Every Now and Then
Reflections on national identity

‘Every Now and Then’ was my contribution as one of three essays for the catalogue for an exhibition of Irish art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb which took place between December 2000 and January 2001. The four artists in the exhibition were Dorothy Cross, Rita Duffy, Katrina Maguire, and Paul Seawright. In the aftermath of the War of Independence the Curator, Leonida Kovač, was interested in how Croatian art might emerge especially in relation to Western Europe. She chose to draw a parallel with Ireland as a small country on the periphery of Europe.

It is ten years since I last wrote on the theme of Irish art. No doubt this will appear a strange admission to begin a catalogue essay, but after a previous decade of writing exclusively on Irish art it seemed to me back then that I needed to take stock and become, if you like, a more distanced observer. I remain that more distanced observer.

It is not at all clear to me then, whether you, the reader, should welcome or suspect my credentials as I attempt to address issues of identity and Irish art. I will present a rather negative picture but I hope my reasons will become clear. It is not my intention to discuss the work of the artists in this exhibition. My silence does not imply criticism, rather, at risk of cliché, the artists are more than capable of speaking for themselves. Simply, I do not presume to speak for them. What I intend are some reflections related to a personal transition from an active participant as an art critic to my now rather more circumspect relationship with the visual arts in Ireland. What I have to say is necessarily subjective. Moreover, what seemed important to me in the past or what seems important to me now in regard to identity is not a generally held view of Irish art. What I want to emphasise is that Irish art is not reducible to a set of conditions however much group exhibitions of ‘Irish art’ have suggested otherwise.

This leads directly to my first point. We are in the habit of speaking of Irish art as if it was a single object of enquiry, or at best we think of various branches of Irish art as though these stem from the same root. The long-standing path of this way of thinking is to connect modern Irish art to a Celtic heritage as though modern Irish art has some direct link to a mythical past. This ignores the fact that the modern ‘Irish’, and therefore presumably our artists, are as mixed in their ancestry as our European neighbours. Another common version in the same ilk is to privilege Irish (Celtic) art against English (Anglo-Saxon) art. The usual reasoning for presuming some natural opposition between the two is the historical, colonial connection, but it seems more likely that such reasoning reflects a continued pre-occupation with the shadow of Britain within Irish culture—the other within rather than without.

If these are fairly obvious examples of essentialist thinking in which ‘Irish’ is reduced to a feature, it seems to me that yet another version is to pitch Irish art as a relative, or subset, of Irish literature. Here, Irish art (not to mention Irish literature) is reduced to the most singular of terms, in this case in order to hype the significance of Irish art on back of examples of Irish literature. The reasoning is of course the international recognition of ‘Irish Literature’ as significant in the history of modernism, most specifically in works by Joyce and Beckett.

But if I undermine my own argument by invoking names who are the mastheads of ‘Irish’ high culture and run the danger of repeating and thereby reinforcing the essentialist argument, this serves to emphasise the relative absence of Irish art from the International stage. The status of Irish art is not just on the international scene, but in Ireland itself. Despite the relatively large numbers of practicing artists, visual art does not feature to any extent on the perception of what constitutes true Irish culture. A further implication of this state of affairs is that if there was thorough interrogation of such relations might we not have a much more expansive and diverse concept of what we mean by Irish art? A sense of national, and international, participation helps the self-esteem, a condition more likely to embrace accommodation and diversity. Ireland, that is both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, is a small island with a small population of less than six million on the western periphery of Europe. We therefore feel an inevitability in accepting that Ireland’s artist population is more homogeneous than other western countries. This in turn affirms a reductive, singular perception of Irish art. And to some extent the postcolonial argument that the colonized have absorbed the colonizer’s view of them as inferior subjects may help explain this state of affairs. But even the more recent debates on Centre versus Periphery seem similarly obsessed by status. Binary oppositions, Ireland/Britain or Periphery/Centre, always contain an inferior term even when it is the position of the inferior term that is contested.

Back in the 1980s when I wrote art criticism on a regular basis, these questions of identity were to the forefront of debates on Irish art. If one looks to why this was so, I would offer two major, interlocking reasons. The first was the situation in the province of Northern Ireland where there was conflict between, on the one hand, nationalists and republicans who reject the authority of British rule, and on the other, those Northern Irish who subscribe to British rule and support the British administration in the province. In the political vacuum that was (and, to a considerable degree, still is) Northern Ireland a number of artists and those involved with art saw a need for greater self-representation. That is to say, there were those who favoured the creation of representations of existing conditions within the divided and warring communities. The significance of this move was in the specificity of the representations, compared to what were the still prevalent abstracting tendencies of Late Modernism.

In the Republic of Ireland during the ‘80s concern was felt and expressed in many quarters over the Republic’s ambivalence towards what is still often referred to as ‘the North’, that part of the island under British rule. A territorial claim on the North was enshrined in the Republic’s Constitution dating from the 1930s, but it seemed somewhat antiquated that the modern state should or could lay claim to another territory. The question of the Republic’s relationship with the North, and by extension with Britain, highlighted contradictions between the latent ideology of republican identity and contemporary political pragmatism, contradictions which were debated in the cultural sphere. While artists in the Republic were less likely to engage directly with these questions in their work than their Northern counterparts there was an awareness of these debates, and in many respects these provided a focus for artistic activities at least amongst the younger generation.

The second reason for the prevalence of cultural identity issues during the 1980s was precisely the inverse of the first. Certain critiques had emerged in the First World which were perhaps symptomatic of the breakdown of classic West/East and North/South oppositions as political and economic constructs. Ironically their main point of origin as agenda setting issues, at least in the English language sphere of influence, was New York. The problem of the Other and Centre/Periphery issues where concepts of the West versus Eastern Bloc, First versus Third World, white versus black and majority versus minority as polarities were contested as reductionism at its most ideological. This had the effect of creating interest in art produced outside the centre or mainstream. While the ‘periphery’ was often arbitrarily identified in these various debates it sometimes included Ireland; most particularly there was a wave of interest in Irish culture emanating from Britain. Ireland was Britain’s immediate Other and the very fact of this interest generated greater confidence and ambition amongst Irish artists; greater esteem from outside made it easier to reproduce inside. But very quickly, rather than initiating further critique, it created a reaffirmation of dependency as represented in the weaker term of the binary.

In this it has to be said that cultural discourse in Ireland has never really come to grips with the possibilities of multiple or strategic identities as developed through, for example, postcolonial theory. We still seem locked into geographic or territorial notions of ourselves. This prevails whether we see ourselves as rooted in the island of Ireland, or even in the mythical status of an Irish Diaspora arising from the ‘Great Famine’ of the mid-nineteenth century and succeeded by constant economic migration over the next century. Or again, James Joyce’s use of the English language was formed by his experience of Dublin. Indeed, the continued preoccupation with identity in spatial terms may reflect the absence of a vibrant intelligentsia who might forefront the linguistic construction involved. On the surface then, the fixed notion of Irish identity runs counter to that precious notion of ourselves as infinitely inventive users of the English language. For instance, the myth that we constantly reinvent the language and ignore adherence to definitions (seen as characteristic of the English) is because our oppression at the hands of the British meant we could not speak directly and we had to use multiple meanings. It is not coincidental that I have noted Anglo-American influences on identity formations in Ireland. For all that Irish Republicans may like to see Ireland as a neutral country with historic links with the Continent of Europe, we remain deeply immersed in our connections with Anglo-American culture: ‘Boston or Berlin’, was the stark choice an Irish politician demanded in the year 2000. There is no doubt which term this politician favoured.

The debates on identity seemed to get lost somewhere in the early 1990s. So did the conscience probing questions on the Irish State’s position on Northern Ireland, as violence in the North became more contained and as the process of ‘normalization’ lessened the anxiety felt in many sectors of society in the Republic. Where these debates had helped provide a sense of focus, and indeed a sense of common purpose among a number of artists, they were succeeded by a diffusion of practices and interests. Pluralism not sameness was in demand in the nineties, in effect this wasn’t diversity but a return to individualism. It was an individualism different in kind to that of the Late Modernism and Expressionism of the early 1980s. It was hip and cool, ultra media conscious, and consumer orientated. By no means all younger Irish artists can be accused of superficiality but, in general terms, the high-minded seriousness had departed in favour of more playful pursuits. At this point that I want to shift my discussion away from cultural debates on identity towards the economic foundations of Irish art. This is not in order to pin individualism to the mast of capitalism, not absolutely at any rate; nor is it in order to argue that concomitant with this concern with image, public relations management emerged as a major new force during the 1990s. What I want to stress as my second general point in this essay is that economic factors are also major contributors to identity formations. Ireland’s position in relation to the West is crucial in this respect.

Ireland is not just a small island with a small population: it is also a small economy in which state contributions to the arts over the decades have been philistine. The more ambitious of Irish artists have measured their artistic worth by seeking challenge, critical attention and exposure outside Ireland. Limited funding and opportunity contributes to the Centre/Periphery issue in which it is by and large the centre that establishes the condition of the periphery. In economic terms there is a fairly open and shut case of determinacy. It is this condition that I turn to first, before commenting on the inter-relationship between the cultural and economic spheres.

Ireland has tried to play catch-up with most of the rest of the so-called developed world. In the decades after the Second World War, there was a time lag between artistic developments in centres such as New York and London, and Ireland. By the 1960s and ‘70s forms of modernist art became institutionalized both privately and publicly in the Irish Republic. During the 1980s however, the gap between artistic events in the main centres of the West and their assimilation in Ireland evaporated thanks to the more extensive art press coverage which was more widely available than hitherto, as well as more travel and communication by and with individuals. All that might then be said to be lacking was an art infrastructure in Ireland which would offer patronage to advanced, or by this stage postmodern, art forms. Private patronage is not just small but, on the whole, it remains relatively conservative preferring early, figurative modern art or contemporary derivatives. It is left largely to direct and indirect state patronage to provide an infrastructure for professional art practices. It was in the 1970s and 1980s that modern art education and public gallery infrastructures were put in place throughout Ireland. (I speak of all-Ireland cautiously—the two political entities on the island of Ireland are on a similar economic level, and there is considerable artistic exchange between the two.) Yet funding for short and long-term maintenance and development of these institutions remains relatively low compared to say, France or even Britain.

Despite these conditions ambitions remain relatively high. Let me give two examples. As occurred in other countries, a new management class of curators appeared on the art scene in the eighties. The curator went some way towards replacing the gallery director who had played a modest backseat role in helping to bring art and artist to public attention. The curator, on the contrary, is a much more pro-active individual who rarely shirks publicity for him/herself or the institution of which he/she is the embodiment. The curator doesn’t simply assist artists in making exhibitions, the curator makes significant choices in contributing to the shape of contemporary art. It has come about that the curator is now seen to articulate styles and fashions. In effect, the advent of the curator owes much to the infiltration of an entrepreneurial model which prevailed in the United States and Britain during the decade. Another example of this mediation between the artist and his or her public, one in which the art critic is complicit, is the exhibition catalogue. This too arrived in a big way at some point in the 1980s when artists were no longer content with merely the opportunity to hold an exhibition, but wanted documentation in a full colour publication to mark the occasion. Unlike the exhibition, the catalogue is not fixed in time and location but can be circulated freely; or, in the new jargon, it is part of the networking involved in the machinations of public relations. The catalogue essay, usually written by a critic and a curator, has become rather too much of a promotion exercise that stretches far beyond the physical fact of the exhibition. In ways like these therefore, the infrastructure of art is not simply the provision of facilities for cultural activities but is modelled along business lines with competing companies, salespersons, clients, brochures, etc.

By stressing the enhanced economic imperatives of the western art world, I might be seen to be laying the ground for arguing that what I have called the new individualism in the nineties is a logical outgrowth. That is overly simplistic. What I will say is that the a-intellectualism, or often the anti-intellectualism, in recent art has not helped the situation in Irish art. If in general and international terms much of the influential art of the ‘First World’ in the eighties was theoretically centred and if, as I believe, this contributed to much of the debate in Ireland during the decade, then at very least a degree of reversal took place in the succeeding decade. I believe the shift is in some ways regressive because it leaves a vacuum where what I describe as economic criteria hold sway.

I do not wish to suggest that Irish art should concern itself with identity issues, or that national identity, however it is understood, is a desirable or possible object of enquiry. What I do suggest is that on a broader level Irish society remains obsessed with an essentialist identity on a dominantly economic, not cultural level. Further, and as the third main point of my essay, this economic condition limits cultural production. For decades, the Republic of Ireland has struggled with the image of itself as a backward state out of tune with the modernity found elsewhere in the West. In more recent times the way in which people in Ireland wish to project themselves is as young and ‘knowing,’ suggesting a youthful, ‘cool’ nation. And now, after a couple of years of relative though massively unequal prosperity, the Republic of Ireland seems mesmerized by a newly adopted image of itself as the ‘Celtic Tiger’, to characterize the upturn in its economy. The depth to which this singular and unreal image has taken hold in Ireland is difficult to comprehend as anything other than a perpetuation of an obsession with status that, as it turns out, is economic. What is missing from this now dominant image of Ireland’s identity is any sense of what it might mean in terms of cultural, social, or even political aspiration. It serves as pure sign, but is a sign derived from capital.

What then can be said of the cultural sphere, and particularly of visual art? As I have suggested the vacating of issue based work, and with it the question of identity or indeed common debate in so much recent Irish art allows free reign to more pernicious identity formations to play across the surfaces of Irish art. I do not suggest that ‘Irishness’ is necessarily a serious contender as far as issue based production is concerned, or in fact that national identity is meaningful at this point in history. But what kind of society we aspire to is; and, more than that, what kind of society within the larger context of globalization. I have alluded to Ireland’s marginal role on the western edge of Europe and the sort of identity crises that can ensue from that position. I suspect that various identity formations on the southern and eastern edges of Europe experience similar crises. What I have attempted to suggest here is that Ireland’s long-standing association—geographic, economic and psychological—with western capitalism is far from resolved. It has certainly been at the expense of open discussion of what kind of culture we want. It may be that other places have it within their control to fare better. that other places have it within their control to fare better.