What are the arts worth?
It’s not a new question, of course. I’m sure various popes were asked it by da Vinci and his paintbrush-wielding pals. Maybe Homer asked it of whoever was paying for his baklava as he scratched away at The Iliad. In recent days, though, especially in Ireland, the question has grown louder and more urgent.
Funding of the arts in Ireland has been cut by 40% in recent years and is currently a paltry 0.6% of the GDP, making it one of the lowest in Europe. Irish President Michael D Higgins, himself a poet, has said this is an illustration of the “peripheral” place the arts occupy in Irish society. Yet, he continued, funding for the arts is as important to our infrastructure as roads, hospitals and schools.
Not all politicians agree. (Shock!) On twitter, a number of ministers asked why they should put money in an artist’s pocket. Isn’t the country in a state of financial ruin? Come on, now, missus, you wouldn’t be denying housing to the poor or food for the childer? They say that like it’s either-or. Presumably they’d rather make sure their pals in the banking industry can afford to heat their 7-figure Euro homes rather than give a few thousand to a music-maker or a dreamer of dreams.
I get that times are tough, but it’s not just about our poverty. It’s the hypocrisy. Listen, this is a country that beats its chest whenever literature is mentioned. We pride ourselves on our writers, even the ones we sent into exile. Especially the ones we sent into exile. Remember Joyce and Beckett, lads? Our leaders dine out on the strength of our culture. We went mad when Dublin was named an International City of Literature in 2010. Aren’t we grand? Yes, our writers are only massive. And don’t even get me started on the actors, the artists, the musicians… We love our artists in Ireland. We’re very proud of them. We just don’t want to do anything to support them.
Here’s a shocker: Ireland can’t even be arsed to dedicate a minister to the arts. No, we have a newly-expanded Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts & the Gaeltacht. The arts being, you know, a logical fit in regional development and rural affairs. The consolidation was announced on the heels of Ireland 100: Celebrating a Century of Irish Arts and Culture. This was a three-week wingding that took place in Washington DC, and was attended by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in company with US Vice President Joe Biden. The festival included performances from the best of Ireland’s musicians, dancers and theater companies. There was also a literature series, a documentary screening, installations and much more. Enda quoted J.F. Kennedy at the opening ceremony:
“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilisation than full recognition of the artist.”
That smacking sound is my gob.
Of the event, film director Lenny Abrahamson tweeted,
“Irish art is a photo op for EndaKennyTD…while once in a lifetime opportunity to create a world class film and tv industry is squandered.”
More on Mr Abrahamson’s insightful comments here.
It’s clear that Irish politicians neither understand nor value the arts.
Modern politicians and, it must be said, not a few men in the street, think an artist isn’t really an artist if he doesn’t suffer. They seem to believe that a painting will be more meaningful if it’s painted in a snowstorm by a starving man rather than in a heated studio by a man who’s been fed. Or perhaps the idea is that we shouldn’t paint at all. It’s “just a hobby” says Cllr Keith Redmond. Do you think he’s right?
Last year, my ‘hobby’ produced a best-selling novel that was translated into Italian. That’s nothing compared to the ‘hobbies’ of other artists that were nominated for Oscars, won international prizes, and brought not only prestige to this little island but the stuff our politicians dreams are made of, cash. In 2015, the music industry alone brought in €470m to the Irish economy. When you add the shillings earned by books, cinema, the visual arts, etc, you’re starting to talk real money. And that’s not including the tourist industry much of which floats on our reputation as a creative nation. €2.3b went into our coffers last year thanks to people who want to see Yeats country, or walk the streets that inspired Dubliners.
This parsimonious, hypocritical attitude is not only insulting, it’s poor business. Anyone with an ounce of financial savvy will tell you if you want to make money you must be willing to invest it. Except, apparently, where the arts are concerned. Then the assumption seems to be that the artist should hold down a full time job, look after a home and family, and scratch out a novel sometime in the middle of the night. Think of the art that will never be produced because there just aren’t enough hours. Would you expect a professional sportsman to hold down a second job in addition to playing football?
Today at 4.30pm, there will be a Dáíl debate on the Arts. The motion is very comprehensive, you can read it here.
And if you want more information on the state of Irish arts, check the National Campaign for the Arts site here
Support your artists. You’ll miss us when we’re gone.