Is it time for a daily arts report on the news just like sports?

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
May 20 2020 Posted: 16:08 IST

Author: Dr Miriam Haughton, O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance

Opinion: daily news exposure won't fix the arts crisis in Ireland, but it will widen the conversation

Before the pandemic, many news bulletins on radio and TV ended with a sports round-up. Following the delivery of hard news such as economics, government formation, health and crime, this placement of sports news on a daily basis deems it as of major social relevance.

Sport is competitive, skilful, transformational, and of course, political. It evokes community pride, it motivates energies and egos, it jolts memories of past glories, and significantly, it becomes a topic of conversation among every age group, socio-economic background, race, diverse abled-bodies, gender and sexuality. There are competitions to prepare for, infrastructure to develop and community engagement to harness for the benefit of all society.

In addition to professional and international, the sports news considers amateur games and local games. The various inequalities embedded throughout society become more visible in sport, and thus, provide an effective platform from which to discuss models of change, best practice and social cohesion.

Frontline players and behind-the-scenes managers, coaches, and councils become sources of scrutiny. Games are played live, but also recorded and broadcast, followed by heated commentary. This ritual is so deeply embedded that it operates as part of the fundamental fabric of life in Ireland, and indeed, around the world. Sports, and sportspeople, in short, are respected. Their value has been legitimised and this value is captured by its daily inclusion in "the news".

Is the role of sports so different from the arts? In ancient Greek times, major amphitheatres were sites of plays and performances played to thousands. The artistry involved ensured these performances were central to how society became constituted. The writing of the play, the training of the chorus, the fate of the protagonists, the political ideologies that underscore the play's tragic destiny, the unique design of public space, and the sophisticated understanding of audience engagement all played a part. This rich lineage of performance and the arts at the heart of society can be traced through various epochs, inevitably utilised both as a source of political propaganda, as well as challenging political power.

The role of artists and the politics of performance in the imagining of Irish autonomy over a hundred years ago is in our cultural DNA, an intrinsic part of our heritage. The talents and passion of poets, players, playwrights and theatre managers  were weaponised to conceive of, and convince, that a utopian future could be achieved in material action.

As the Decade of Centenary commemorations progressed, this potent creative activity once more became the central focus of community encounters. It enticed people to contemplate who we are as a society, the different paths we each tread, and to begin imagining a future that can hopefully overcome the inequalities and divisions that challenge us in the present.

The role of the arts is a powerful ecosystem at the heart of society, but one which is in grave peril, something which has not gone unnoticed by state agencies and cultural organisations. The Arts Council, Culture Ireland, Creative Ireland, the Irish Research Council and many more propose initiatives to foster this unique resource and address the serious issues that confront an ongoing arts crisis.

The recent #PaytheArtist campaign from the Arts Council acknowledges that "the underpaid or unpaid contributions of artists represent a hidden subsidy to the cultural life of Ireland; we recognise that this is unfair and unsustainable". The goals of this campaign include improving the living and working conditions of artists through influencing change, such as guidance on best practice relating to pay.

Will this much-needed step forward be shattered by the devastating impact of Covid-19? As we attempt to manage lockdown, each of us are reliant on the arts. We desperately need the escape to our imaginative worlds or exposure to them to provide meaning, community, intellectual and academic sustenance, pleasure, and relief to the upside-down world we now find ourselves in. It might be the page-turning novel, the drama box-set marathons or the online concerts and events.

But as we rely more and more on the arts to make the pandemic bearable, the bitter irony is that artists are facing renewed threat of extinction. Their business was the first to fall, and maybe the last to return. Many will not return. The cost has been too high, and recovery as a sector is in doubt. Where do we go from here?

I wish I had the answer to that question. I know further research, advocacy, collective consensus, and greater visibility must become part of a multifaceted approach to redefining the value of the arts in much stronger, equitable and more sustainable terms post-pandemic. I also know that the precarity and exploitation embedded in the arts industry must be addressed with the full weight of state support. 

However, I do often wonder whether this would be a different conversation if exposure to the activities of the arts and lives of the artists were funnelled into our homes, phones, laptops and newspapers on a daily basis. Daily news exposure won’t fix the arts crisis in Ireland, but it will widen the conversation. It will provide space for debate, signal the nuances involved, situate its national impact both historically as well as in the present day, and most significantly, invite all of society to engage with it. Are we really all in this together?

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