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.