I’m sitting at home on Paddy’s Day watching back a recording of Other Voices New York which – although originally aired at Christmas time- makes perfect viewing on this most irish of days. It’s expecially pertinent as I’ve just finished reading the Irish Times Weekend, and have Fintan O’Toole’s words ringing in my ears;
“What we need to project abroad are independent thought, free expression, provocative imagining – the idea of a culture mature, dynamic and self-confident enough to be constantly testing its boundaries.”
Fintan was writing today about the proposed abolishment of Culture Ireland, or rather its proposed subsuming into the Department of The Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, a crazy proposal that is more about optics than understanding. As Fintan points out, Culture Ireland is a nimble, cost effective, well respected agency – not something that can be said of many others. Their current position aligning them with the Department of Foreign Affairs surely makes sense, allowing them to avail of international diplomatic connections and presumably making their work easier and more cost effective. When so many things are broken already, why try to fix something that simply doesn’t need it?
The Other Voices NYC event “a gathering” as they describe it, was supported by Culture Ireland as it happens, and presented by their Cultural Ambassador Gabriel Byrne as part of their Imagine Ireland initiative. A year-long programme (2011) that brought 500 artists in over 1400 events to 45 states across America, its sure to have had a lasting impact on impressions of contemporary irishness in one of our most important markets. A microcosm of the initiative at large, Other Voices capitalised on their musical reputation in Ireland to bring something altogether more interesting to New York; two nights of music and spoken word that pushed traditional and contemporary musicians together with contemporary writers, in a gathering of creativity that reveals a lot about what it is to be irish today, a deep connection with tradition contrasted with a openness to contemporary practices that reveals a modern, questioning psyche that’s both creative and experimental, ever questioning and expressing itself.
The tv programme can only show so much (and unfortunately is not available on the RTE player ) but the broad theme – what it means to be irish right now and how we can express that- creates a strong focus for the show. Contributions from the writers were the most erudite – naturally enough – but an observation from Martin Hayes struck a chord:
“…the arts tells us something about who we are as people…”
And if they tell us something about who we are as people, especially who we are right now – something we need reminding of most forcibly at a time like this – they equally tell others about who we are as people, something that Culture Ireland seems to understand implicitly. If we need art to help us articulate that which we cannot always confront consciously, a complex web of our values, morals, opinions, emotions, expressions and aesthetics, then we need agencies like Culture Ireland to pave the way for this expression abroad.
Joseph O’Connor comments on the programme that he feels “you’re putting on the green jersey, and you should be proud of it, you’re playing for Ireland” an idea that Gerry Godley echoes in his letter to the Times this week when talking about the role of artists to help rehabilitate our international reputation “Ask our artists. They are perpetually in the field, the trade mission that never sleeps.”
I’m not saying that the arts are the answer to our troubles, clearly it’s more complex than that, but I do believe its crucial that we attempt to have influence on how we are perceived abroad. We are a small nation that punches way above its weight creatively, and the creative expression of our culture, past and present, is capital that we should be investing in, not pulling apart. Any successful company will tell you that the impression of their brand is formed by what they say about themselves, and what others say about them. It’s hard to control what others say about you, but we can at least control what we say about ourselves, and I want the artists talking for me thanks.