In Ireland, we have culture night similar to how fortunate children have Christmas. One day per year when we are allowed what our imaginations may (or may not) have desired.
Government appointed quangos decide what constitutes our national culture, and therefore which precise presents are officially available. The commodification of Culture in Ireland has become a successful thriving industry in itself. Brand Ireland sells. Brand managers and various administrative layers have become self proliferating, perpetuating.
Artists, Writers, Musicians, Performers are invited to participate in this very special night and consequentially further endorse this destructive commodification that entirely reinforces the market society Ireland has become in recent decades.
As others have observed once we begin to put a price on various community and social activities, we convert public good to public goods. Our greedy rooms of economic experts can then begin their projections of worth, value, and profits in these ‘markets’.
As we put a price on any commodity we also ensure that access to it is then governed by wealth levels. Markets are also fundamentally about competition. Participants become consumers. Money becomes central.
But it’s Free…. ??
In Ireland wealth can be directly linked to political access, in a country who’s cronyism and nepotism have always at very least bubbled about in the background, to be connected is really everything for some. Surely there is no deliberate irony in Culture Night’s tagline: Connect through culture.
As someone who has been independently creative and creatively engaged with the arts and technologies, within and outside commerce/business for about forty years, I really do understand the dilemmas and dichotomies facing any artist offered either a crust or the promise of wider exposure, having paid the price of being both broke and hungry as a result of my own (foolish ?) artistic ( & Life) choices, is it then ironically rich of me to suggest to any struggling artist they consider not uncritically taking part in this constituted culture market (the culture night ritual itself is now 15 years old).
‘Free’ today has become more marketing terminology than any kind of liberation, loss leaders and free downloads are hooks and flytraps for the less aware consumer, terms and conditions apply, as always.
Culture and Banks
The books on the right in the image above are (some of) the great writer Iain M. Banks science fiction ‘Culture series’ novels, ones I’ve already read, the pile on the left are the ones I have yet to read. I am not going to offer any spoilers here, except to say that ‘The Culture’ are an advanced amalgam of races which contain advanced technologies, higher intelligence and a lot of mind. A sophisticated Utopian civilization one in so many respects often counterpointing the vast swath of dystopian visions offered elsewhere in science fiction and other future focused fiction, it can be highly dense imaginative optimistic writing.
Culture (without reference to Iain M Banks or the likes of Joseph Campbell or Edward Burnett Tylor) is also fundamentally concerned with shared Values, Beliefs, and Rituals.
The great societal pause created by Covid 19 remains a (tragic) opportunity to find ways to assess and reassess these shared values, beliefs, and rituals. Surely our leaders would agree, now is a time to open our minds as much as our hearts ?
Imagine a vital debate making decisions about what all this arts stuff actually is, and to whom is it important? How and why any of this is called Culture, what that might really mean beyond the superficial, what effects arise out of these decisions long term ?
Imagine specifically questioning promoted and funded varieties easily found ‘free’ on culture night, yes the endorsed and officially rubber stamped varieties, the specific brand of ‘culture’ which on September 18th will seep out through our screens and devices, that agreed upon type of arts, endorsed and asymmetrically shared by what is ultimately a hegemonic few, Again what is it really ? and what is it’s actual purpose, is there any alternative view ? Well it is a debate that simply won’t happen in Ireland.
Such a debate isn’t happening because our entire arts and culture industries, the culture markets in Ireland, are currently decimated by Covid 19, the response for the most part has been vested and established interests clambering with begging bowls to government.
Plenty of people who get up in the morning and many many others state their cases for support and special treatment to survive in today’s highly competitive marketplace they actually helped create, continue to endorse, and help preserve, albeit perhaps unwittingly.
The temporary reduction in our national VAT rate is interesting because it should serve to remind all of us that anyone who pays for commodities, also pays tax, and thus participates in our various markets (or market segments) whether they happen to get up early or not.
Even when the Irish exchequer is borrowing money, it is all the people’s money if not our children’s money they are borrowing, the continued use of that money to impose a market ideology through the arts should also reside at the heart of any potential debate about how that money is spent. I’d like to write here about the GAA and my admiration for it and what it does at community level, however that would make this piece far too long, so another day perhaps..
What exactly constitutes our contemporary ‘culture’ and what effect does it have on the future direction of our arts ? No one I have seen or read in the media has ever questioned this aspect of policy in this specific manner ? We get lots of commentary in the organ of record but little actual informed analysis as to the longer term detrimental effect on various parts of our broader society.
It seems shouting about diversity or inclusion, droning on about access, counts as sufficient critical analysis of strategy. In business culture eats strategy for breakfast yet these efficient government agencies produce only focused ‘strategic’ plans, to which everyone and their mother are often invited to contribute, diluting the very concept of focused strategy. We love commissioned reports in Ireland, almost as much as we love the cans we kick down the road.
I am obviously aware that writing on this topic like this at this time may myopically characterize me as some kind of begrudging curmudgeon, ‘oh come on allow people to enjoy themselves and their arts in whatever manner they wish’. But to argue that is to miss the point of seeing culture commodified and economically mined to the detriment of those who probably most need the greatest access to it, the poorer in our society.
To consider this uninvited open contribution to culture night worthy of critical appraisal or rebuttal is to accord me more influence or attention than I want, merit or deserve, while my website in its previous form had hundreds of thousands of visits, I never promoted it outside my relatively small circle of friends, friends from across a broad spectrum.
Are there already enough middle class minds, or refusenic working class nogins like mine, wallowing in these cultural wastelands we create as we emulate our own personal hero or heroin ? I would like to imagine that if prompted the current gatekeepers and purse-holders could recognize the longer term value of reform to all parts of our society, or perhaps I am confused and really being Utopian ? Or should I just accept that as with all markets, there will be winners and their most certainly will be losers and it’s not my job to point that out to anyone.
Yet part of the joy of Arts and Culture is learning, education, exchange, participation is a broadening or deepening experience, it is absolutely vital that the poorer in our society have access to the arts. Will culture night offer them that access ? I very much doubt it, will culture night offer anything other than a back slapping celebration of the status quo, of the status of those arts sectors as a primarily promoted activity that strategically supports the continuance of a market society more interested in profits than participants, I again very much doubt that also.
I was lucky that the community arts I experienced were to me nothing to do with culture or organizations nor endorsements nor conformance, they were created by the community that enjoyed them, very very little if any funding was ever received and they were created with a view to allowing my then working class community to experience themselves as others may see them/us/me. I have made many friends through the arts… I have learned a lot from and through the arts, I have an enormous respect for artists and practitioners, and recognize that communities of practice tend to share certain values, perspectives, beliefs, they are a form of sub-culture in and of themselves..
But as Terence McKenna wisely said: Culture is not your friend….
So led by the least among us, until we ask for this debate, inform ourselves, share information, there will be no change and market forces will continue to erode the public good in favor of public goods, competition will continue to create Darwinian conditions and arts and culture will become fully and only elitist pursuits.
However I see a brighter future, perhaps not one so entirely different to what Banks himself wrote so extensively about, a future that imagines enlightenment, de-commodification, fairness, understanding, appreciation, where the most reported pandemic in history became a catalyst for positive, genuine, authentic societal change on Culture Night..
Again, Imagine that…
If you got this far, sincere thanks for reading, please feel free to share or leave a comment..