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9 July 1998 Edition

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But is it art...

By Eoghan Mac Cormaic

The new Assembly should increase its cabinet to include a Minister of Arts - and I think our Sinn Féin Assembly members should be making a pitch now for that important cabinet role.

A few years back, during the Blanket Protest, I had the privilege to be locked up in the cell with one of Ireland's finest artists. Neither of us knew at the time how gifted he was and I won't embarrass him now by exposing him to the glare of publicity, but an artist he was. A muralist, a graphic artist, a natural.

Some reports written about the Blanket Protest describe how the prisoners were held in cells and never saw a human being from one end of the year to the next. Loneliness is a word often used to describe the conditions. Well, breaker of myths that I am, I want to dispel that notion. The truth is, that at times the wings of the H Blocks were busier than the corridors of the National Gallery, with all sorts of visitors traipsing in and out like anthropologists looking at the natives. Rumour had it that trips to the H Blocks were arranged as gifts from officials in the NIO to trusted lackies.

Politicians, suited men, suited women, military types, spooks - they all came in, and one fine day, there was even an artist. The Lord only knows what favour he had pulled in to win a visit to the Blocks but as fate would have it, he was allocated our wing to visit, and out of all the grim green doors to open, he chose the cell of the undiscovered artist and me. I suppose we should have been flattered.

In he came, guarded by a posse of screws, a chief and a governor, walking all over our dirty floor and bedding, and looking round the walls as if we weren't there. `Hmmm, yes, ' he was muttering. `Look' he said, all excited, pointing at the wall, the wall covered in smears of excrement, `Look, it's spirals'. The Chief, the governor and the screws all looked at the wall. They, of course had seen it all before, but, Philistines that they were, they couldn't see the sheer art form before them. My cell mate beamed, proudly, an old master.

A few weeks after the Blanket Protest and the Hunger Strikes ended, I was sitting in the Block canteen one evening watching the news. Cut to a gallery in Belfast. Cut to an art critic. Cut to an artist. Cut to a mural of H Block art. Cut the crap. There on the TV was the headcase who had visited my cell, and admired the walls. ``It's magnificent,'' a critic was gushing to the cameras, ``here before us we can see the roots of Celtic Art, coming through in the excrement-smeared walls of the H Blocks. Just look at the spirals...''

There was more in the same vein but I heard none of it, as I rolled round the floor in laughter. I laughed more when I heard that he had been given a grant of £10,000 for his work, ten grand in 1981 wasn't to be sniffed at no matter about the smell of the work.

I was reminded of that `artwork' when the Irish Times last Friday reported that the work of a 1980s Italian artist was sold off at auction in Sotheby's in London. The artist `took art to the extreme' by filling 200 small tins with excrement, weighing them, and valuing them at the market price of gold. I'm not sure how long it took to create the piece of art, matters like this take time as I'm sure you can appreciate, though a feed of curry would surely add to the quantity and market value if not the artistic merit of the artwork. This particular tinful was sold for £17,250, a remarkable sum of money and both a reminder and proof, if proof were ever needed, of the insanity of the art world.

The whole area of what constitutes art has me worried. If peace breaks out we're going to be plagued with `art' and artistic works to celebrate and commemorate. Is the `art' going to be some nonsense, concocted in the mind of someone detached from reality or will it express their struggles, pain, successes. Is any of it is going to be relevant to the lives of people? And if not, is it art?

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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