe it was made by human beings? a few months, a few years to make? No, the beautiful priceless incomparable objects – our heritage – that you can view in our national museum for free and the Broighter collar took HUNDREDS of years to make. The thought processes, the European influences, the experimentation, the perfecting of technique, the belief system, the patronage, all had to come together over many generations to meet at a point of such magnificence. Culture takes time, ladies and gentlemen, real culture doesn’t grow on trees. It takes centuries of nourishment, investment, and commitment from a whole society, a belief in itself, a confidence in its artists, a plan.

We were all told by the big business heads at Farmleigh that Culture IS Ireland; Ireland is Culture, it is even ‘Brand Ireland’. However, it is all very well to use a brand as a survival tactic in times of emergency but what about future Ireland? Innovation doesn’t just come solely from the profit motive, the driver of innovation is the kind of wild risk taking that is the calling card of all great art, the ‘dare to dream’ gene, the ‘what if’ question?

We can’t survive on Brand Ireland from the past – we have to create
If we don’t recognise culture as an ever changing, transforming entity which is going to shape our future as a nation and as individuals, will there be any culture in that future? If we don’t do something to recognise the work of artists in the now and help them to fuel and seed bed the ground for a great flowering culture going forward in time, the future looks very bleak. It is very good to invest in buildings and art centres yes, but there will be no art to go into them if societal attention and government money is not invested in education and creative practice, into the people side of the infrastructure, into preparing young people to be truly creative, and into enabling those who are already contributing to culture, often for little or no pay, to continue to do so. You neglect art at your peril, because you store up stagnation and dry up innovation…and where will that lead?? …. to a place of mediocrity, where there will be no outstanding piece in the museum of the future to represent this age, no Broighter Collar, no Ulysses, no Dragon chair, nothing but second rate spectacle, levelled out into a sameness where nothing stands out because no head reached above the parapet, all risk is gone, challenge is gone, culture dormant, fat on entertainment, asleep at the wheel. We have to think in the Long Term, like that avant grade did, we can’t survive on Brand Ireland from the past. We have to continue to create, make new culture, tap into a future, re-imagine ourselves, over and over. The VAI statistics tell us that most practicing artists in Ireland earn less than 10,000 euros per year. Most young artists now are on their knees trying to pay rent and just survive, grants are drying up, social welfare will not allow them to make their art even though it is working for society for free and they have the same load of new bills including childcare that everyone else has to pay. I, like many others, came back to Ireland from the US in the 1980’s. I felt welcome here. We were all on the dole but at least the dole allowed us to do our plays and exhibitions and concerts, and there was a collegiate feeling of an art community, government, and society all on the same page of endeavour. Many great works were made then, and it is true to say that that time led to a great flowering in the visual arts through the 1990’s culminating with the opening of the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the commencement of a National Collection of Contemporary Art. We need that feeling again, that feeling that we are all in this together, that art is always a positive thing, even when it is being negative it is positive because it’s part of a bigger picture. How did we lose sight of that picture?

It is my fear that we will fall into mediocrity, and lose our status as a cultural powerhouse and as well lose our ability to construct and maintain our house of culture and thought, if we do not right now begin to support and endorse contemporary art and thought. OK, we are in a post-bust era and austerity has backed us out of peril…so why then has funding not been fully restored to the Arts? Do you imagine this is the one area that can grow on nothing? The one area that can give us the imaginative ability to grow? Culture is not an extra, an add-on, not a separate department to put a flag on, as poet Anthony Cronin made clear in his recent radio interview. The arts are our heritage, our language, our fears and ideas made manifest: this manifestation IS our society, connected to everything, connected to the world. Remember when Winston Churchill was asked why he did not cut the arts budget during the war? His answer was a question… ‘Then what are we fighting for?’. NO, no cuts to the arts, that is what we live by, how we are recognised, all our ideas of freedom, of tolerance are tied up in our entire culture. Fascism hates art and tries to control it and to close down the human imagination.

The National Campaign for the Arts, was set up in 2009 to basically fight for our survival, when the McCarthy report made a series of recommendations that would have devastated the cultural infrastructure of this state and had profound consequences for arts provision in Ireland. It has had some success in lobbying to protect funding. It has managed to get the word heritage re-instated in the arts brief and we were all very happy to hear the arts at last debated in the Dáil recently. I acknowledge that there is a discussion document called Culture 2025 published by the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs…but it is a discussion document, not a strategy document. So, I call on everyone now to think very deeply about cultural legacy and long-term planning, and to involve all stake- holders, ESPECIALLY creators, in the process. We have just been looking back for this year of 2016, it’s time to look forward with practical ways with which we can enable artists, the scouts of the future, to survive and communicate their ideas, to stay in this country and grow this culture which is our heritage and responsibility. Respect the Past, Work the Present, Enable the Future.

We have that embroidered cloth at our feet; instead of treading on it, softly or any other way, we should pick it up and look after it.

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