Giving culture its rightful place

Geraint Talfan Davies reflects on the election of a new Irish President

There will be many in Wales, particularly in arts and broadcasting, who will take a quiet pleasure in the election of Michael D. Higgins as the ninth President of the Irish Republic, and who will wonder just what fireworks there are to come. Taking office after two distinguished women presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, he has hard acts to follow.

Higgins has been an example of that combination of engaged politician and public intellectual that is now all too rare in the United Kingdom, not least in Wales. Passionate and loquacious – the latter, some would say, to a fault – his political engagement has extended through local politics, as Mayor of Galway, ten years as chairman of the Irish Labour Party, election to the Dail and, later, appointment to the Irish senate. He has also been an active campaigner on a whole host of social and humanitarian issues in Ireland and overseas – becoming the first recipient of the Sean Macbride Peace Prize in 1992.

He was Minister for the Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in the Irish Rainbow coalition government from 1993-1997, during which time he also served as President of the European Council of Culture Ministers. Fluent in the Irish language, he was instrumental in setting up Ireland’s equivalent of S4C – TG4, in rejuvenating its film industry and in setting up local arts centres across the country.

One of the remarkable features of his campaign for the presidency has been a series of speeches that have articulated a vision focused on inclusive citizenship, the creative society, a reinvigoration of the Irish constitution in order to overcome the ethical collapse that was so much part of Ireland’s economic collapse, and a bold approach to ‘being Irish in the world’.

It is the inclusion of culture and the creative society in his quartet of themes that marks him out most clearly from any part of the conventional political discourse this side of the Irish sea. Like our own cultural philosopher, the late Raymond Williams, Higgins sees culture as a central rather than peripheral issue, especially for small countries in a globalised world. He is a man who instinctively sees the need to bridge the local and global.

I recall that in 1995, when BBC Wales was engaged in one of the BBC’s periodic strategy exercises, it was to the Irish Green Paper on broadcasting that we looked for inspiration rather than to its much more prosaic British counterpart. The Irish paper – its passion very much a reflection of Higgins’ style – offered important messages.

“Broadcasting today is strongly charged with opposite meanings of promise and threat.

“It can be the motor of modernisation, cultural innovation, social transformation and even democratisation.

“It can cultivate a healthy public sphere in which national self confidence flourishes and is orientated towards the future.

“It can critically interrogate a nation’s history, culture and identity and offer a vantage point for the renewal of that heritage.

“But broadcasting can also be a threat, pitting profit motive against collective rights, de-territorialised imperialism against minority cultural needs. It can disfigure us politically, homogenise us linguistically, and depress our inclination for cultural expression.”

To reinforce the message I persuaded Michael D., as he is usually known, to come to Cardiff, where he gave a lecture at Broadcasting House in Llandaf, at an event that we arranged jointly with the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. The same messages were prominent in his pitch for the presidency.

Earlier this year, he addressed the annual conference of the Northern Ireland Theatre Association in these terms:

“Culture, beyond all the definitional difficulties, is based on what we share. It is a process, one that is continually being reworked. In addition, because culture is shared it constitutes the bed-rock of the public world – a public world that is under threat from the demands of a destabilising privatised world, predicated on consumption, and the protection of which life-world is often based on a fear of others. Thus, the shared trust of citizens in the public space is replaced by the insecurity of private possessions. The demand for a minimal State masks the assumption of extreme individualism and is a strategy to secure the hegemony of an unaccountable, extreme version of the market economy.”

“To consider then the concept of the cultural space – the cultural space cannot be the residual of the marketplace. Rather, it is the space within which various forms of human activity are made possible. There is nothing abstract about this. The fact is that the cultural space properly respected can be not merely a location for the arts but a source of vision, offering innovation in capacity for living, including the economic, and a necessary defining capacity for quality of life.”

Despite some of the promising work on cultural policy in Wales in the early years of the National Assembly, and some of the creditable funding decisions since, one cannot think of any political leader in England or Wales, who has chosen to set out a case for culture and cultural investment in this way.

At a more local level it is only in the last few months that our capital city has begun to talk up the creative and cultural side of the city, with the launch by Cardiff & Co, the city’s marketing arm, of its @CreativeCardiff campaign. Even here Higgins has some useful advice to offer on the confusion that can be easily engendered by the loose interchangeability of the terms ‘cultural’ and ‘creative’:

“Within this definition of creative industries lie the traditional practices of the arts, but in the transition from Arts, through culture, to creative industries not only has the net of what is included been extended, but there is a tendency to discuss what was previously a cultural matter, or even a citizenship matter, as something that can be appropriately considered by existing economic measures.

“It is as if within the cultural space, a tierra nueva of the creative industries has suddenly been discovered. This raises of course the issue as to whether we are seeking to build a strong cultural space, enabling creativity to emerge within it, for citizens in general and for people of all ages, or are we alternatively colonising a previously relatively free space of human activity for the economic benefit of the few rather than the many.”

He was keen to head off the accusation that this did not mean that he was not alive to, or did not value the potential for job creation and economic gain, but he sees culture as going beyond the economic:

“Culture can prevent and treat some of the emerging tensions of our society. It can help build an understanding of the many facets of sustainability. It can bring about a new sense of solidarity. It can indeed positively inspire the new economy and can especially act as a means of empowerment and entitlement. It can be the bedrock we need to reach out from to understand and respect other cultures, with the self-reliance that respecting our own culture brings. In other words, it is an ingredient of society and policy that needs to be brought in from the margins, because for many decades it has not received the attention it deserves from policy-makers.

“At a micro-level, it is worth noting that, while creativity is being recognised in management practice, and this is welcome, unfortunately, discussions of innovation frequently are based on the mistaken assumption that creativity can be divorced from its social setting, that it can be induced in an artificial setting. The truth is that a community that is rich in arts provision provides a base for a form of creativity that is capable of producing myriad forms of innovation in a diversity of settings. Such an approach also makes possible the combination of indigenous wisdom with imaginative invention and innovation in the truest sense.”

These are messages that are worth repeating in Wales, as we ponder how to lift ourselves off the bottom of too many league tables. Rhetoric about the ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘a small, clever country’, will not get us anywhere without a much deeper  understanding of the relationship between culture, society and the economy and a willingness on the part of political leaders to articulate it.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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