Friday, October 01, 2004

News: Irish Traditional Culture, Cultural Policy

Last Tuesday, 28th September, the Arts Council of Ireland published Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts. The report is available to download in either Irish (language) or English, and hard copies are also available from Arts Council reception. Further information: Michelle Hoctor, Press and Communications Officer, The Arts Council, Tel 01 6180 235/ 087 856 3070

The press release declares that the report constitutes a significant step forward for the Arts Council in its relationship with the traditional arts. It consists of two parts: the report of the Special Committee on the Traditional Arts, and the Arts Council response to that report.

The Special Committee on the Traditional Arts was established in December 2003 under Section 21 of the Arts Act, 2003. Jerome Hynes, Deputy-Chair of the Arts Council, chaired the five-person Committee. The other members were Philip King, Micheál O hEidhin, Una Ó Murchú and Katie Verling. It was charged with reviewing the structures, supports and policy for traditional arts nationwide, and was asked to make recommendations to the Arts Council by 1 September 2004.

The report outlines 46 recommendations concerning the traditional arts, which have been put forward to the Council by the Special Committee, including a definition of traditional arts; the funding role of the Arts Council; the fostering of the traditional arts; the state promotion of the traditional arts; the need for appropriate staff; television and radio broadcasting; education; performance; Irish language supports, the work of local authorities, Comhaltás Ceoltoiri Éireann and IMRO; career development and professional archiving.

At an early stage, the Special Committee took the decision to publicly invite submissions from interested parties to inform its deliberations. Eighty-seven submissions were received in total, some short letters, others comprehensive documents containing detailed analysis.

Olive Braiden, Chair of the Arts Council, presented the Minister with the report. Speaking at the launch, she said: “The report by the Special Committee was presented to the Council and was warmly received and commended for its constructive approach. The Council has adopted its main policy recommendations. This document, Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts, therefore provides an important opportunity for the state to begin to embrace and support the traditional arts in a co-ordinated and realistic fashion, and to ensure that this unique expression of our culture is protected and developed. The Arts Council is confident that this document, offers the possibility of a significant improvement in the prospects for the traditional arts in the years ahead. It will act as our road map”.

Speaking at the presentation, Minister O’Donoghue said: “When I became Minister for Arts just over two years ago, one of the first things I became aware of was the ongoing challenge of how the state would most effectively support the traditional arts. I believe this report has the potential to place the traditional arts at the heart of Irish cultural life, nationally and internationally. It is a matter of considerable personal satisfaction for me to see the publication of this document here today. In line with the report, I believe that the Arts Council must now take a more active role in the development and support of the traditional arts. However, it cannot and should not assume the role of sole provider. Rather, it must work to complement the activity that is already taking place”.

The Minister also added: “I will do my utmost to convince my colleagues in Government of the need for additional funding for the arts, to allow the Council to achieve the recommendations outlined in this report. I would like to thank the Special Committee on the Traditional Arts for all their work, its Chairperson Jerome Hynes, the Arts Council and all those who put forward the many public submissions which helped to inform the recommendations of this report”.

Having read the document, it seems like a pretty solid cultural policy document. This is a relief, if not surprising, given the rather turbulent history of cultural policy and 'the traditional arts' in Ireland.

Of particular note was the Government Report written by Labhras O Murchu, Senator and Director-General of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (CCE), which was published and then withdrawn. This document was little more than a reproduction of CCE press releases, and failed to include reference to the countless other traditional music organisations in Ireland that operate on a daily basis. It just so happened that the report included recommendations for funding distribution. Initial criticisms of the report, publicly visible in the letters section of the Irish Times in 1999, were opposed and derided vehemently by Senator O Murchu as evidence of a pan-traditional conspiracy against Comhaltas in general and himself in particular.

Of note was the recommendation that a "national State council for the development and promotion of the traditional arts such as native music, song, dance, storytelling, etc." be established, despite widespread opposition to the idea. If Flip-Flop is an appropriate term for either of the candidates in the US elections, it's even more appropriate in this story. Following nation-wide consultation it was stated by the relevant Minister that there would not be a national State for the traditional arts. Most breathed a sigh of relief. Then it was announced, in the absence of further consultation, that such a council would indeed be established. Rumours abounded of behind-the-scenes shenanigans and not-so-subtle power plays.

This current policy document hopefully nails the coffin shut, recommending that there not be a separate council for the 'traditional arts'. Apparently some of the CCE powers that be are unhappy with this, and it has been alleged that two of the five who sat on the working group that produced the document have registered their dissatisfaction with its findings, and indeed, it has been suggested that they have submitted what is becoming known quite ironically, in ways that would make Philip K. Dick squirm, as a 'minority report'.

I acknowledge there are good points to the document. Firstly, it is quite exemplary in its clarity, with little jargon and very specific explanations. In the light of what has gone before it is surprising that an Irish government-sponsored working group might come up with a generally unpartisan and balanced review of the issues, but this seems to be what they have produced.

What I have a problem with is what the working group could do nothing about. As far as I am concerned it is symptomatic and constitutive of the institutionalization, bureaucratization, and professionalization of whatever might be referred to as 'the traditional arts' in Ireland. That's fine, people do what they do, but at the same time it will have further consequences for how people continue to understand the issues involved. For the moment, the document is evidence that the explicitly ideological tide has been temporarily stemmed, and that some sense is possible.

However, more and more those who espouse non-commercial, non-institutional, non-organized, non-bureaucratic viewpoints are being rendered invisible, if not irrelevant to cultural policy discussion, and this isn't only in Ireland. Any attempt to define 'traditional arts' will flounder on account of the variety of meanings and contexts associated with the concept of 'traditional'. As happened with the UNESCO definition of folklore recently, you can end up definining everything and nothing. This isn't quite what happened with this document, but it came close. The main reason for a definition at all in this context is likely to aid the distribution of money when it comes to funding opportunities. That's why the distinctions are 'necessary'. There is no 'truth' established through this act of definition. If that is so, then watch as people adapt what they do to suit the funding requirements when they start being published. It wouldn't be the first time.

Back in 1993, before the 'Celtic Tiger' became part of the Irish National Myth, a book called The Irish Disease declared handout culture to be one of the failings of the Irish character. While I don't work with the concept of 'Irish character', I do think that education into reliance on government funding for 'creative' activity isn't terribly healthy in the long term, even if in the short term it seems like a good idea. If government funding becomes a long shadow over what many refer to 'traditional music' or whatever term you want to use, then the character of how things change may not necessarily be for the better.