Artists Back to the Wall

Irish News Column
Irish News August 2000

I feel compelled to mention those “ street murals” again. Why? Because they are continually thrust upon us by the media. Last week, Italian journalist Cristiano Fubiani writing in this paper said that the wall murals;
“..are widely regarded as the most emotional expression of Northern Ireland’s suffering in the past thirty years”.
Then to compound this idiocy he said that ;
“ These drawings….for me , are just as impressive as Michelangelo’s Last Judgement.”
Uniquely silly as these comments are, their publication lends them a spurious authority which can influence the public’s artistic judgement. However, what concerns me more than this aberrant opinion, is how often these wall paintings are trundled out as art exemplars by figures in public office. In a recent interview in “the Irish News” the new chief executive of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Roisin Mc Donough said that she was keen to develop public art and sculpture, but then reportedly qualified this, by saying that she; “sees political street murals developing beyond their current subject matter to embrace a more general artistic theme.”
Is it only the subject matter which isn’t to her taste?
As a painter this opinion worries me because it places a gloss on her comments on “ community arts” and “artistic excellence.”
Of the Arts Council, she says; “One of the many issues it faces”
Is about facilitating “ access to the arts without sacrificing artistic excellence”. Surely there is a contradiction here: It wouldn’t be the arts that are being accessed if artistic excellence was sacrificed.
“People”, she says, sometimes “make erroneous assumptions that community arts” are at the lower end of a scale of excellence and at the top of the scale are “the high arts”. “ That is an unhealthy distinction”, she says, “ High excellence and social inclusion are not necessarily competing”. But the distinction is made by her in using the terms community and high to describe the arts.
These comments raise a number of questions; Why, for example, do some people make these assumptions, and if they do make them, why are they erroneous? But the overriding question has to be;- What exactly are the community arts?
In what way do they differ from the arts? In assessing them should we apply the same criteria as we do for the arts? If so, then we are rightly back to a “Scale of Excellence” and to the “street murals”. They will have to be judged alongside the work by all the other artists in the community; all those artists from North, South, East and West Belfast, from the Shankill, and the Falls, from Bangor, Newry, Derry, Lurgan, from all over Northern Ireland; all those young artists who have sacrificed, time, energy, money to study on Art courses. A hundred Fine Art and Design graduates every year from the University of Ulster alone; All community artists working throughout the country in studios, in draughty, unheated mills, in derelict down-town buildings; young artists working part-time in pubs and clubs and building sites.
Yes we have a lot of community artists young and old who haven’t painted a wall in their lives and their work is largely neglected.
They accept that their work when it is seen, will be judged on a scale of excellence. There is no other scale for the arts. To say otherwise is to say that everything is art, everything is poetry, everything is music.
The great social sin today is to state the obvious; some people make things better than others.
Of course there are degrees of excellence in everything. Do you want a bad plumber to mend your burst pipe or a fairly, good one? Maybe you’d prefer an excellent one….,or perhaps it doesn’t matter to you as long as the plumber is kept occupied.
Bringing art to the people always smacks of condescension.
We are the people. We know where art is, and we know where to find it. What we would like the Arts Council to do, is to ensure that we get more art and more support for the artist. The business and commercial worlds have been disgracefully negligent in supporting the arts . Laganside has failed miserably to live up to its promise to involve local artists in their building programmes. Perhaps new legislation should be sought for insuring a “ percentage for art “ in future schemes.
Its unfair of me to criticize the new Arts Council boss before she has even sat down in her office so I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome her, and to let her know that many people in the local art world are delighted that a new hand is at the helm.

Joseph Mc Williams August 2000©