Why can’t more artists break the rules?

A scene from a production of Shadow of a Gunman.
A scene from a production of Shadow of a Gunman.

I wish more artists in City of Culture would break the rules. What’s the point otherwise?

Art should comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, kick over the traces and, above all else, refuse to do what it’s told.

Art should shout out truths that authority would rather were left unsaid. Art should be suspicious to the point of paranoia when invited to put its shoulder to the wheel of a safe project. When told to behave, art should wreck rings round it.

If O’Casey had set out in the aftermath of a conflict that had ripped Dublin apart to write plays to make citizens feel better about themselves or outsiders to praise Dublin as a darlin’ place, he’d have written rubbish. Instead, within a couple of weeks of the civil war ending, he gave us the Shadow of a Gunman…They say it’s the gunmen are dying for the people when it’s the people are dying for the gunmen…There were riots of course. Might be here, too, is anything such were essayed.

If Goya had responded to the massacre of Madridenos by Napoleon’s imperial army with a portrait of dignified heroism that the citizens could simper at to console themselves, the image would have been relegated to the trash-can of history long ago, an unremembered daub. Instead, he bequeathed the desperate fear and flash-lit horror of The Third of May and left it to ourselves to ponder its pity and rage. I wonder if anybody asked him afterwards what that sort of thing was going to do for inward investment. Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness. Would he not have been better turning it into a travelogue, giving tourism a bit of a boost?

The executive brochure for City of Culture tells that Derry has “a story which must be told”. So does everywhere, I suppose. But ours is a particularly tumultuous tale, full of hatred and suffering as well as generosity and love, marked by pain endured but also inflicted, a city of oppressed and oppressors, our history an expanse of beauty ravaged everywhere with ugliness. It’s a great yarn, right enough, but much of it not for the squeamish and much of it therefore not to be told. Not in front of the visitors, anyway. The summer edition of Fugitive Papers - you can pick up a copy for free at the CCA on Pump St. - carries a brilliant essay by Aaron Duffy which picks up the point that that the imperative to tell Derry’s story “is short-circuited by another peremptory narrative request: ‘In 2013 Derry-Londonderry wants, and needs, to tell a new story.’” Not the old story, then, not the story of how things really were, of the hotch-potch of actual experience which made us what we are, but a tale full of charming resilience to beguile the world and, perforce, to beguile ourselves as well. The most plausible way to tell untruth is to believe it yourself, which you can if you try, and do make the effort…

The new story to be proclaimed is of a shiny happy place teeming with shiny happy people, with a song on our lips and a lilt in our step, all resolved to forget what’s regretted and keep the dreaminess alive.

This has nothing to do with art and culture but everything to do with business and politics. Could we manage to agree a theme song before the year is out? I can hear a chorus of cultural entrepreneurs, reformed radicals, winsome academics, council bosses, police commanders, funding barons and representatives of the four main churches, all in perfect harmony. The lead singer will of course be a consultant. All together now -

“Oh, Irishmen forget the past
And think of the time that’s coming fast
When we will all be civilized
Neat and clean and well advised
Oh, won’t Mother England be surprised?
Whack fol the diddle fol the di dol day”

More soon.