Monetising Culture, Colonising Time
by Alice Lyons
Back in the Boom when the construction lorries thundered over Cootehall bridge all day long, I used to watch the daily progress of the housing estate being built in the village triangle across from my house. A massive mound of earth had been piled up with a JCB sitting on the top. I was waiting for the day when the digger would get higher than the church. One sunny day it happened, and I took a photograph. The high-visibility orange of the machine is oddly lovely against the rare blue sky.
It was the truthful picture of what had come about in Ireland: economics, the market, had surpassed the church as the highest value in the land. The estate of holiday homes that was born in the Boom is now, in the Bust, a ghost town with empty Tayto bag tumbleweeds blowing through it, a reminder of the out-of-control spree that has occurred. The Bust, such as it is, could give an opportunity for waking up from the numb sleep of the Tiger years, but to hear the politicians is to hear a group of people who would like to get back to sleep by any means possible.
Now the nation's attention turns to formulas for recovery, and in the diaspora think tank at Farmleigh House recently, filmmaker Neil Jordan made the point, which the media clamped onto, that the church, the banks and the construction industry had let Ireland down, but Irish culture had not. Fair enough. But when businessman Dermot Desmond says, 'we need to monetise culture' as a logical extension of Jordan's observation, we head for deep, deep trouble.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey, a culture (I use culture in its broad sense, to include the arts as well as social values and mores) which was monetised to the hilt. My parents, who were 1st and 3rd generation Irish-Americans, were youngsters during the Great Depression and saw their parents' and neighbours' livelihoods crumble in a global economic crisis. The legacy of that Depression and the pressures to assimilate into mainstream America in the pursuit of greater economic security created a culture in which every shred of a person's life was monetised. How much you made, how much you spent and what on, how hard you worked--these were, and, in large pockets of society, still are--the values by which a person was measured.
It's striking how quickly Cootehall has come to physically resemble the suburban New Jersey of my childhood, the one Richard Ford draws so well in his novel The Lay of the Land, where 'anybody with a backhoe, a cell phone and who isn't already doing hard time can get rich without even getting up in the morning.' Now, I wonder, how deep will this resemblance go?
To make a point, I'd like to take you to the cemetery in Urban Farms, the residential development where I was raised in Bergen County. From a distance on Google Earth, it is a big, vaguely rectangular shape of lime green shaved into the deep forest green of the now heavily-wooded, leafy estates.
Here is where are laid to rest my parents and our deceased neighbours, most of whom were first generation immigrants to the cities of the region: Paterson, with its silk mills, was our hub. When these Italian, Irish, Polish, Greek and European Jewish families prospered, they moved out to the suburbs where a sustained blandness began to take hold. Vowels were dropped from the ends of long surnames. Foreign words for family places of origin in Europe faded into a fog of memory, then entered the realm of fairy tale, so that a real connection to the past was obliterated. Suburban Bergen County was a world that leaned one way: into the future--because the future held the promise every person who lived in the shadow of the Great Depression held most sacred: the promise of economic recovery (sound familiar?).
If we move from the vertiginous heights of Google Earth and into the ground of the cemetery itself, we find ourselves in a massive expanse of clipped lawn stretching in all directions, an impressively mowed and manicured lawn. No gravestone, cross or fence rises from the surface to interrupt it. There are only flat placemat-sized slabs of granite set flush into the ground, barely large enough to fit some of the more rococo surnames of our neighbours. The handful of times I have visited the place, I get lost, and then I get upset as I walk in circles trying to find the graves of my parents.
There are few visitors here and who can blame them for what would they bring? Here is the sign that greets them at the cemetery entrance, erected without irony or shame:
NO FLOWERS, FLAGS OR WREATHS PLEASE AS THEY IMPEDE GRASS CUTTING
I offer this as a picture, the end-product if you will, of a culture that monetises itself.
In Ireland, our current obsession with economics is not benign. There are enduring consequences to the choices we make today, an era of great fear and anger pervaded by a sense of powerlessness. If we are not exceedingly thoughtful--and thus far, we have been exceedingly unconscious--we will become unrecognisable to ourselves, in much the same way that we have allowed our romance with the market to ravage our landscape. Balancing the books, rescuing our credit rating, getting people back to work--these concerns rest in a larger picture which we cannot lost sight of.
Oddly enough, it is again in death where, by way of contrast, something more hopeful might be delineated.
For it is still acceptable that a person take time off from work to attend the funeral of a someone not in the immediate family, the parent of a friend, say or a distant cousin. People take time and make the effort to travel sometimes long distances to participate in funerals. The cynics will say this is out of fear of social exclusion and retribution. But the fact remains, for whatever the reason, it is still socially sanctioned to skip work for this ritual. Market forces have not yet-- emphasis on the yet-- gotten hold of this value in Irish culture.
The same is true for weddings, and even sporting events (remember all the empty 'work stations' the morning after Sonia O'Sullivan's run in the Olympics?). The culture as a whole still tacitly agrees that there are some things that have value--as much value if not more--as a day's work. (In the States, it's unheard of to schedule weekday weddings; the working week is sacred time.) The expression 'time is money' surely originated in the U.S. But in Ireland time --in small but potentially powerful pockets--is still something other.
Ireland now faces a different sort of colonial struggle, one in which the dominating force isn't as visible but no less of a threat--''The contemporary coloniser is the market,' says writer Dubravka Ugresic. One only has to look at the empty Boom buildings to see how he have let the market colonise our landscape. Its next frontier is our hold on time.
And it is a formidable colonising force. It chips away at the length of holidays, how late we stay out to socialise, how long we chat on the footpath, whether or not we make a spur-of-the-moment call to a neighbour. Insidiously, it shapes who we become. The verbal athleticism for which the Irish are known --and which has blossomed in its verbal arts-- was born in a generosity towards time for talk, even a need for it. An American friend who visits Ireland frequently puts his lack of conversational finesse this way: "It's as if they throw me a ball, and I sit there holding it, not knowing how to throw it back..." He is aware of the deficit in himself.
Inhabiting time, free, 'non-monetised' time is essential in the arts. It's the oxygen of creativity that necessary space where imagination, experimentation, insight, subversion--all the necessary forces for art, of any sort of inner life-have a chance to breathe. I would argue that --for reasons of economics, history, religion and sociology--there have been pockets of non-instrumental time, available to people in Ireland and that this has been a shaping factor in the particularity of its culture, it's 'inscape' as Gerard Manley Hopkins might have called it.
If the State is committed to culture, then it is the schemes that 'buy time' for artists--at local and national levels-- to conceive and make their work that are the most precious and deserving of our protection. An institution such as the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan owned by Arts Councils north and south of the border, is a national treasure, unique in the world.
Much has been made of the case for our 'cultural capital' and how it might be the thing that rescues the Irish economy from the current morass. It is as important for art and culture's necessity beyond economic terms to be acknowledged and articulated by both the arts community and all of us who partake in the arts.
But if we do not act to protect the circumstances that have allowed original, odd (in the best sense of the word), wild and distinguished art to come into being in the first place, we will be left with a bland, pruned, cautious art--a manicured lawn.
Our immersion in and generosity toward time have contributed to an 'inscape' that is particular to Ireland and has flowered in films, music, visual art, theater,crafts, literature and beyond--it pervades the place. It is part of the fabric of the entire culture. Though the history of the nation surely has contributed to this characteristic, it is also a quality that transcends nationalism, something that any and all who 'blow-in' to the culture can join and partake of. It caused this New Jerseyite to up stakes and move here.