Regionalism Reconsidered

In 1990 I was asked to contribute to the 50th Issue of Circa art magazine by way of reflection on the concerns of its early years. ‘Regionalism Reconsidered’ is the result. At this stage Circa had short-term Editors, a situation which continued until 1998 when Peter FitzGerald took over. He continued until the magazine’s closure in 2011.

Within the article there is an obscure allusion to two Referenda in the Republic of Ireland. These were Referenda on Abortion and Divorce which took place in 1983 and 1986 respectively, the outcome of which appeared to reaffirm deeply conservative attitudes.

The article is a product of its time with a more basic reflection on regionalism than can be countenanced two decades later.

Circa 50 p22 Circa 50 p23
Circa 50 p24 Circa 50 p25

Pages 22 to 25 of Circa 50, 1990

One of the points of entry for CIRCA Art Magazine into the visual arts in Ireland in the early 1980s was with an issue that might loosely and grandly come under the heading of The National Question. CIRCA is almost certainly regarded as part, if not agent provocateur, of a groundswell of opinion which reacted against prevailing representations of Irish art as determined by the Irish landscape, is Celtic to its roots, and is remarkably independent of the influence of international art movements. Such notions of the essential nature of Irish art carry a strong echo of the ultra-conservative and still dominant ideal of the indivisible Nation in the refusal to adequately recognize dissent from the tenets of this narrow nationalism, the Church and the Family. CIRCA‘s mission, it seemed, was to circumscribe art and politics, to suggest ideological connections between the apparently neutral activity of art production and the ways in which the arms of the State have chosen and continue to choose naturalized representations of Ireland.

While in fact the only time CIRCA addressed the question directly was in a Special Issue, (No. 14), The Irishness of Irish Art,1 the fall-out occurs in many articles and reviews, and is a sub-text in the panel discussions in (No. 32), Women talking to Women and the theme issue (No. 43), The Landscape Issue. None of this is to say that CIRCA militated against anything that might hint at Irish identity/identities – there is a long-standing policy of reviewing events in Ireland, and promulgation of an Irish (North and South) context – but there was an impetus towards establishing the point that art in Ireland was more and sometimes other than an aesthetic sensibility with rural and Celtic origins. This much is history, by and large, because there is some evidence that the ‘message’ from CIRCA and others has marginally infiltrated and been appropriated by those organs which the magazine set itself in opposition to.

So far the tone of this article is most self-congratulatory: CIRCA in opposition to a conservative hierarchy. In opposing one monolith another is created. But my purpose in referring back to CIRCA‘s interest in how attempts at locating a single, unifying and natural identity for Irish art goes hand-in-hand with the very singular ideology of the Nation-State is to suggest there may be parallels, unless we analyse urgently what is happening, between that and the growing belief that ‘Regionalism’ is the way to self-determination. Why is it that a good number of artists and cultural commentators believe that a focus on place and locality is a ‘good thing’, and what are the links with the pervasive ideological forces at work through government, its bureaucracy, and the media? If CIRCA has contributed to a critique of certain ideologies in the visual arts in Ireland, it has also contributed to a groundswell for more regional identity. What I wish to do here is explore some arguments for regionalism but also to elaborate some of the difficulties.

First I should indicate why I believe it is necessary to consider the concept of regionalism at greater length. I cite two recent examples. T.J. Barrington is one of the leading advocates for the decentralization of the Dublin government. He has shown that greater centralization can lead to more inefficiency instead of greater efficiency and, in comparing the Republic of Ireland as a small and highly centralized state to Denmark, another small but relatively decentred state, he discusses how each of these states prepared for their referendum on the Single European Act.2 Ireland emerges as bureaucratic and ineffective, and Denmark as democratic and efficient. I do not wish to refute Barrington’s conclusions, but I do wish to question his highly selective analysis. Throughout his essay there are several patronizing references to ‘the people’: if the people are treated in a mature way they will know what is best for them. There is no reference to the cynicism engendered by two referenda which preceded it: no reference to the kinds of manipulation that occur in matters relating to the Constitution and ‘the rights of the people’. I am quite confident that in his essay Barrington wishes to establish a democratic principle, but in doing so he poses the inadequacies of the highly centralized Dublin government against a mythologized ‘people’. It seems to me to be necessary to do more than invoke the Irish people; that political and cultural issues need to be addressed in this area as well as in the centralized system as it exists.

The second example is an essay entitled, ‘Radical Regionalism’, in which John Wilson Foster3 alludes to the ‘true’ nature of two categories of people. Foster proposes that the problem of ‘Ulster’ is not two warring communities divided by religion but two neighbouring states, Britain and the Republic of Ireland, with colonial or neo-colonial pretensions towards ‘Ulster’. He writes: “For a long time the Ulster people have suffered the twin psychological colonialisms of Irish nationalism and British nationality that have falsified their consciousness and diverted them from the true task of self-realization. Under this false consciousness they have persisted in perceiving their fellow inhabitants of Ulster as ‘them’, as ‘the others’.”4 This again implies that the answer is inborn (natural) to the people, they seem exotic, and again it deflects from the political and cultural issues involved. If Foster is attempting an historical argument then better not to rush to psychological truths or falsehoods about the present. We need to know what “self-realization” might entail, not that it is our “true task”.

In the September/October 1986 issue (No. 30) CIRCA initiated a series entitled ‘Place by Place’ in which many of the designated regions in the North and South were discussed.5 The emphasis of the articles was on the structure for the facilitation of the visual arts: the role of the Arts Councils in encouraging local authorities to contribute, Regional and County Arts Officers, arts centres, private and public galleries, etc. The Leader to the series stated “While it could be argued that focusing on specific areas as entities in themselves reinforces a sense of separateness and difference from those places that have come to be credited as ‘the Centres,’ it is not our intention to contribute to this syndrome of two zones, i.e., Centres and Regions. However, there is no doubt that a sense of difference does exist in the minds of many and since centralism and decentralization are political perspectives, it goes without saying that the prevailing political perspective of the day can do much to either heighten or dispel these differences.” It is one matter for an ‘established’ artist to choose to go to a region to live and work. It is another matter for a less established artist to live and work in a region because from that perspective it seems an artist of similar standing who happens to live in the centre will have greater opportunity for access to the national media and will have more immediate access to the higher concentration of art institutions and galleries. The CIRCA articles illustrate that while there are pockets of co-operative activity among artists and administrators throughout the country, the gaps are quite enormous, and that there is little or no will to change from the power centre.

Joseph Lee indicates the magnitude of the problems of centralization in the Republic quite graphically.6 The proportion of the population living in Dublin in relation to the rest of the population is comparable only to Athens and then to the third world. The country generally is underpopulated compared to other northern European countries. Dublin draws not only a large proportion of people but a large proportion of the talent. The government has done little or nothing to offset or counteract these tendencies. Lee views it as “internal colonialism”, that population size and movement is a matter of policy which is within, not beyond, the scope of government. It follows from this that the support structures for the visual arts are in bad shape. Despite numerous declarations from the Arts Council on the need for local authority engagement with the arts within their area, the power of local authorities continues to decline. (The same is true in the North where, as John Wilson Foster points out, the local authorities have much less power than their counterparts in Britain.7) Arts Council funding is now more than ever at the whim of the Taoiseach’s Department in what is little other than a slush fund. We have arrived at the point of absolute power. How many now even remember that as recently as 1987 the previous government published the State’s first White Paper on Cultural Policy, and recall the irony that it was called, Access and Opportunity?

As a historian with more than passing interest in Ireland’s economy, Joseph Lee is primarily concerned in highlighting our poor economic performance compared to our competitors in the European Community. This of course merely opens up another dimension. From the centre of EC bureaucracy it is politic to regard Ireland itself as a region as this bypasses the sticky problem of the Nation-State and Sovereignty, and the tendency of voters to continue to regard their national government as embodying their identity (whatever that might mean in the North of Ireland). If the EC is to be a strong competitor with the United States and Japan then it has to be efficient as a whole. It cannot afford immigrant workers from the regions over-burdening the already overburdened centres. It must invigorate the agriculture, industry and services of the regions. The point can be scarcely overstated that silent, anonymous committees in Brussels are assuming increasing control over our lives.8 As we well know the EC has Regional Funds, yet it has no Regional Policy that we might refer to if and when we seek accountability. The sum total of all of this is that in the Republic of Ireland we have a government without a cultural policy and without (bar the underfunded Arts Council) accountability in how it spends money on the arts, and an even more remote system within the EC which has done little about regional culture, either ‘high’ culture or ‘low’ culture.

Joseph Lee is quick to point out that decentralization isn’t just a question of the economy. What has been neglected is culture: “Decentralisation cannot ensure vibrant community development. It is not a panacea. Much depends on the type of decentralisation … Because central government dismisses so disdainfully the case for decentralisation, little serious thought is devoted to devising an effective system of decentralisation … The missing link between centralisation and community is civic culture … It seems doubtful if that can be raised until the citizen acquires more authority over his own affairs. “9

This is indeed a gloomy forecast. It appears to be in the interests of the national government to retain and copper fasten its control in the centralization of power. It will not be relinquished without a fight. But even if we had such a thing as local authority, it is difficult to see how this in itself would stimulate the art produced. I mean, one of the reasons why those who work in the arts believe in decentralization is that it offers the possibility for artists to engage more directly with community affairs, that it is a reciprocal learning process for artists and community, and, as a result, artists and community should benefit. It is a sort of rehabilitation of the artist. Traditionally, however, civic art serves the interests of the patron and in so far as regionalism is a call for greater levels of participation we should consider how artists can contribute to decision-making, and how to deal with mutual suspicions.

Within the arts there are distinguishable terrains in the case for decentralization. One is from arts administrators who, in face of the many obstacles thrown up by centralized bureaucracy, react by reconstructing a concept of cultural democracy in regionalism.10 The limitation is that arts administrators will ostensibly restrict themselves to the structures which will facilitate the arts; it is not their business to openly influence how artists will use these structures at the point of art production. The other exists within the international realm of Postmodern discourse where the implosion of the artistic and cultural centre is thought to have reached crisis levels.11 But the attempts to break out of the centre create a climate of cultural tourism which is in a different realm to the sense of place that we are trying to identify. I would suggest that Postmodernists, from a perspective in the centre, have offered little to our region of Ireland and the regions within. As Raymond Williams has said in a different context, “… it is always necessary to distinguish ‘the country’ as a place of first livelihood – interlinked as it always must be, with the most general movements of the economy as a whole – and ‘the country’ as a place of rest, withdrawal, alternative enjoyment and consumption for those whose first livelihood is elsewhere.”12 Nevertheless, Postmodernism has set an agenda. It has offered the possibility for artists to introduce local themes into their work in the knowledge that these may be of interest not only locally and nationally, but internationally as well.

The trajectory identified is quite enormous: local, national and European politics, and the international art scene. How could ‘the regional artist’ be expected to encompass this? Is it at all relevant to the practicing artist? I think it is fair to say and is widely accepted that most or all artists are not confined to a single practice, the making of art, that they are engaged with the administrative system in negotiating with agencies such as the galleries, Arts Councils, local authorities, and they themselves are an agency through the Artists Association of Ireland, Sculptors Society, Women Artists Action Group, and so on. The bigger question runs something like this: The promulgation of Postmodernism isn’t coming from its highly intellectual, theorized source, but from galleries and art magazines which orientate around the conditions of the art market. The direct comparison is with governments which are impelled to respond to the conditions of the international money market. At a further remove there is a conjunction of capital and culture in the hands of a few powerful individuals within the multi-nationals, the downfalls of Charles Saatchi and Alan Bond notwithstanding.

Prior to running the ‘Place by Place’ series, CIRCA presented an overview (CIRCA No. 29) in an interview with Declan McGonagle of the Orchard Gallery, and an article by David Brett, ‘From the Local to the Global’. In Ireland the Orchard is perceived as a link with the international art scene, or at least British and Northern links, and McGonagle himself describes the gallery as “an inlet as well as an outlet.” In McGonagle’s view, “… the Orchard really had to have the credibility in that wider world so that work was taken seriously when it was presented.” This runs counter to the more insular view that the Irish art establishment will regulate its own affairs in what it believes to be ‘good art’ as McGonagle seems to suggest that crediblity is in the interchange between the international and the community. The implication is that ‘standards’ are determined on an international (Western European and North American) level and that intervention is needed, not the deception that we set our own ‘standards’. I think, however, it is doubtful that we influence matters greatly by our intervention.

David Brett’s article is much more pessimistic about the international dimension. He argues that internationalism and regionalism. ” … are the two sides of the same coin and part of the same ideological apparatus.” He continues: “The older province/metropolis axis is being overlaid by a new and apparently centreless plasma of money and cultural determinants. The function of art institutions today is to see that this happens smoothly“, (original emphasis).

To return for a moment to the fact that both the Irish government and the EC have concentrated on a narrowly economic course in ‘regionalism’ to the neglect of culture, we might be thankful if all that that means is the administration of culture. However, the forces of capital are more pervasive13 for, to put it at its simplest, it is not only about the kinds of structures we have to facilitate the art, but the kinds of imagery produced which constitute what the acolytes consider ‘good art’. Whether we like it or not, art, on an international scale, is being mightily determined by market forces which reach into the very core of the production and reproduction of high culture via Modernist and Postmodernist discourse. However great the gulf may seem between the need for local and national government administrators to recognize cultural enhancement and the machinations of high culture in the international market, these do eventually meet on a playground where the stakes are very high. The region is being drawn in.

It is very doubtful that one can ignore the spiral. To do so is to be parochial in the worst sense of the word for it is to ignore most of what is happening in a world of increasing communications and capital. Once we recognize there is nothing natural about a region and recognize that a region can be constructed or reconstructed, we can begin to structure forms of cultural democracy. Equally there is nothing natural about identity, identities are constructed in relation to and through the structures, and the structures should be sufficiently adaptable to allow some level of diversity in which choices can be made. This sounds like choice within a general conformity but as David Brett has said, the ‘region’ is problematic,14 and there is a good deal of power-play in how the region is and will be understood. It seems to me that artists have a role in interrogating the power games in regard to territory, the public environment, the changing relations between urban and rural, town and country, gender difference, class difference, and whatever else at whatever level artists choose to investigate. But it does matter that these are raised in the context of the local, because it can be and is the cutting edge – at least as far as we, for the most part, are concerned. How that transmits to a potential international audience is not through hype about our distinctiveness but by taking the premise that our identity or identities are problematic.

It has been suggested that Northern Irish artists have confronted these issues to a greater extent than their Southern counterparts. David Brett argues that precisely because the North is problematic there is the possibility for good art,15 but Brian McAvera goes further to claim that a specifically political art has emerged.16 The latter is a good deal more categorical than the former and it hinges on the assumption that given certain conditions in the North certain artists are producing the most appropriate kind of work. The argument is as selective and singular as the older argument that because Ireland is rural Irish artists have a special affinity with the land, hence Irish landscape painting. It attempts to make the ‘North’ a special category, just as ‘Ireland’ is seen as a special category by those who argue for Irish art’s rural and/or Celtic roots. As regards the question of ‘regionalism’, it is easier to think of the North as a cultural entity (albeit with two cultures) because of its size, border and history. It is less easy to think of the region within the South as a cultural entity because of the pull of the centralization of administration and economy. Indicatively, the debate within the arts in the South has focused around the urban/rural divide.

This I think highlights one of the failings of Irish art generally. Far from treating categories such as the nation, the region or the North as problematic, there has been a tendency to reproduce the symbols which represent these categories simply as a way of signifying, Protestant, Catholic, the Irish nation, the country, etc. The categories are read as given. I think the construction of identity is much more complex than this. Part of the problem, maybe a large part, lies with art criticism for it is the art critics who, in attempting the overview of Irish art, latch on to the more generalized visual statement in order to make their own generalized statement about the condition of Irish art. Nevertheless much more attention needs to be given to specifics within the local and this has to take into account we are constructed by historical, political and cultural forces both within Ireland and from the outside world. It is a difficult agenda, but what I hope to have illustrated here is that regionalism is a political and ideological question which connects with determining forces as various as the way in which the economy is administered, or, postmodernism.

  1. The question was also raised by Tom Duddy in ‘Irish Art Criticism: a provincialism of the Right?’ CIRCA No. 35, pp.14-18. No. 35 however, was given over to an invited guest Editor.
  2. T.J. Barrington, ‘Frontiers of the Mind,’ in Across the Frontiers: Ireland in the 1990s, edited by Richard Kearney, Wolfhound, 1988, pp. 29-44.
  3. John Wilson Foster, ‘Radical Regionalism’, The Irish Review, No. 7 (Autumn 1989), pp. 1-15.
  4. Ibid., p.13.
  5. ‘Place by Place,’ in CIRCA nos. 30, 31, 34, 36, 37.
  6. Joseph Lee, Centralisation and Community in Ireland: towards a sense of place, edited by Joseph Lee, Cork University Press, 1985, pp. 84-101.
  7. John Wilson Foster, pp. 4-5.
  8. See for example the Section entitled, ‘Globalisation and Localisation,’ in New Times: the changing face of politics in the 1990s, edited by Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, Lawrence & Wishart, 1989, pp. 191-229.
  9. Joseph Lee, p.97.
  10. For an historical background and an assessment of the Republic’s performance see Richard Pine, ‘Cultural Democracy, Cultural Policy and Cultural Identity: web of woven guesses,’ The Crane Bag, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1983, pp. 125-133.
  11. This is a theme in Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: essays in Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, 1983. As a compilation of essays on the illnesses of cultural centrism, the book is the Bible of the eighties for postmodern critics.
  12. Raymond Williams, ‘Between Country and City’, in R. Williams, Resources of Hope, Verso, 1989, p.228.
  13. For an analysis see Paul O’Brien, ‘Modernism, Postmodernism and Beyond’, CIRCA, No. 48, pp. 16-22.
  14. David Brett, CIRCA, No. 29, pp. 20-21.
  15. Ibid., p.21.
  16. Brian McAvera, Directions Out, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, 1987.