It’s a curious phenomenon that, historically, the arts have flourished during recessions and withered during economic booms. The reason for this, in my view, is that during economic downturns widespread dissatisfaction results in an upswing in artistic expression, be it through art, literature, drama, whatever. And the audiences for this groundswell of expression increases too; a mixture of the general public becoming more sensitised to the motivating anger of the artist, more willing to engage with artistic investigations of causes and effects across a wide spectrum of topics, not just obviously economic, and also a need to be entertained during dark times. This is even more so the case during wartime.
When economies boom the arts tend to wither. There will, of course, be plenty of grand artistic projects funded by generous patrons, usually financial institutions and government, but the overall totality, and more importantly the variety, will shrink. The reason for this is that the general public becomes more concerned with making hay while the sun shines. The focus shifts to getting that second car, that holiday home in France, perhaps even the beginnings of a property portfolio.
Die-hard supporters of the arts never disappear, but when the general public loses interest you start to see theatres close, publishers wind up operations or change tack completely, less home produced movies being made. Such has certainly been the case here in Ireland over the last twenty years. To take one case in point, there are now far fewer avenues of opportunity available to an actor compared to when I was strutting the stage. In the early ’90s there was an almost infinite number of theatre companies dotted about Dublin alone putting on plays in a wide array of venues. There was so much choice for an actor that I found myself rehearsing one play during the day while performing another one at might. When the play I was rehearsing went on stage, I had already lined up the next play to start rehearsing.
Unfortunately now, nearly all the venues I performed in are gone: the Eblana, the City Arts Centre, An Beal Bocht, Gleesons, the Theatre Bar, Andrew’s Lane Theatre. Now while it’s entirely possible that that’s down to my performances, all you need to do is look at the literary scene, the movie industry here, and other areas to see that similar contractions occurred during the boom. The only exception, perhaps, was the art sector, but this was down to a sizeable enough segment of the general public who equated art with property, as something you could own and that would increase in value over time.
Now that the recession is in full swing, with no real end in sight yet, we are starting to see artists responding to it in a multiplicity of ways and forms. However, there is one emerging phenomenon that gives me great cause for concern. Following massive arts funding cuts over the last few years, the government has just recently discovered that the arts generates revenue and also boosts tourism, which has a concurrent knock on effect on increased revenue. Suddenly the government is now shouting from the ramparts that art can save the Irish economy.
All well and good, you may say. Isn’t that a good thing? Now we can expect arts funding instead of cuts, can’t we? Well, yes and no. The thing is, many of the artistic ventures the government is latching onto, and onto which it is slapping a great big ‘Guaranteed Irish’ sticker, are projects that have been planned anyway and that are struggling to operate under savage cuts. It’s certainly the case that some existing and new projects are getting new funding, but they are being asked to fly the flag for Ireland and carry the ‘brand’ overseas, to do their patriotic duty in these hard times. The problem I have with that is the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that we will start to see only artistic endeavours that present Ireland in a good light getting green-lighted (if you’ll pardon the pun).
It seems to me that the whole purpose of art (beyond simple entertainment) is to reflect the society we live in, to hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask all the awkward questions we don’t consciously want to ask, to confront the status quo. One can only hope that enough of this type of art can survive and seep through the cracks in the veneer of Brand Ireland to continue to challenge us.
Very good post John. Let’s hope Michael D helps things along.
Actually, I do think if anyone can encourage artists to do their bit without fear of censorship, it’s a culturally aware president like Michael D.
I liked it.
”Art for Art’s sake–money for God’s sake”-10CC.
Ah yes, the great 10CC. They were an excellent band. Remember that song well. 🙂
Great post, John. I think government investing in the arts is so important (and necessary – it’s a tough area to make money in) but it does so often come with strings attached. And I do get rather grumpy when I see some of the kind of things that get funding, and the kind of things that are ignored, but that’s a whole other story…
Thanks, Claire. Someday I’ll tell you the story of the hoops we had to jump through to get funding for the publication of Emerald Eye: The Best of Irish Imaginative Fiction. Unbelieveable levels of red tape. And then we could only get our hands on the money after the event. So we fronted the money from our own pockets to print the book and then had to wait one and a half years for the funds to come through. To top it off, they changed the goal posts several times and ended up disqualifying large chunks of expenditure. We ended up with a fraction of the funding originally approved and seriously in debt. Never again.
That sounds so stressful and frustrating – and not worth it. Certainly you need to make sure that funding’s going to well-managed projects, but red tape for the sake of it is infuriating.
It’s not just the little guys that are caught like this in mental bureaucracy. The Gate Theatre, for example, have had their own tale of woe over the last several years regarding dealings with the Arts Council. The problem is they are very successful at putting on top class plays and filling the house and the Arts Council don’t like anything that could be remotely termed popular. The Gate still needs funding because of high running costs (otherwise ticket prices would have to be much higher), but the Arts Council have consistantly approved funds on a year to year basis, then held back on actually paying it.
And don’t get me started on some of the things that get shedloads of funding…