If you don’t like it, bin it

Tuesday’s Irish Times saw the publication of a dismal opinion piece by Michael Parsons on the excesses of the contemporary art market, although I suppose it accurately reflects some common sentiment about the state of contemporary art. Moaning about the stratospheric prices of art world superstars (Bacon, Pollock, Emin, Hirst — though the first two are somewhat uneasy company with the latter two) is nothing new– but the sheer level of sweeping generalisation and stereotyped polemic evidenced by the article was remarkable.

‘Much contemporary art defies mockery,’ Parsons writes, but surely many artists seek to engage the category of ‘art’ precisely through absurdity or through the use of ephemeral media– perhaps even inviting the ‘mockery’ Parsons thinks they are impervious to? The critiques he hurls at Pollock’s ‘drip’ paintings (evidently this is because he ‘can’t paint’) and Hirst’s use of assistants to produce his work all seem based on an indignant response to their shoddy work ethic– how very Celtic Tiger, and how completely ahistorical… Pollock of course was a very competent ‘realist’ painter (having studied under Thomas Hart Benton), and his abstract paintings demonstrate an intense mastery of both form and concept. And of course, artists since the medieval period have used workshop assistants to produce art– so why all the fuss?

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He did the arts some service


Having missed it the first time around, the rebroadcast on Tuesday of the RTE Arts Lives programme on Charles Haughey (‘Patronising the arts’– no pun intended, I think) was a fascinating look at his influence on state patronage of the arts from the 1960s onwards. It offered a nuanced look at his personal and political interests in promoting the visual arts– which artforms benefited and which lost out, the creation and effect of the artists’ tax exemption, and the establishment of Aosdana– all of which give a rich context to the the current status of state arts support (see an older review of it here).

In the end I think a mixed result emerged– probably apropos given the complex figure of Haughey–but possibly the best bit came as the credits rolled, when various culture pundits reacted to the tongue-in-cheek equestrian portrait of Haughey by Edward McGuire… that single work seemed to sum up much about both the man and the myth!

Proms vs. Sunderland


In the latest of responses to the controversial remarks made by UK arts minister Margaret Hodge over the lack of cultural diversity and yet high levels of subsidy of the BBC Proms, Germaine Greer in The Guardian yesterday complained:

… the football supporter willing to beggar himself to pay for his season ticket is forced also to support a bloated opera house that generates second-rate product in return for massive government subsidy as well as huge amounts of corporate support. When it comes to arts subsidies, Hodge would do well to consider that London gluttonises at the expense of provincial Britain. (The same is not true of football.) If what the government wants is to bring people together, a usable and affordable rail system would be more effective than Hodge’s ill-considered attempt to guilt-trip the BBC into buggering up the Proms.

Greer’s attempt to define ‘culture’ in the widest sense possible so as to argue against arts subsidy falls pretty flat, as does her assertion that ‘There are so few black people at the Proms because they would rather be somewhere else.’ Candace Knight’s piece ‘All White on the Night’ on March 5th is a more compelling reflection on the experience of minorities at ‘high culture’ events, including her opinion that:

The exposure of all communities to high-level performance of all kinds is the first step in this cultural cross-pollination – in the manner of the open-air projected performances from Covent Garden. There needs to be an accompanying reintroduction of serious cross-cultural arts participation in schools at all levels, too.

But before this, adjusting the mindset – found at all levels of society – that, save for the educated and privileged few with time and money on their hands, there will be no interest in high culture, must be challenged. When cross-cultural experiences become the norm, the awkward looks will become increasingly a thing of the past, like smallpox or second-hand smoke.

In any event Hodge’s remarks have touched a nerve, evidenced by a steady stream of rebuttals published in letters and more letters to the newspaper; and quick distancing of No. 10 from her statement. Clearly however it would seem that the status of the Proms as a ‘sacred cow’ of British culture has occasioned much of the response, though the views offered by respondents on British cultural diversity and the arts have been interesting.

From an Irish point of view, the role of the arts within a multicultural or intercultural social agenda is still under development. The more recent arrival of substantial immigrant communities to Ireland means this discussion is still emerging, unlike the UK where the opportunity is ripe to address the outcomes of years of multi/inter cultural initiatives. Nevertheless the UK debate is instructive and evaluations of arts/cultural diversity initiatives will hopefully prove a useful source for the development of future Irish policy…