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Column: We should be concerned about how complacent our artists have become

There is the lack of any serious radical political or cultural response to the current crisis in Ireland, writes Ciaran McCullagh.

Ciaran McCullagh

THE RELEASE OF the former Pussy Riot members in Russia, their continued defiance of the regime and their recent meeting with Sinead O’Connor prompts a more local question. This is the lack of any serious radical political or cultural response to the current crisis in Ireland.

We have put up with measures that as the late Brian Lenihan said would have led to revolution and rioting in other countries. – yet, the reaction here has been largely one of complacency disturbed by occasional and transitory anger at some of its excesses. Despite what has happened there is little compelling evidence of a sustained appetite for change. So why is this the case?

There are many factors involved, including the nature of politics and the capacity of important groups to protect themselves from the effects of austerity. But we need to look beyond these and to interrogate the way in which culture and the arts has become a cloak for social cultural and political complacency and has an important role in reproducing this complacency. Culture and the arts should have an energising and critical function in society, particularly one in crisis. But in Ireland they have become comfort blankets for the middle class.

Two influential artists

We can see this in the treatment of the work of two artists. One is the late Seamus Heaney. The role of the poet, like that of all artists and intellectuals, is to challenge the self images of the age but the way in which his work has been taken up by audiences has prevented this happening. He has become the Patience Strong of Irish life.

His work is now in the cultural limbo where it is no threat to anyone. He has become the poet of consolation, a function previously served by prayer books. A reading from his poems has become a required feature of births, marriages and deaths. This explains the ease with which his work has been effortlessly co-opted by politicians and possible war criminals.

This is best illustrated in his lines written for Amnesty International and now routinely used by many of the kinds of people that one assumes Amnesty oppose. These lines refer to the rhyming of hope and history, intended to summarise the hope that we are nearing the end of conflict and looking to the possibility that more peaceful futures may be emerging.

These have been trotted out by Barrack Obama but the fact that the drone attacks, ordered and approved by him, mainly kill innocent civilians seemed to get lost in memorialising Heaney. These attacks have played an active role in ensuring that in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan hope and history do not rhyme. There hasn’t been much protest from admirers of Heaney’s work in Ireland at this abuse, either of the poem or the drone attacks. There may even be a secret pleasure at the fact that an American President quotes an Irish poet. He doesn’t quote too many American ones. Neither Obama, nor Clinton for that matter, were particularly vocal over the death of Alan Ginsberg.

Shouldn’t we bit afraid?

The other artist and poem whose work has been co-opted in the culture of complacency is Leonard Cohen, through he may be a more willing collaborator than Seamus Heaney. There can be few people of a certain age and income who during the latest recession haven’t been to at least one Cohen concert. He consistently draws crowds and elicits responses here that are exceptional in a European and American context. There are no other countries where he has played four or five concerts in a row. He will give you the old guff about Yeats and all of that but the main reason he comes here so much is because of the public demand for his shows. We love the guy and Ireland has become a cash cow for his retirement fund.

But look at the kind of songs he now performs. They are often funny, romantic and masterful but they do not disturb in any way. Where is the existential doubt and the inner anger that energised and drove his music on albums like Songs of Love and Hate. Anger was the source of much of his best music but there was little evidence of this in his concerts now. What we were offered instead is the notion that “there is a crack, a crack, in everything, that’s how the lights gets in”. This might be consoling for some but in the long dark night of recession perhaps we need something stronger and more illuminating. Contemporary Ireland is a tissue of cracks and a lot of darkness. Most of the light is apparently at the end of tunnels. But then it was probably too much to expect revolutionary talk from a man and a band dressed in Armani suits.

It may be very well that artists have become consumable products as they make a few bob out of it. But there is a price. It is right that we venerate and respect our writers and artists. But shouldn’t we also be a bit afraid of them as well?

Dr Ciaran McCullagh was a senior lecturer in Sociology in University College Cork until his retirement in 2012. He is the author of two books, Crime in Ireland and The Sociology of Media Power. He is currently revising the crime book to incorporate developments since the first edition. A full list of his publications can be found here.

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