Art & The Nation State: The Reception of Modern Art in Ireland, by Róisín Kennedy, Liverpool University Press, 304 pp, £90, ISBN: 978-1789622355
In his defence of the story, Walter Benjamin acknowledges that while works of art can bring about feelings of separation and even alienation, storytelling is inherently collective and allows for authentic communication between different kinds of people. For reasons outlined by Róisín Kennedy in this new book, this applies to Irish people in particular. From the introduction of easel painting through colonialism to the imperialist establishment of art institutions like the Royal Hibernian Academy, Irish audiences at the outset of the twentieth century understandably rejected visual art in favour of traditionally native forms of expression like literature and music.
Between then and now, as Kennedy demonstrates, the field of art in Ireland has persistently been dominated by a middle class, Anglo-Irish and/or educated elite. It follows then that readers today might be unfamiliar with or completely apathetic towards the artists and works mentioned throughout this book. Ultimately however, thanks to the storytelling power of the author, Art & The Nation State offers a way into the world of Irish visual art accessible to anyone. In her holistic approach to art history and reference to a wide range of sources, Kennedy has produced a comprehensive story of modern Irish art which is richer and more thought-provoking than most tomes on the subject.
Conversely, this is also a comforting read for anyone who is frustrated by the lack of attention given to the arts in Ireland. It becomes clear how the state of things today is a natural continuation of policies implemented over the last hundred years. Thomas Bodkin’s 1949 Report on the Arts in Ireland reads like a frustrated tweet in response to the incessant closure of cultural spaces today: “ … no other country of Western Europe cared less, or gave less, for the cultivation of the arts”. As the primary framework for continental European ideas and art, Modernism offered Irish audiences at the turn of the twentieth century access to a world beyond that of their colonial past and contemporary England. In the search for new modes of expression, many Republican figures were initially drawn to it for this reason. Like them, the main avantgarde groups in Europe were collaborative and rebellious by definition (the French Expressionists, Fauvists, Surrealists, Dadaists). As Europe moved towards the Second World War however, Modernism came to be defined by individual expression, subversive themes and an “inherent recognition of the fragmented nature of contemporary experience”, making it too threatening for the leaders of a young and fragile republic – whose main goal was “to bolster a shared and artificially constructed public realm”. Despite whatever genuine interest Irish people may have had in engaging with Modern art, the transfer of power from imperial Britain to a theocratic Free State was characterised by a heavy-handed commitment to censorship and conservatism. The collective efforts of the Academy of Christian Art, Royal Irish Academy, Censorship Acts and a legion of Catholic and state leaders successfully demonised new and avant garde art to the point that at least two successive generations of Irish people upheld this closed-off outlook. From a twenty-first century vantage point, it is hard not to cringe reading that a relatively esoteric and inoffensive stained-glass window by Harry Clarke was considered “a Protestant conspiracy”, which presented the Irish people “as bizarre almost viciously evil people steeped in sex and drunkenness and, yes, sin”. Or that French (secular) nude sculptures were rejected by Irish art institutions as “cheap statuettes” made by “non-Catholics or even by pagans” against which audiences needed “protection”. This attitude of fear and hostility evokes an uncomfortable comparison with concurrent Nazi oppression of art, and helps to explain the ensuing decades of disregard, sense of futility and emigration experienced by Irish artists.
In the wake of the Second World War however, nationalism and ideological zeal were less appealing characteristics for a European country to have. Carried by the success of individual “genius” artists and blockbuster exhibitions, the diplomatic, economic and political benefits of Modern art also came into sharper focus – it had become a major hallmark of European liberal democracy and a critical form of cultural currency. The foundations for Ireland’s rebrand as a globalist and market-driven state were laid midway through the twentieth century and this involved the formation of an artistic canon, as well as a doubling down on seemingly inherent qualities of Irish culture (ancient spirituality, idealistic heroism, moral purity). Jack Yeats still demands so much of our attention thanks to the weight thrown behind him by the Irish state and cultural elite; any past resistance or snobbishness towards non-literary artistic production was replaced with a devoted reverence for his built-for-nostalgia paintings.
To varying degrees, Irish art has always been co-opted for political purposes; while its functions have changed over time, its utility has been the redeeming feature for the state. For all decolonial intentions, the “bias towards the presentation of Ireland as an ancient Celtic state, rather than a living modern one” was a major hindrance to the production of provocative or socially engaged art. Kennedy emphasises this issue throughout: Yeats, along with other state-approved figures like Louis le Brocquy and Mainie Jellett, contributed to the image of the artist as a “mythical figure whose practice was disconnected from day-to-day reality”. Following the trends of contemporary art theory in postwar European Modernism, the art of Ireland’s “first self-proclaimed avant-garde” White Stag Group was perceived as esoteric and individualistic, or at least too focused on the subjective and the present moment. While some expressed their frustration with this dissonance (“In a community with so little regard for the living this exaggerated praise of the dead is more than angering”), mainstream Irish art favoured rose-tinted perspectives on the past, or identities which fit with the state’s self-image.
Of course the trend to look to the past and engage Ireland’s unique culture is still a feature of Irish art. A recent video work by multidisciplinary artist Eimear Walshe, The Land Question: Where the fuck am I supposed to have sex? (viewable on Vimeo) makes reference to historical figures like Michael Davitt and Lord Leitrim of Donegal, lesser-known case studies of land redistribution in rural Ireland and features an uilleann pipe soundtrack by Ian Lynch. Revolving art collective The Ecliptic Newsletter employs similarly historical and Celtic aesthetics and references in its monthly offerings. During the pandemic last year, it produced one of the only opportunities for the public to experience culture outside their homes: a fictional exhibition, “LIDL Museum of Ancient and Contemporary Art (LMACA)”. The project, comprised of an audio tour (still available on Bandcamp) and printed newsletter, made use of the recently unveiled display of medieval archaeological ruins beneath Lidl on Aungier Street in Dublin. Like Walshe’s work, Ecliptic’s historicism and familiarity make it accessible for Irish audiences.
What has changed then? The concerted effort on the part of Ireland’s twentieth century cultural, religious and governmental elite to contrive relevance or ascribe political meaning to art that met their standards is distinct from the more critical and discursive intentions of contemporary artists who are concerned with the past. Unlike many Irish Modernists, these artists are explicitly concerned with the political and social functions of art. Whereas Jack Yeats – the “sacred cow” of Irish Modern Art – explained away inconvenient aspects of his identity by declaring that he belonged to the “spirit land” as opposed to the Anglo-Irish elite, Walshe’s work deals with rural and sexual politics in a way that is authentic to their identity as a Longford native and non-binary person. They also wryly situate themselves explicitly within the context of their work: “as a matrilineal inheritor of the legacy of agrarian radicalism, I deeply resent the contemporary notion of trickle-down sexual morality from the urban context to that of the rural”. Ecliptic also makes use of satire (“Many people believe that a grid of earth energies circles the globe, connecting important and sacred sites such as Newgrange, LIDL regional distribution centre Newbridge, and LIDL Aungier Street”) and a shared sense of the past to highlight the commodification of Ireland’s ancient history, as well as the lack of support for contemporary art that is critical, para-institutional or subversive. Both directly confront the historical legacy of art’s co-option by the state as cultural currency – a point that is subtly drawn out by Kennedy.
For all its blackpilling (defeatist, nihilistic sense of cynicism) capacity, the internet does offer the possibility of an authentically diverse discourse around Irish art and culture. If you’re looking for “reactionary analysis of cultural occurrences through the lens of being working class”, fashion and culture critic Amber Kidd (aka@yung1) shares her writing on her personal website. A recent article, “Dublin’s classism needs more hard, realistic conversations”, combines refreshing critical and political commentary effortlessly. On TikTok and Instagram, somewhere between satire, performance art and social criticism, @meditationsfortheanxiousmind runs a popular video series titled “Ancient Mysteries Explained”, which covers topics like “the identity crisis of Bray”, or “what happened to the emos at central bank?” The videos play on formulaic media trends, delivering sobering quips on Irish culture and meta-commentary on the psychological impact of neoliberalism: “Tell me you’re Irish without telling me you’re Irish […] You complain about the weather … because it helps to distract you from the widening void between yourself and others.”
This book makes clear that Irish art criticism, reception and historiography have historically been determined by the same conservative attitudes that permeated the country. “Good” art has been determined according to metrics which rarely considered response to urgent issues (such as poverty, state and church abuse or sectarian conflict) as critical to a creative practice. Kennedy has done an excellent job of tracing the patrilineal and homogenous tendencies of Irish art history; a canon has been constructed around the same type of person – middle class, religious (or tastefully agnostic) and male (or tastefully female).
Many of the hierarchical systems which underpinned Irish Modernism and suppressed genuine diversity of thought and expression through visual art (capitalism, patriarchy, theocracy) survive thanks to their own tactical invisibility. In order to make visible what Mary Douglas calls “the pattern hidden in the rug”, the work of critical and typically under-represented artists should be nurtured. While we exist within and between institutions, individual cultural practitioners often operate according to the institutionalism that exists within ourselves. In 2005 Andrea Fraser wrote that “Just as art cannot exist outside the field of art, we cannot exist outside the field of art, at least not as artists, critics, curators, etc. And what we do outside the field, to the extent that it remains outside, can have no effect within it. So if there is no outside for us […] it is because the institution is inside of us, and we can’t get outside of ourselves.”
The protectionist needs of post-colonial states often produce paradoxical responses to the trauma they have experienced. Despite, for example, the gentrifying and neoliberal problematics of biennials, they are multiplying in places which have experienced colonialism, dictatorships or other political struggles (Jakarta, South Korea, Senegal). This can help to explain why the gatekeepers of Irish art have historically been guided by fear and reservation, but one important lesson this book provides is that we should not keep making this mistake. It’s humbling to think about how the story of Irish art and culture will be perceived in another hundred years … will we submit further to the commodification of art? Will the disparate community of artists and critics online upturn traditional systems of culture? How will we relate to outside trends and movements? It can feel like history is happening to you until you read a book like this and remember, you make it.
Alice Quinn Banville is an art researcher and aspiring curator living in Dublin, having recently completed a research master’s thesis on contemporary Irish art, biennials and ecofeminism. She is the founder of 2-many, a new virtual platform for conversations about artistic research.