A New Tradition: Irish Art of the Eighties was a five-part exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery at Trinity College Dublin between 1990 and 1991. The five shows were thematic, curated under Gallery Director Medb Ruane. I contributed to two of the exhibitions in which the themes were Sexuality and Politics respectively. Below is a slightly shortened version of the catalogue essay I wrote for the second.
The opening line of a 1985 essay on Northern Irish poetry by Edna Longley reads, ‘Poetry and politics, like Church and State, should be separated.’1 On the face of it the comparison between Church and State, poetry and politics is a strange one: if, in theory, there is a measure of separation between Church and State in Ireland, everyone knows that in practice the edges are very blurred, but it is not as if anyone had suggested that poetry assume a relationship with politics as Church with State. No, Edna Longley speaks of a principle, a principle she clearly feels she should be forthright on because she detects occasional leanings towards political viewpoints among Northern poets, but perhaps more particularly because she opposes positions assumed in contemporary intellectual organs such as Field Day and The Crane Bag. She agrees with Conor Cruise O’Brien’s forebodings about ‘an unhealthy intersection,’2 and is in disagreement with the tone established by Richard Kearney in the first sentence in the first article of The Crane Bag journal back in 1977 when he wrote, ‘Politics is far too grave a matter for the politician. Art is far too potent a medium for artist.’3 Longley points to examples where political affiliation has restricted the poet’s ability to represent different subject positions, thus limiting his or her art. Moreover she believes certain literary critics and theorists encourage a political reading of poetry.
Despite the opposition expressed in these rhetorical flourishes, Longley and Kearney are not so distantly removed from one another in their views about art. Both believe that art should have autonomy but that it can also serve in some way as a corrective to politics.4 Their differences seem more to do with their understanding of what politics is, or should be. Kearney believes that imagination is vital to politics, whereas Longley believes that politics is too fixed and intransigent for imaginative recreation.5 Kearney, it seems, has greater faith in the possibility of artistic vision being projected to the forefront of the political stage.
While Edna Longley’s essay is specifically about poetry and Richard Kearney uses the term ‘art’ in the broadest sense, I think it is possible to find echoes of such arguments through the arts in Ireland in the 1980s. If The Crane Bag was the most consistent, intellectual and sometimes portentous forum for debates on art, culture and politics during its life-span from 1977 to 1985, it can take some credit for maintaining an inter-disciplinary policy in which politics and the arts rubbed shoulders. The Crane Bag was responding to currents in critical theory, to Post-modernism, and of course to events in the north of Ireland, all of which have contributed to a considerable number of visual artists producing work which in the mid-1980s was more concerted in using political themes. This immediately begs the question, what is political art? It may be necessary to address the question if only because it was made into an issue in the only book to be published on Irish visual arts and politics, Brian McAvera’s, Art, Politics and Ireland (1989)6, in which the definition of ‘politics’ is the subject of the first chapter. McAvera is correct to the extent that he sees a preponderance of art criticism in Ireland concerning itself with the medium rather than the content of art, but he is wrong to pigeon-hole art into degrees of social-political statement. The question ‘what is political art?’ is the same kind of misnomer as the older question, ‘what is art?’ It attempts a catch-all definition instead of looking to the practices and production of artists and how these inter-connect with social/political/cultural practices and ideologies. The question is more how than what.
But if a priori categorization blots out possibilities, the issue can be over-simplified in other ways. In 1984 American art writer, Lucy Lippard, made a crucial visit to Ireland to select contemporary Irish art for a touring American exhibition. Lippard was particularly interested in finding political and activist art in Ireland and during her visit she was asked to submit her views in an article for Circa7 , an extended and slightly different version of which was published in the same year in the United States.8 In the later essay she writes: ‘For present purposes, I’d describe a political artist as someone whose subject and sometimes contexts reflect social issues, usually in the form of ironic criticism…political art tends to be socially concerned and “activist” art tends to be socially involved—not a value judgement so much as a personal choice.’9 While Lippard argues that defining roles and mediums for artists ‘is a classic way of keeping everybody in their places,’ her description that political artists ‘reflect social issues’ at worst suggests passive retrospection by the artist. Lippard believes in accessing art on as broad a base as possible, and ‘reflect’ conveys the artist’s subject in simple terms. However it does little to explain the complexity of art’s production and reception.
Space will not accommodate this issue in this essay and, equally, neat definitions of political art will be avoided. The ensuing discussion is far from comprehensive but I will attempt to identify what I believe to be the more significant themes in visual art in the 1980s as these are bound up with socio-political issues of some consequence. Obviously, what is significant or of consequence is debatable but on the whole I think the socio-political issues raised here are already inscribed in historical and contemporary discourses, precisely in their relation to the self-image of Ireland. The task then is to trace how Irish artists deal with these, and whether some outlived their importance during the 1980s.
First let us return to the ‘unhealthy intersection’. It should be noted when Edna Longley and Richard Kearney talk about art and politics, whatever about differences of opinion, they both assume an important role for art in the directions of the society: Church/State, art (or poetry)/politics are presented as though of the same order of magnitude. Neither writer is crude enough to say that art’s role is pedagogic; neither writer has lowered their sights to a discussion of art’s formal qualities which effectively, in the case of the visual arts, consigns art’s social role to adornment or enhancement of public/private spaces. Longley’s concern is that art and politics ultimately lead to art as propaganda. This indeed has been a source of much consternation in the visual arts. In her 1984 visit to Ireland, Lucy Lippard found little which was, in her terms, political or ‘activist’: ‘The complexity of Irish political life appears to be paralleled by the layered, contradictory images that I often found tantalizingly indirect.’10 Her comments prompted a reply from John Kindness who, in a letter published in Circa said, ‘To engage in the sort of activism she describes from her American experience the artist needs to be committed, s/he needs to take sides, to make choices; this is the choice that most artists find impossible to make in the Irish situation.’11
In these statements neither Lippard nor Kindness acknowledges the status quo of the partition of Ireland and although there was nothing new in the idea that Irish art is indirect, (i.e. the tenor of The Delighted Eye exhibition in London, 1980), it did seem to have a particular import coming from Lucy Lippard. Her visit became part of a process in a general shift in thinking towards political content among several young Northern artists. Even so, when this culminated in the Directions Out exhibition in the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin in 1987 as a showcase for ‘political art’ from the North, the curator, Brian McAvera, had decided to make a virtue of indirectness. Here, as in the Irish landscape exhibition, The Delighted Eye, the supposed avoidance of direct statement, or ‘the oblique approach,’ was made into an Irish personality trait thereby realigning art with nature instead of art with politics. John Kindness is suggesting however, that the Irish situation is different to the American and in Ireland one cannot make an absolute choice. An obvious example of Kindness’s difficulty is in the North where an individual may well feel obliged to be either an Irish Nationalist or a British Unionist because there is no substantive political ground in between. Whatever about the status quo of the ballot box the artist can, in artistic terms, deal with the inadequacies of his or her society and at the same time be consistent in using electoral politics, even if Unionist and to some extent Nationalist interests have polarized the situation in such a way that democratic choice is limited.
The sub-text here, as with McAvera and Longley, is that politics leads art down a road where it becomes propaganda. In this respect, Brian McAvera is partly right when he criticizes The Citizen (1982-83) (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hamilton-the-citizen-t03980), a painting by English artist, Richard Hamilton, when he says, ‘The blanket-draped figure exposing (the hunger-striker’s) chest and thus his crucifix, presents a neat propaganda image of the equation: Hunger-Striker = Christ = Catholic church support for the Provisional IRA, an image perfectly attuned to the republican wall murals.’12 While Hamilton claimed his painting was a response to media representation of the prison protest for political status by Republican prisoners during 1980 and 1981, McAvera along with a number of artists and critics in the North, saw it as a naïve replication of the symbolism of martyrdom which had appeared in murals in Nationalist areas at the time. In other words, The Citizen fell short as ‘art’ because, for an art audience who also knew something of the background to the North’s crisis, the painting’s form was unpalatable as it echoed the pious ‘religious pictures’ of a Catholic tradition rather than challenge it. In this sense Hamilton’s painting raises historical and ideological questions on art because The Citizen was directly ‘readable’ in such a way that it was down-graded alongside Nationalist street imagery. Form and content were in crucial respects non-modern and the painting did not construct the kinds of meanings that might allow it to be read as ‘art’ engaging a contemporary issue in Irish society and politics.
The Citizen, then, is an object lesson in how ‘art’ is predicated on structures of representation which are, on the one hand, not reducible to a single (propagandistic) message, and, on the other, did not conform to certain versions of modernity. This is not to say that art is necessarily difficult, obtuse and for the art initiated only, it is simply to say that The Citizen offended because it was a crude reminder of religious piety as much as a statement and/or identification with a Republican cause. If we compare The Citizen with Willie Doherty’s Closed Circuit (1989) (www.source.ie/archive/issue27/Richard_West_page_09_43_37_31-07-12.php), we may note that the sub-title of the latter gives specific information: ‘Sinn Féin Advice Centre, Short Strand, Belfast’. The photograph shows a scene in which partitions dominate, and below, across a road, the artist has super-imposed the words ‘Closed Circuit’ across the bottom of the image. It is useful to know that Sinn Féin is a target, and more, that the recent censorship legislation leaves the party without direct access to the media. Closed Circuit is, I think, legible13 to a broad audience while at the same time it avoids the dominant, dramatic media images of Northern Ireland. Moreover, in terms of art, it uses an inter-play of image and text to create double meaning whereas The Citizen taps into an already symbolic image where there is no apparent self-conscious comment on its potency as a rallying cry, an image that doesn’t require reflexivity.
In the 1980s Northern Ireland continued under direct-rule from London, and perhaps the only moderation of that influence was in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. In the Republic, the 1980s are marked by Fianna Fáil governments under Charles Haughey between 1979 and 1981, 1982, and from 1987 into the 1990s; and Fine Gael-Labour Coalition governments under Fine Gael’s Garret Fitzgerald between 1981 and ’82, and, 1982 to ’87. The tenor of difference between these Fianna Fáil and majority Fine Gael governments will be useful for the purpose of this essay in delineating certain tendencies in the art under discussion. While to all intents and purposes the two major centre-right political parties in the Republic differed little on policy, the two leaders have presented opposing concepts of the role of the Irish nation.
As the traditionally Nationalist party, Fianna Fáil has continued to build support around a combination of clientelism and corporatism. If by the 1980s the aspiration for a united Ireland is underplayed, Charles Haughey has sometimes used its emotive intonations for political gain as when, as leader of the Opposition, he attacked Fine Gael for its part in bringing about the Anglo-lrish Agreement. Traditionally supported by the larger farmers and business people, Fine Gael has not achieved electoral majorities over Fianna Fáil, and it was with this in mind that Garret Fitzgerald attempted a change of image for the party through a change of image for the Republic. Launching the ‘constitutional crusade’ in 1982, Fitzgerald argued for a more modern and liberal society for the 26 counties by the removal of the retrograde Articles of the 1937 Constitution. By championing greater recognition of individual and minority rights in the South, it was hoped that this might quell some of the antagonisms of the Unionists in the North. However, the ‘constitutional crusade’ crumbled with the constitutional Referendums on Abortion and Divorce in 1983 and 1986 respectively. The failure to bring change to the Republic’s Constitution left the concept of a more pluralist society legally and politically abandoned.
The Nationalist aspiration of ‘One People, One Nation’ remains imbued with traditional Catholicism and Celticism, while a more liberal pluralist Ireland has been daubed a South Dublin phenomenon (i.e. urban middle-class) without support at grass roots throughout the Republic. Yet these two images of ‘Ireland’ can be used to create intense emotional fervour as issues such as abortion and divorce, or extradition have shown. While they are remote from ‘real world’ party-political machinations they have been used as identity tags when the occasion arose. It could well be argued that questions surrounding these general aspirations were pursued more by academics and artists than by politicians in the more exclusive contexts in the production of ideas: educational institutions, publications, galleries and the like.
Undoubtedly one of the chief reasons why the idea of Nationalism, (and, by proxy, its opposite, Unionism), was important was because of events in the North. Since 1969 visual artists in the South, such as Micheal Farrell, Robert Ballagh and Patrick Ireland had made gestures in that direction, and in the North, Joe McWilliams, Brendan Ellis and Jack Packenham among others, had made paintings representing struggles within the Northern community. But the history and culture that lay behind ‘The Troubles’, that is, the co-existence of Nationalist and Unionist communities in the North where the former was a very substantial but under-represented minority, began to play an increasingly significant role in the 1980s. I would argue that, in this, the import of critical and cultural theory has affected the arts and visual arts and one of the outcomes is an interest in national and local history and culture as has occurred in art elsewhere. This response may be observed in Nigel Rolfe’s performance art which in the late seventies incorporated aspects of ritual. By the mid-1980s the work had shifted into a more located representation of the relationship between England as colonial oppressor and Ireland as politically and culturally oppressed. So too, in Micky Donnelly’s paintings and prints of 1986 and 1987. The work demarcates the political symbols between the Easter Rising of 1916, the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 and the ensuing Civil War in the Free State which ended in 1923. Donnelly uses the symbols of Nationalists and Unionists, symbols which have entered into folklore, in such a way that their symbolic similarities are, ironically, more apparent than their differences. For example, the Easter Lily and the Orange Lily are the same type of flower, (Nationalist and Unionist respectively) or that James Connolly’s hat is enshrined in 1916 history while the Unionist bowler hat, associated with James Carson, is still used today as part of the Orangemen’s paraphernalia.
Art, theory and the National Question winds back inexorably to the figure of W.B. Yeats, regarded as one of the major poets in modern English literature, and a member of the Senate in the early years of the Irish Free State. Yeats’s vision of an Ireland free of British oppression assumes two forms which have since been pursued by artists and intellectuals. One is the metaphoric use of the land as the Nation, the other is the metaphoric use of Ireland as Woman. I will take these separately.
In an analysis of Yeats, Edward Said14 argues that there are two phases of a nationalist liberation movement. The first is a period of nationalist anti-imperialism in which, ‘there is a pressing need for the recovery of land which, because of the presence of the colonizing outsider, is recoverable at first only through the imagination. Now if there is anything that radically distinguishes the imagination of anti-imperialism it is the primacy of the geographical in it.’15 The second phase, according to Said, is when liberation becomes more realizable: ‘With the new territoriality there comes a whole set of further assertions, recoveries and identifications, all of them quite literally grounded on this poetically projected base. The search for authenticity for a more congenial national origin than that provided by colonial history, for a new pantheon of heroes, myths, and religions, these two are enabled by the land.’16 A crude interpretation of Said is that the first and second phases of the Nationalist movement correspond with Yeats’s career, in the latter stages of which the vision becomes increasingly pedagogic and idealized.
If the land issue was fundamentally important in the agrarian struggles of the nineteenth century and in the subsequent development of Nationalism, is it of any contemporary consequence when, in the South, scarcely lip-service, usually symbolic, is paid to the territorial claims on the North? The answer is surely that the legacies of the land issue survive in a real sense where, in the North, Catholics still hold the poorer land, lower paid jobs and higher unemployment, and in the South, where the advent of the Free State and later the Republic, brought little by way of radical land reform. The tenaciousness of land issues are such that during the 1986 Divorce Campaign there was a successful deflection from divorce to land inheritance rights by the anti-divorce lobby. Such issues have certainly emerged in theoretical studies. In Art History, for example, there has been a move from seeing landscape as scenery, to seeing landscape as property and territory. Following John Berger’s widely disseminated Ways of Seeing, there are now several substantial texts examining the historical relationships between landscape painting and land ownership, and these have been to some extent applied to colonialism in Ireland by John Hutchinson17 and Mary Cosgrove18 .
In 1982 Deirdre O’Connell made an installation in Art and Research Exchange Gallery in Belfast entitled, The Palatine’s Daughter. The exhibition space was defined by two lines of fragile white plaster forms, each of which was propped (almost) upright by cords attached to the gallery floor. The installation was accompanied by an artist’s statement which was a series of words: territory, barrier, obstacle, zone, enclosure, etc. In Belfast, Catholic and Protestant communities had mentally defined their ‘own’ areas but the British army intervention of 1969 had set up physical barriers between the communities. O’Connell’s installation takes into account the ‘no-man’s land’ created by the partitioning of sections of a city and the disturbance or removal of pre-existing community identity. It is as much about a psychological condition as a physical deprivation. Around 1985 Willie Doherty began his photo-text work and in the same year produced Fog/Ice and Last Hours of Daylight. The ostensible subject of both is the Bogside in Derry. In Fog/Ice the mist, descending from the hills around, is represented in text as ‘Shrouding/Pervading’ and, in Last Hours of Daylight, the Bogside itself the text is ‘Stifling’ where ‘surveillance’ is hidden but present. The security forces watch over the Bogside but beyond the security forces lie the unknown, shrouded hills of Ireland.
Said’s arguments on Nationalism have a particular resonance today for the North where there has been a growing body of opinion in favour of what has been called the ‘politics of place’. This is a move to assert the identity or identities of the North, subsumed as these were within British culture. It is a presentation of the vernacular and the locality of the North in art, and to that extent, the features of the ‘politics’ of place’ are very similar to the Nationalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the Celtic Revival, Synge and Yeats. The development of Place in the visual arts is signposted by the establishment of the Orchard Gallery in Derry in 1978 and Art and Research Exchange in Belfast with its offshoot, Circa Art Magazine in 1981. In the first issue of Circa the poet Tom Paulin suggested that while many Irish writers have established Ireland on the international literary map, this was not the case with the visual arts. He goes on to describe several images, specific to the North, which he believed the artists could well utilize.19 In fact one of Paulin’s examples, the black taxi which is part of the Belfast landscape, appeared in Artpages in Circa in 1989 (No. 45) with a work by Anthony Davies, but in the intervening years the amount of visual work from the North that could be described under the politics of place would incorporate many of the younger artists established in the North including Willie Doherty and, in some aspects, Deirdre O’Connell and Micky Donnelly.
Much of this work records the actualities of sectarian life in the North, for example, the Orange parades (Anthony Davies), the Protestant community in Belfast (Rita Duffy), but while the specificities were important in establishing identity and confidence for Northern artists, there is a sense in which the very particularity of representation was a closure rather than an opening for political art. However, the work of these artists, and those included in the Directions Out exhibition20 is informed and informing in ways in which The Citizen is not and is a considerable achievement in representing the locality in ways it had not been represented before. But it is notable that most of these artists have not continued to restrict their subjects to Northern Irish material. Dermot Seymour has moved from the ‘realism’ of All the Queen’s Horses (c. 1983), to the enigmatic, Do you ever think of Daniel Ortega? (1986), to a position in the late 1980s in which humans are replaced by animals and the meaning for human life is veiled. This is to say that Seymour has latterly begun to make more demands of his viewer in finding context and meaning which is a cut ‘above’ the raw realities of repression and sectarianism. In Seymour’s paintings there is, therefore, an intimation of ideological existence beyond the barricades, and if Seymour is approaching a more universal language, then Willie Doherty has sustained the broader issues in his photo-texts on Derry between 1985 and 1988. His two-part, Stone upon Stone (1986) is eloquent testimony to the internalized aspirations of Nationalism (west bank of the Foyle), and Unionism (right bank of the Foyle), as well as a telling juxtaposition of the territorial reality.
It seems to me that the promotion of Place as an agenda issue was necessary in highlighting the features of the locality as important, and if the political significance was sometimes lost in the detail, it indicates a failure of theoretical analysis. The exploration of the symbols of Nationalism and Unionism was also important because, in a large way, the North was living through that which the Republic had already been through between 1916 and 1923. Yeats’ development as a poet was an attempt to understand the conditions of his time, just as Edward Said’s analysis of the role of Yeats’ development as a poet is useful for our time, because the issues which involved Yeats are far from resolved. It is with this in mind that I introduce the second of Yeats’ idealizations of Ireland: Mother Ireland. The image has been used for centuries to represent Ireland as the invaded and as the colonized, sometimes the woman is the defeated nation, at other times the woman is triumphant. As Richard Kearney has said, ‘Yeats offered the myth of Mother Ireland as spiritual or symbolic compensation for the colonial calamities of historical reality…since reality told a story of division and dispossession, Yeats replied with answering symbols of unity and self-possession.’21 For Kearney the unifying symbols of 1916 were a call for cultural continuity which obliterated differences of class, creed and language, and he identifies the rhetoric of Padraic Pearse as seeking the security of ‘the three mothers of our historical memory: the mother church of the Catholic revival; the motherland of the nationalist revival; and the mother tongue of the Gaelic revival.’22 Contemporary Sinn Féin is, according to Kearney, caught between a traditional Catholicism of myth and martyrdom (both male and female versions), and the modern, secular discourse of military action, political electioneering and social work.
The relationship between nationalism and feminism was at issue throughout the 1980s. Pat Murphy’s film, Maeve (1981), remains the most powerful visual and textual statement about differences and conflicts in outlooks and ideologies: the male discourses of mythic nationalism, socialist republicanism, women united (and also repressed) in community, and post-structuralist feminism. The level of debate encountered in the film has been a source for many feminists in Ireland yet for all the need to address contemporary society, questions over the historical Mother Ireland figure have persisted. While feminism rejects the national muse as a desexualized and idealized male creation and male fantasy, for some feminists it is at least a positive image of ultimate triumph. In 1988 ‘Derry Film and Video Co-Operative’ produced a documentary entitled Mother Ireland, a film which, although made for television wasn’t shown because of the introduction of a new censorship legislation in Britain and Northern Ireland. Mother Ireland was widely distributed at alternative venues and in it this ideal image of woman is debated both negatively and positively. Meanwhile Rita Duffy produced another image of Mother Ireland (1989) which brings down the ideal in an unseemly land. The painting is of a caricatured woman burdened with children and housework, while the patriarchal church looms ominously behind. The companion painting is Mother Ulster (1989), with the same caricature of the woman though this time clad in an apron in a Red Hand of Ulster design. As the apron indicates, she is as house-bound as her counterpart, if with fewer children. The children’s toys suggest that Ulster can either sink or hook itself onto something as yet unidentifiable. This time, patriarchy is in the form of the (Orange) bandsman.
The symbols of Nationalism and Unionism have been taken to task but if they have been critiqued as unifying forces why do they continue to be played out in art and theory? Edna Longley argues, ‘Political images, like political language (from which they are never quite distinct), eventually exhaust themselves or prove incapable of renewal. I think this happens at the juncture where the image Woman – Ireland – Muse meets contemporary Irish woman.’23 Longley believes the North has had a recent obsession with (male) political identity, something which feminism has undercut but hasn’t yet rejected as it should. In other words, Nationalism is a ghost from the past which ought to be buried. Longley either underestimates or doesn’t wish to take cognizance of the fact that in raising these legacies some of the myths are exposed and are not necessarily reconstituted. The Mother Ireland image has been explored as a means to find out and redirect. Field Day member Seamus Deane actually agrees with Edna Longley about the redundancy of the symbols of nationalism when he says, ‘the biggest of all Irish heroes is Ireland itself, the symbol which always means more than we can make it mean …. We cannot but be anxious about our identity if we doom ourselves to be always in search of an idea so elusive that no society could ever embody it … Identity is here and now, not elsewhere at another time. Real independence starts with that recognition.’24 So too in Willie Doherty’s Fading Dreams, subtitled, ‘Dublin 1989’, where in this triptych the national symbol, the harp, is laid to rest in that the harp is shown off on a door of a Government Building (centre of power), while in the photograph below the River Liffey flows indicating a lack of foundation.
Nationalism has been a source of discourse and image-making during the decade even as some of the outcomes are unexpected—the representation of sectarianism, military and para-military activity in the North as signs of the continued struggle for and against British rule, or, the challenge of feminism to the patriarchal structures of the State. The traditionalist view is that Nationalism offers identity and continuity with a Catholic and Celtic past but this comes into conflict with the processes of modernization and the demands of a modern, secular State. Here is how one American art critic, Hal Foster, sees the role of political art: ‘new social forces – women, blacks, other “minorities”, gay movements, ecological groups, students … — have made clear the unique importance of gender and sexual difference, race and the third world, the “revolt of nature” and the relation of power and knowledge … political art is now conceived less in terms of the representation of a class subject (à la social realism) than of a critique of social representations (gender positioning, ethnic stereotyping, etc .).’25 Class has not been a major issue in modern Irish politics let alone in Irish art, but are there ‘new social forces’ which are now the appropriate subject of political art? A number of diverse points can be made, (i) the critique of Irishness and stereotyping has already been indicated in this essay; (ii) women’s issues were at a cutting edge of the South’s politics during the Abortion and Divorce Referenda; and (iii) no political party in the Republic formed an absolute majority in government in the 1980s which may indicate a changing attitude towards the political establishment. These may well constitute social changes, though not the recognition of a pluralist society, or anything that might represent ‘new social forces’ in any substantive sense. Instead, in the (in)famous summary of Charles Haughey’s 1979 legislation for the restricted availability of contraceptives, there is ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’ (stereotyping perhaps, but with a point!).
In 1988 Alice Maher used four bed sheets as a ground for four paintings which had the overall title, Malcutta. With the paint applied directly into second-hand bed linen, the four paintings had as their subject the Biblical stories of the Coronation, Visitation, Annunciation and Birth. While Maher made reference to the Renaissance tradition of representing these sacred subjects, she made each into a physical event and sexual fantasy, incorporating the stains on the previously used sheets. Moreover, the images alluded to other visual traditions by which she made clear that Catholicism is not of the pure lineage it is often made out to be. In part, Maher was addressing the Catholic environment in which she was brought up in which the Immaculate Conception forms part of the Church’s doctrines, and the Virgin holds particular status as an ideal type of womanhood. However, Maher has also introduced multi-cultural and personal images which disrupt Catholic origins. Malcutta re-presents the image of pure woman as her opposite without reproducing the traditional format. At the same time the paintings deconstruct and reconstruct the extensive iconography of Irish Catholicism. Maher’s work is not only about the power of representation, but it challenges the ways in which representations are produced.
If the status of women has achieved a degree of profile in the Republic other ‘minorities’ have had to struggle for minimal public awareness. For example, surveys have shown that approximately one-third of the Republic’s population exist on or below the poverty line. In the texts accompanying his photographs, Mick O’Kelly has used the voices of his subject, that is, the text is the words of the represented subject. Brian Maguire has made social deprivation the subject of a body of his work from glue sniffers or down-and-outs in Dublin to Divis Flats (1985) in Belfast which were long since condemned as unfit for human habitation. During the 1980s, Maguire established contacts in Port Laoise prison, the prison for political prisoners, which led to his teaching art there as well as a series of drawings and paintings which serve to draw attention to the issue of penal servitude.
Such support for ‘minority’ causes might be described as ineffective, but then these artists recognize strategies rather than bombastic statement. Their work is practiced in the community as well as in art images. However, one area which could not be described as quiet is the media. Since the introduction of a national television service in 1962, RTÉ is accused of being a corrupting influence on the nation with its importation of foreign programmes and its sometimes critical analysis of current affairs. After Conor Cruise O’Brien amended legislation (1986) to proscribe certain groups from interview, most specifically Sinn Féin, successive governments have exerted influence and applied pressure for more sympathetic reportage by RTÉ. This tendency to exert influence over RTÉ’s coverage has not prevented the leading political parties using television very extensively. The 1980s was a decade which saw a transformation of the presentation of politics by politicians in Party Conferences, Elections and Political Broadcasts. The eighties saw the ‘Great Debates’ between Garret Fitzgerald and Charles Haughey in the run-up to two general elections, the television ‘showdown’ in which politics was reduced to personality and media performance. But the most outstanding political spectacle on television was Charles Haughey’s My Ireland, an hour-long documentary produced by an independent company but scripted under the auspices of Haughey’s Department in the late 1980s. As such, it was a piece of propaganda, abundant in clichéd views of the ‘Irish’ landscape and ‘Irish’ personalities.
Television is regarded as the most pervasive and influential medium and, as such, RTÉ’s claims about impartiality and objectivity in political matters was under increasing suspicion and attack during the eighties. This was not only from interested politicians but from the public, and is a measure of a heightened awareness of the processes of mediation and representation. There is undoubtedly much more scepticism in regard to ‘truth’ in the media, as media professionals, in their own defence, explain the mechanisms of reportage and broadcasting, and, as media analysts and film and media theorists dissect the construction of representation. As stated at the beginning of this essay, disciplines and mediums are no longer treated as distinct or discreet entities, and representation, both textual and visual, is increasingly significant for visual artists in how meanings are constructed and ‘read.’
News in the media is a story to sell as John Kindness recognizes in his Newsprint Project (1988) where he made headline posters from news each day over a two-week period, which were then distributed to newsagent’s shops. Hence Kindness was able to re-situate the political and topical ‘stories’ of the day as mediated by public relations experts, individual witness, and by the press itself. Kindness’s work is often close to satire, in contrast to Nigel Rolfe’s media-based work, and in contrast to John Carson who comments on the forms in the media and how these can perpetuate racial and sexual stereotypes. In Of Pat (1985), Carson conducts his investigation of prejudices between Catholics and Protestants in the North, between North and South, England and Ireland; and investigates representations of the macho and the feminine, working class and middle class, in a performance in which he drinks bottles of Guinness with slide projection of visual stereotypes such as art reproductions. The style is a comedy act in the popular idiom, but the broken, disjointed narratives of the performance are akin to the inadequacy and gaps in knowledge that create stereotyping. Part of Carson’s effectiveness is his use of live narrative; we are a TV generation and its idioms alone can create response.
The danger with these idioms for art which is intended as political critique is that instead of subverting the idioms, they are reproduced. In the 1980s, avant-garde art was heavily criticized as too obscure and inaccessible to the general public. The reaction has been an enormous pressure for more accessibility. The critic, John Roberts,26 has made a very pertinent argument about these reactions which, while directed at the British context, applies equally well to the Irish. He says that ‘art and society’ advocates over-emphasized distribution which in itself will not create transformation or change. This is to say that bringing art to the people is meaningless without adequate consideration of the representations and readings of art — pictorial organization is crucial to the production of meaning. Despite the return to figuration in the 1980s the audience for art is as limited as ever, except perhaps in the increasing number of Public Art schemes which are largely the result of work by the Arts Councils, Sculptors’ Society and environmentalists. Few of the public art pieces, however, could be discussed in the context of politics for most are based on the ‘brightening-the-place-up’ principle. Somehow the technical and permanent or semi-permanent aspects of installation, and the expectations of both artists and local authorities, inhibit strong statement. When politics does break out over a public artwork it is usually by default, as over Eilís O’Connell’s Great Wall of Kinsale (1988), when residents and councillors attacked it as a public safety hazard. When a public art project has sufficient political content to embarrass vested interests the offending work has to be withdrawn, as over Martyn Turner’s poster cartoon in the Art on the Dart project (1988) on Dublin’s light rail transit system. Ironically but predictably these are almost the only occasions when art makes media headlines. Other examples include the incident when some of Locky Morris’s City Walls of Derry installations (1987) were blown up by the British army, and when Louise Walsh submitted a proposal for a sculpture to commemorate a red-light district in Belfast, (1988). In its favour, public art might be said to be useful for artists in learning the intricacies of the ‘politics’ of local authorities, but the interface between art and the wider public remains virtually untapped as regards ideological perspectives about art and politics. Artists’ access to public forums remains frustrated and problematic.
One might query whether Hal Foster’s understanding of ‘new social forces’ and their implications for ‘political art’, apply to Ireland. The Civil Rights movement, Republican activism, and the challenges to Church and State hierarchies and representations, are part of a slowly evolving Ireland. The old structures may remain and may even have consolidated during the eighties, but the ‘filthy modern tide’ that Yeats despised has continued its erosion even as increasing doubts were expressed about the benefits of modern society. In a decade in which social and political uncertainty in the North has continued, in which the unitary concept of the nation-state in the South has diminished, many visual artists have explored ideas of historical and cultural identity as never before and these are essentially political issues about the directions of Irish society. These artists have established that this society, in its material as well as its ideological forms, is a meaningful subject. These artists have also recognized that the cultural and political isolationism of previous decades is a thing of the past.
- Edna Longley, ‘Poetry and Politics in Northern Ireland’, The Crane Bag, vol. 9, no. l, 1985, p. 26.
- Quoted Longley, ibid, p. 26.
- Richard Kearney, ‘Beyond Art and Politics’, The Crane Bag, vol. l (1977-1981), p. 13.
- Edna Longley writes, while art and politics should be separate, ‘This does not let the poet off the hook of general or particular “responsibility” towards political events. The price of imaginative liberty is eternal vigilance…’ (op. cit., p. 26). Later she writes, ‘poetry can be “political” only on behalf of its own values’ (p. 27). Richard Kearney hints at the autonomy of the artwork when he writes that art is not just imitation of reality, the artist has the ‘freedom to recreate’ (op. cit. p. 18). Or, again, ‘Each work of art is an attempt to see the world in a new way’ (p. 18). Politics should inform art, but art should inform back: ‘Art without politics is arbitrary; politics without art is blind’ (p. 20).
- Longley makes the accusation at Field Day: ‘Field Day itself has enacted the process whereby political fixity shuts off imaginative possibility, the ideological tail wags the creative dog’ (op. cit. p. 33).
- Brian McAvera, Art, Politics and Ireland, Dublin: Open Air, (undated).
- Lucy Lippard, ‘Activating Activist Art,’ Circa, no. 17, July/August 1984, pp. 11-17.
- Lucy Lippard, ‘Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power’, in After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, edited by Brian Wallis, New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984, p. 349.
- ibid, p. 349.
- Lippard, Circa, p. 11.
- John Kindness, Circa, no. 18, Sept/Oct. 1984, p. 25.
- McAvera, Art, Politics and Ireland, p. 114.
- Willie Doherty: ‘In general what I attempt to do with the text and images is to narrow down the possibilities of misreading the photographs. So I think I attempt to take control and suggest a number of possible readings for the viewer, which although they are never totally closed down, certainly put the viewer in the right direction.’ Willie Doherty in conversation with Chris Coppock, Circa, no. 40, June/July 1988, p. 28.
- Edward Said, ‘Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature: Yeats and decolonisation’, Field Day Pamphlet, no. 15, Derry, 1988. Also published in Barbara Kruger and Phil Mariani (eds), Remaking History, Seattle: Bay Press, 1989, pp. 3-29.
- ibid, Field Day, p.11.
- ibid, p. 13.
- John Hutchinson, James Arthur O’Connor, Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 1985.
- Mary Cosgrove, paper delivered at Art Historian’s Conference, Trinity College Dublin, 1990, (unpublished).
- Tom Paulin, ‘Where are the Images?’ Circa, no. 1, Nov/Dec. 1981, pp. 16-17.
- Directions Out included, Diarmuid Delargy, Fergus Delargy, Willie Doherty, Graham Gingles, Gerry Gleeson, John Kindness, Colin McGookin, Liam Magee, Locky Morris, Dermot Seymour, Victor Sloan and Chris Wilson.
- Richard Kearney, ‘Myth and Motherland,’ Field Day Pamphlet, no. 5, Derry, p. 14.
- ibid, p. 18.
- Edna Longley, ‘From Cathleen to Anorexia: The Breakdown of Irelands,’ Lip Pamphlet, Dublin: Attic, p. 15.
- Seamus Deane, ‘Remembering the Irish Future’, The Crane Bag, vol. 8, no. 1, p. 91.
- Hal Foster, ‘For a concept of the Political in Contemporary Art,’ Recodings, Seattle: Bay Press, 1985, pp. 140-1.
- John Roberts, Postmodernism, Politics and Art, Manchester University Press, 1990.