Has the cultural sector in the Republic of Ireland jettisoned the past in favour of an uneasy foothold in the present? Lucy Cotter looks here at the conflicts and contradictions that may lurk beneath the surface.

Contemporary Irish identity has…been sanitised and made remarkably accommodating to the dominant elitist project of subservient assimilation into multinational capitalism; robbed of reference points from a rich and subversive history… [1]

Celtic Tiger Ireland openly invites the population to cast off the weight of Ireland’s historical and economic past and (aspire to) embrace the lightness of new money and a kind of global ‘cool’. Geraldine Moane likens this expectation, that Ireland transform culturally because of a decade of improved economics, to the unrealistic expectation that the establishment of the Irish Free State could wipe out a history of hundreds of years. [2] This schism between identification with economic development and the everyday lived experience and personal memories of Irish culture is not a new one. As far back as the post-Famine era, a certain pattern was created of ‘forgetting’ the difficult past to facilitate the pursuit of economic improvement. When modernisation in the Republic of Ireland forged ahead in the 1950s, the unresolved relationship between historical heritage and the construction of a national cultural identity was lost sight of among more pressing agendas. Public authorities in the 1960s promoted industrial development (economic modernisation) but showed no commitment to social, political or cultural modernisation. [3]

The nationalist movement and the Catholic Church together could be seen to have set most of the cultural agenda until quite recently. It is hardly surprising then that the socio-economic dynamic (in keeping with the requirements of industrial development being pursued by the major economic forces) did not coincide with the cultural dynamic, which was pushing Irish society in different directions. Although the contradiction between these two dynamics was not resolved, it was diffused so that they were able to coexist through the state. [4] The result has formed the basis for the relationship between culture and economy in the Celtic Tiger.

The place of culture in society is never static. In the post-industrial economy, which the Republic of Ireland is currently in the process of creating, it has shifted considerably, aligning goals for state activity, business activity and cultural activity closer and closer towards an eventual collapse of boundaries between culture, society and the economy. Many of the recent government decisions regarding culture have been indicative of this direction. Consider for example the goal of The Arts Council’s Arts Plan 2002-2006 (which was created and subsequently adopted by Government as part of the Programme for Government) to “extend the international impact and success of Irish art and artists." Its resemblance to government’s current drive towards ensuring the best opportunities for Irish business on the world market warrants careful consideration. Patricia Carr detects an ongoing “political shaping of culture into an ingredient of the [Irish] economy," which mirrors developments in other globalising economies worldwide. Public authorities engage in the production of a ‘culture of enterprise’, which aims to produce a particular type of individual who should show the appropriate qualities of a successful entrepreneur in the new economy of Ireland. [5] This echoes the former Arts Council’s Arts Plan’s aims of “enhancing the ability of artists and arts organisations to build an international profile"; “ensuring the availability of market intelligence"; and “influencing public policy providers to rationalise international approaches."  I also recall Brian Hand’s view of the primacy of audience development as being synonymous with potential consumers (in current market jargon ‘target audience’ now substitutes for ‘customer’). He observed the self-evidence of the economic imperatives behind this development  in the increasing use of such terms as “the culture industry, the arts industry and the leisure industry ." [6]

The prestige of Irish national culture –  such as art in the international context – projects a ‘cultured’ national identity imbued with the qualities of the work itself (innovative, traditional, dynamic, etc.). Ideally, a government’s accumulation of high ‘cultural capital’ and high economic capital generates a high status in the international arena. Hans Abbing suggests that, in return for this role for culture, governments provide a national art budget which supports artists and art institutions. [7] This relationship is usually veiled by the apparent disinterestedness of ‘national interest’. [8] As globalisation aligns cultural production more and more closely with economic agendas, Irish culture is likely to be asked to contribute more and more to national interest. ‘Sacrifices’ such as the ‘setting aside’ of The Arts Council’s Arts Plan, following reduction in funding in 2003 by almost 9m  euro relative to the amount sought in the Plan, indicate the extent to which economic direction will determine cultural goals. In her resignation letter in 2004, former Director of the Arts Council, Patricia Quinn, said she felt honour-bound to step down, given that “the council’s precipitate action [in setting aside the Arts Plan] overturns government policy and is contrary to the considered advice of its own executive." Quinn’s implication of the increasing lack of autonomy of the post of Director of the Arts Council should not be overlooked. Early signs of this could be seen already in the Arts Act 2003’s reduction of Arts Council members, consequent increase of the control of the Minister, and accompanying reduction of the independence of the Arts Council.

The separation of arts from heritage in the renamed government departments and grouping of the arts alongside sport and tourism also indicate the extent to which new roles for art are being determined ‘from above’. Newly appointed Mary Cloake’s intention to remodel the Arts Council into an agency which responds to the “extraordinary work ongoing in the arts in Ireland" contradicts what recent events suggest – that arts practice will be forced to respond to economic imperatives and not vice versa. Nevertheless, the Arts Council’s most recent information on Revenue Funding in 2005 clearly acknowledges that “the extent to which these ambitions can be effectively achieved will depend on the level of funding for 2005 from Government."

An old Chinese saying states that in every crisis there lies an opportunity. The scrapping of the Plan and subsequent call for a major consultation process in preparation for a new Plan allows a re-examination of the conflicts underlying the current situation and possible renegotiation of Ireland’s cultural agenda. Rather than building upon the contradictions underlying the Arts Plan 2002-6 and limiting the nature of the new Plan to mere upgrading, I would like to suggest that a larger cultural opportunity is at hand – in short, the chance to address the long-standing  incompatibility between Ireland’s economic and cultural agendas, which may in turn re-establish the foundations of Irish artistic and cultural development. The establishment of new consultative mechanisms to ensure a two-way flow of information and dialogue in the Arts Council’s new Guiding Principles for 2005 offers a new level of agency to the public and to artistic practitioners alike in informing the agenda for Irish arts development. The aim of the mechanisms, in setting a context for a more fundamental re-examination of the Arts Council’s vision, mission and values, also encourages active and ongoing renegotiation. However, this significant opportunity may be somewhat misplaced if assumptions are made that an open and engaged discussion will naturally follow.

The difficulty in establishing an active debate about the issues surrounding the recent Arts Plan controversy highlights long-standing communication barriers between political and artistic spheres in Ireland. In a catalogue essay for A Sense of Ireland, a cultural festival held in Britain in 1980, Seamus Deane suggested that Irish artists have been very directly exposed to the congruence of political and artistic problems due to the lack of critical or theoretical support by any source which could be called an intelligentsia. They “have been compelled to find a rationale for their art, they have been forced to engage in a frontal way with political crisis to such an extent that the practice of art itself becomes problematic and even, on occasion, impossible." [9] In the interim, much has been done at an academic level to extend the theoretical basis of Irish cultural criticism, leading to such publications as Ireland and Cultural Theory (1999) and Theorizing Ireland: A Reader in Cultural Criticism (2003). Nevertheless, this has not yet translated into critical practices at other levels of the cultural sector. Joseph Lee observes that in fact Irish intellectual activity has contributed little to Irish public life in general, thanks to an ongoing preference for adopted models from the Anglo-American world, regardless of their inappropriateness to the Irish context. [10] Nearly twenty-five years after Deane’s comment, the continuing weak state of critical debate is symptomatic of the avoidance of direct engagement with these kinds of contradictions at the base of Irish culture. While the brief outline of the Arts Council’s Policy, Priorities and Partnership in the Arts (pending publication in summer 2005) provides a welcome acknowledgment of the important consultative role to be played by research and ‘key informants’, including art critics and cultural commentators, the absence of strategic support for critical practices in the Guiding Principles is thus disappointing.

I would like to challenge the notion that Irish art can somehow march ahead unaffected while critical debate (as well as art criticism per se) lags behind indefinitely. I believe the development of their shared agenda as critical practices needs to be prioritised on the national cultural agenda. Individual attempts have been made to redress the situation. The New Voices in Irish Criticism series was published by Four Courts Press. Valerie Connor posed some important questions to Hilary Robinson in CIRCA the year before last, with the aim of promoting a more active role for criticism in Ireland. [11] In May of this year, a one-day Symposium for Contemporary Art Criticism was held at the Temple Bar Gallery and Studios with the aim of providing a forum for questioning the condition, role and value of contemporary art criticism. However, much as these undertakings are valuable in their own right, I feel that the issues at hand are more fundamental than self-contained discourse within the art world and therefore cannot effectively be dealt with in isolation. They are essentially cultural questions which demand an interdepartmental and interdisciplinary approach which has been made distinctly unavailable by the recent divorce of art from heritage.

Little has changed at a fundamental level since Mary Stinson Cosgrove concluded in 1990 that “Irishness as an art critical construct in some sense seems to imply an art that is above politics, that transcends history culminating in the notion that Irishness is the very absence of tangibility and therefore not specific historically." [12] David Lloyd has highlighted a continuing self-censorship as a symptom of post-coloniality beneath the surface of Irish contemporary culture. [13] In fact, the hidden status of this historical / political narrative in Irish art and culture is a typical indication of a ‘colonised’ mindset, in which the subject is wary of enunciating an agenda which would challenge colonial power – albeit now defunct. Without reducing a complex situation to a cause-and-effect scenario, it is worth considering how this mindset might be seen to manifest itself within the Irish art world. Consider how Irish artists have predominantly bypassed socio-political issues, avoiding ‘problem areas’, typically by taking a philosophical (apolitical) approach, emphasizing high finish rather than critical content or adopting postmodern aesthetics without consideration of the applicability of postmodernism in the Irish context. Furthermore, consider how this ambivalence is reflected curatorally by the consistency with which Irish art museums and galleries present solo exhibitions or curatorial themes evolving from individual artworks rather than addressing specific critical concerns. The Irish Museum of Modern Art’s main curatorial agenda, for example, has predominantly avoided difficult subjects pertinent to Irish culture, despite its function as a national cultural institution. Even ‘exceptional’ exhibitions such as Irish Art Now: From the Poetic to the Political (1995) demonstrated a marked ambivalence towards addressing the politics in its title, both in its selection of artists and in its catalogue essay. These artistic and curatorial approaches are  inherently limited by what Frederic Jameson calls “the return of the repressed," the hidden agendas of Irish culture historically and currently, thus limiting the development of Irish art. A critical engagement with these tendencies may lead to significant development within Irish art practice.

While the idea of Ireland as a colony remains highly contested, the recent publication of Ireland and Postcolonial Theory (2003) has done much to unpack the complexities behind the subject, presenting a self-critical analysis of historical and cultural discourses. In itself, this publication provides invaluable theoretical support in approaching national cultural questions, yet its value in the critical field is only beginning to be explored, leaving its potential for Irish art practice largely untapped.

The ghost of colonialism in Irish cultural identity suggests that the ‘post-colonial’ tag is premature for Ireland. As Luke Gibbons has asserted, it is precisely the absence of a historical closure (which would facilitate a ‘post’ status) which has characterised the national narratives of Irish history. [14] Much as the Celtic Tiger invites us to forget, it must be remembered that globalisation is in fact a continuation of inter-national relationships, complete with legacies of wars and colonial imposition. Deflected by expectations of assuming a European identity in the 1970s and 1980s and a global identity in the 1990s and 2000s, the Republic of Ireland has yet to develop a national cultural identity which is not in contradiction with its colonial past. A critical engagement with the notion of Ireland as a former colony could lead to a renegotiation of Irish art’s critical position within international art discourse – both historically and currently – and give new critical direction to contemporary Irish art practice. Now is a good time to put it on the cultural agenda.

Lucy Cotter is an Irish art critic based in Amsterdam. Her current research projects, ‘The Migrant’s Perspective: Irish Artists in Mainland Europe’ and ‘Auto-destruction in the Age of Globalisation’, were commissioned by the Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaíon in association with the Critical Reflection Award 2004.

This essay is the first of a multi-part project entitled Globalisation + Irish Art = ?, commissioned in  association with the Critical Reflection / Critical Voices Award 2003, awarded by The Arts Council / An Comhairle Ealaíon. This essay was completed in December 2003 and revised in July 2004. Two further essays will be published together in Third Text, a London-based journal providing critical perspectives on contemporary art and culture, in January 2005.

[1] Peadar Kirby, , in Re-Inventing Ireland: Culture, Society and the Global Economy , eds. Peadar Kirby, Luke Gibbons and Michael Cronin, Pluto Press, 2002, pp. 21-37, p. 27

[2] Geraldine Moane, Colonialism and the Celtic Tiger: legacies of history and the quest for vision , in Re-Inventing Ireland , op. cit., pp. 109-123, p. 113-114

[3] Luke Gibbons, quoted by Michel Peillon, Culture and state in Ireland’s new economy , in Re-Inventing Ireland , op. cit., pp. 38-53, p. 40

[4] Michel Peillon, ibid., pp. 42-43

[5] Patricia Carr, quoted by Michel Peillon, op. cit., p. 51

[6] Brian Hand, Public misrecognition , in CIRCA 91, Spring 2000, pp 25-30, p 26

[7] Hans Abbing, Why are Artists Poor?: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts , University of Amsterdam, 2002, p. 232.

[8] See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1991, p. 143, for a discussion of this concept.

[9] Seamus Deane, The artist in Ireland , in A Sense of Ireland , 1980, pp. 35-38, p. 37

[10] Joseph Lee, quoted by Peadar Kirby, Luke Gibbons and Michael Cronin, Introduction: the reinvention of Ireland: a critical perspective , pp. 1-18,  pp. 14-15 in Reinventing Ireland , op. cit. I examine the inappropriateness of foreign art-historical models in a subsequent essay of this project, to be published in Third Text in January 2005.

[11] Valerie Connor, CIRCA 99, Spring 2002, pp. 24-27

[12] Mary Stinson Cosgrove, Irishness and art criticism , CIRCA 52, July / August 1990, pp. 14-19

[13] David Lloyd, After history: historicism and postcolonial studies , in Ireland and Postcolonial Theory , ed. Clare Carroll and Patricia King, Cork University Press, 2003, pp. 46-62, p. 49.

[14] Luke Gibbons, Unapproved roads: post-colonialism and Irish identity , in Distant Relations: Chicano, Irish, Mexican Art and Critical Writing; Cercanias Distantes/ Clann i gCéin , ed. Trisha Ziff, Small Art Press, 1996, pp. 56-57