The Art Problem

Desmond Fennell

The Art Problem

We have an 'art problem', argues Irish writer Desmond Fennell.

In western civilisation, as in other civilisations, art was no problem. There were myths, widely believed in or widely known, in whose shadow art could flourish. There were the stories of Adam and Eve and of Christ and his Mother. There were the lives of saints and martyrs, the myths of ancient Greece, the national myths of the European nations, the myths romantic love, chaste womanhood, the knight errant, the gentleman, Revolution, and the grand myth of the Individual’s inner life – the communion of Self and Soul.

These myths and others provided material and incitement for art. They supplied frameworks within which art could be constructed, shared and understood. Without such bonding myths for it to flourish in, art cannot flourish. Since we rejected the rules and myths of western civilisation and set out to make a much better postwestern civilisation, we have been experiencing this fact. We have an art problem.

Abandoning the old myths because they were false or oppressive or incredible was one thing; creating new myths and getting them believed in is another. It has not been happening. This goes a long way to explain both the withering of art and our attempts to conceal this from ourselves: the proliferation of arts centres and arts officials; the constant talk and flurry about more funding for the arts; the tendency to call anything in verse-style poetry and pat it, uncritically, on the head; and the fact, finally, that art can now mean anything so described by a commercial or institutional sponsor who calls its producer an artist. Because our new civilisation is better, by definition, than anything that went before it – and due to become better still – it must, like any self-respecting civilisation, have Art. And if it hasn’t, it must be made to have, because by definition it is the best, and how could the best lack that essential accoutrement?

The busy buzz of arts sections, pages, editors, promotions, centres, festivals, officers, courses and programmes – the hum of an arts industry with regular factories of the arts – show that art, despite appearances to the contrary, is flourishing all around us. Funding, if sufficient, can more than adequately substitute for the missing myths. And by dint of calling anything art – a pile of stones, a girl in bed – we can make sure it will exist abundantly and everywhere, not only now but forever more. No civilisation before us thought of that.

I uttered these observations to the Editor of the JMI and he remarked, What you are saying has the current music scene written all over it. Can you spell that out for our readers – apply it to music?

What he was implying was true. I had been talking about art mainly with regard to literature and the visual arts. I had included music – music is art! – but not explicitly. Actually, I was thinking of music when I mentioned industry and factory. It is because everyone says the music industry that I have taken to speaking of the Irish literary industry – all those readings, launch-parties, workshops, writers-in-residence, reverential interviews and puff reviews. And a Dublin friend who was promoting a new rock-band gave me a number where I could ring her at the Factory. That’s what she said!

I told the Editor, Remember I live in Italy. If I were to get specific, I mightn’t have much to say that would be relevant to your Irish readers. But I reflected, doing my best. When I listen to Radio 3 on Italian radio I sometimes hear popular songs of Old Italy, say from Naples or Venice. They strike me as very beautiful. They touch my heart and even when they are sad songs lift me spiritually. I believe they were made to be like that – that it’s a matter of art, not accident – and that they did for those who made them what they do for me. Again, I hear popular Italian songs of the 1920s which are witty, charming, flirtatious. They put me in good humour, make me smile. And I’m sure they were meant to do exactly that for those who first heard them.

The town I live in is on a big lake. When there is a festa of some kind, many people gather on a large piazza bordering the lake. They never hear those old popular songs I hear on the radio nor anything like them. They hear what has taken their place. There’s a platform in the middle of the piazza and a band is making booming, blaring and clanking sound which is electrically amplified. It dominates the space and the people. Some young people stand near, and from their faces I would guess they are experiencing intensity. Most people remain at a distance, for the noise hurts, and it is difficult to talk if you are anywhere near it. Occasionally, moreover, a vocalist, usually a girl, shouts and screeches and gyrates at a microphone. She seems unhappy even when it is a lovely afternoon with the sun glistening on the lake. I don’t blame this production for not being art, for I think that art is not its purpose. It has another purpose of which those who enjoy it are well aware.

I said that a band occupies the platform. In Italy a more common name for it would be an orchesta. Indeed that is what an orchestra usually means there now – six or seven musicians and a singer rendering contemporary sound. I switched into a national competition for orchestras on Italian television, and found that all the competitors were groups like that. Until I got used to it this surprised me, for an orchestra, in the old civilisation, meant something quite different.

I passed on these memories and thoughts from Italy to the Editor, and he said, Not bad, you’re trying. But if the readers of the JMI are the kind of readers I’m hoping to have, they’ll be able to do a bit better than that. Let’s leave it to them. But thanks. So I’ve done what the Editor asked me to do.

First published in JMI: The Journal of Music in Ireland, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Nov–Dec 2000), pp. 13–14.

Published on 1 November 2000

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