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The Irish Times and Cultural History

By Gerry Fitzpatrick 

10 July 2012

Since the 1990s The Irish Times has supplemented its traditional opposition to Republicanism with a critical opposition to cultural symbols and icons of the recent Irish past. A number of factors drove this. First was the endorsement of modernization and the support for cultural modernity (youth culture, economic and social liberalism). The paper then had seen the future and it was one where the “old” Ireland of nationalism and disputatious imagery and ideas would be left behind. However, the papers efforts to politically distinguish itself from the increasingly corrupt nationalist politics of Fianna Fail were compromised. For no matter how many reports and articles the paper ran criticizing the graft of Fianna Fail the papers’ support for the boom in property and financial services meant that the paper was part of the culture of corruption. 

Modernizing Ireland 

However this embracing of cultural modernity was combined with the paper’s self-appointment as a referee between the more extreme Revisionists such as Owen Harris and the national liberals such as Mary Robinson who wanted to give the then highly controversial Hume-Adams initiative a chance. This was in line with the papers later support for the British Government’s Belfast Agreement and the support for a “yes” vote in the subsequent national referenda on the removal of Article 2 of the Irish constitution – which entrenched the papers support for partition. As a consequence this had an effect on how Irish Culture was approached and written about on the paper. While on the one had it was possible to be part of the international expansion of Irish Studies by providing reviews of important new books and talks the paper now also took the view that older cultural symbols or “symbolic practices” (as Irish Studies tutors sometimes like to call them) – were to be attacked. 

These took the form of articles and reviews very often published in the papers weekend section. It wasn’t surprising then to find hatchet jobs on old Irish postcards, ploughing festivals, and Michael Flatly -who’s dancing was once labeled as “fascist”. All were of course predictably deemed to be “kitsch” or to have performed one or other crime against good taste. But the person whose job it was to lead the attack on the paper was very often Fintan O’Toole. However Mr O’Toole is more particularly annoying than the rest of his fellows, as he seems to believe that his re-treading of cultural criticism from the 1930s of F. R. Leavas and of Clement Greenberg marks him out as a urbane intellectual commentator. It doesn’t. 

Two Greenberg Sentiments 

My mentioning of F. R. Leavas and Greenberg’s ideas as a possible source for O’Toole’s critical outlook was perhaps too charitable. For Mr O’Toole appears to have only heard of Greenberg and then only one of his essays and then only two of its sentiments. Readers will permit me to give some background: The Greenberg essay was called, Avant Garde and Kitsch and was published in New York in Partisan Review in 1939. The essay has been republished many times since then in various collections. Here is the first relevant section 

To fill the demand of the new market a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.[…] Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. (p.25 reprint Edited by Francis Frascina published Harpers and Row 1985)
The sentences I have reproduced and especially the last one gives a good indication of just how over-the-top Greenberg’s essay was. Just in case you might disagree with that last judgment Greenberg continues, “Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time.”  This approach itself is reductive and mechanical, verging on Stalinist proscription.
The second sentiment refers to what Greenberg thought were the opposite of Kitsch – the value of modern art or Modernism in art. For as he understood it the art of:
“Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Lee, Matisse and Cezzane, derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in. The excitement of their art seems to lie most of all in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, surfaces, shapes, color, etc, to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.” (p.23) 
Therefore Greenberg thought the pre-modernist practice or urge to “emote” content or subject for art other than colour and line was to be rejected. In other words, true modern art was pure and true only to itself as art – art as technique – how it was painted or modeled or sculpted.

After World War Two in the 1950s the essay became immensely influential, as Greenberg himself became the premier critic of modern art.  Greenberg’s international success went a long way to ensuring that every cheap and not so cheap journo who thought they had something to say about  “modern culture” would use the epithet “kitsch” for the next fifty years (and counting) to indicate their supposed critical sophistication. 

Later when interviewed by the Open University in the 1980s about the Avant Garde and Kitsch essay Greenberg stated that he wished he had never written it, calling many of his judgments “overblown”. But by that time it was too late and certainly too late for O’Toole and an army of others. For no matter how many times he has encountered this cliché of cultural criticism whether in the written form or as is more likely, the wine fuelled gallery conversation – he constantly revives it and waves it in our faces like some battered talisman, whose power only he believes in. 

For calling cultural phenomena like 1950s Irish postcards, and Michael Flatley “kitsch”, actually says very little about what their role and potential as amusements or popular entertainment. For these things do have a meaning and have performed a role that the term “kitsch” simply cannot explain. And by this I don’t just mean how cultural ephemera like this became the very stuff of modern art itself – whether that was wine, cigarettes and newspapers as seen by Picasso or the odd way someone danced at the Folies Bergère as seen by Lautrec. These issues of modernity are predictably unimportant for Mr. O’Toole. Lately, however he has begun to have his doubts about the effectiveness of his own and by implication the Irish Times mission to modernize Irish sensibility.   

The Critic Confronted 

In “Home Place” in The Irish Times Review Section (21/4/12) there appeared the following O’Toole review of the current 19th Century Painting exhibition: Rural Ireland: The Inside Story at Boston College. O’Toole’s piece tries to do two things (a) to give yet another airing of the “kitsch versus modern art” distinction and (b) to try and tell us what he knows despite his adherence to (a).
His piece begins with the following quote from his own article to point up what we are to understand are the fundamentals of the exhibition:  “Many of the paintings of 19th-century rural Ireland that hang in a Boston exhibition aren’t particularly great”. But, he continues, “that frees us up to look at them in a different way and gives depth and context to domestic scenes that look naïve or kitschy to the modern eye.”

Besides the expected reference to 19th Century Irish imagery appearing to be kitsch, there are several other grand assumptions that we can only put down to the now somewhat tattered privileges of office – O’Toole’s appointed role as an arbiter of the politics of taste. I have no other explanation for the curious sentence that informs us that because, many of the paintings, “aren’t particularly great” that this some how, “frees us up to look at them in a different way”. Let me be blunt there is no “us” in Mr O’Toole’s piece, the views and the discursive allusions are Mr O’Toole’s own. It is his view of what is, or is not great art that we are dealing with here and not the publics. He is assuming that people in Ireland would see these 19th Century images (as were reproduced in the article) as first and foremost as kitsch. The term as I have indicated is essentially an American critical term that is used almost exclusively by journalists and commentators – it is not in common use by the public in Ireland.  But as I said along side the journalistic clichés O’Toole himself is having doubts about his own bias and critical orthodoxy. He tells us that he wants to, look at the paintings “in a different way” that can give “depth and context to the domestic scenes” depicted. If that is worth doing the pictures may not be as bad as O’Toole initially says they are. Why is this? O’Toole appears to be conflicted and his writing is marked by unintended cognitive and ideological dissonance; doubtless created by O’Toole’s adherence to Greenbergian sentiments on the one hand and the historical knowledge he brings to the act of looking at the works before him. 

Looking at the paintings the first actual sentence that O’Toole throws at us is, “They [the paintings] shouldn’t be nearly as moving as they are”. But why on earth should the most eminent of our critics feel this unsure by looking at paintings of 19th Century Irish interiors? What could possibly have caused such doubt about his critical powers? 

Confronted by many rooms of art in Boston, which simply could not be condemned out of hand, O’Toole’s account indicates that perhaps the sentiments he went armed with had their limits as a critical method. For on the walls of Boston College he could see that content and subject matter was just as important as how the paintings were technically rendered. 

Two Sentiments Under Strain

O’Toole next delivers a scandalously political overview of the paintings of Irish interiors he has signaled out for comment, “In Irish circumstances, interiors could easily become exteriors, as the furniture and fittings were turfed out on the roads and fields. Things that should be indoors could suddenly find themselves in harsh, exposed outdoors.” He describes the scene of the Interior of an Irish Cottage With Uileann Piper, “you can’t help wandering [after you look at the date of the painting 1847 ] did they survive?” Most probably not is the answer. O’Toole then turns to Rival Suitors by Howard Helmick. Here the subeditor must have been the worse for wear as O’Toole writes that the painting, shows “a young woman drawn between two men” when the painting actually depicts two men that are attracted to the same women. One of the men O’Toole tells us is an “idealized Yeatsian pheasant” who holds a bullwhip the other is a “red coat” who “carries a sword”. O”Toole wishes to point up the underlining violence of the scene that gives us a picture that would otherwise be a “chocolate box image”.

O’Toole transmits his unease and his own ignorance here partly through his sneering at what he calls “genre painting” by which he means the established practice of 19th Century history painting (another Greenbergian bugbear as it turns out) and his own inattention to details of the painting. The red coat is seated his back to us bent over while the “Yeatsian Pheasant” is sitting on the table right in front of him, the bullwhip is also painted to suggest a scythe. Next to it on the floor is tankard which has just been knocked to floor either off the table or out of the barmaids’ hand. All together the atmosphere the painting creates is one of tension but also of restraint as it is the young women’s gaze looking back into the interior fixes the scene and holds the viewers attention.  

But the ghost of John Mitchell don’t stay with O’Toole for long for he realizes that he is bending his two sentiments into shapes that they were not designed for namely the social and political interpretation of art. Undaunted he next performs of the cardinal sins that the modernist school of criticism warned against: reading in a possible content to the painting.

O’Toole then realizes that the two guiding sentiments have been ignored. To remedy this he sings the following modernist hymn to steady his nerve:

One of the important things that happened in the 20th century is that were taught to see the value of painting as self-contained. If you wanted to know what a person or place looked like you had to study a photograph or a movie. Painting wasn’t there to give you any information except, perhaps, about the emotions and the imagination of the artist. There is no point in looking at a Picasso portrait of Dora Maar to find out what Dora Maar actually looked like. Guernica didn’t tell you anything about the actual conduct of the Spanish Civil War.
But while the hymn may have sounded loud throughout academia and in print up to the 1970s it now sounds extremely shrill. It is certainly not correct on factual grounds, Art history students may have been “taught” to, “see the value of paintings as self-contained” in relation to modernist painting, but the public were most certainly not taught to see all painting as “self-contained” – cut off from the actuality of the world. O’Toole’s explanation is a version of the second Greenbergian sentiment above which was related to his argument of what should be recognized and valued as the special and separate characteristics of modern art. O’Toole gives us what he thinks is his best example of this: Picasso’s painting. But there are several problems with his account. Let’s start with Guernica and O’Toole’s assertion that the painting “didn’t tell you anything about the actual conduct of the Spanish Civil War”. Besides Picasso’s use of personal imagery like the bull and the horse, we can learn information about the Spanish Civil War from Guernica. For what we are looking at here is the depiction of another interior that has become an exterior – not this time of an eviction but of an atrocity. The woman on the far left of the picture holds the dead body of a child and is in act of screaming, the figure on the far right holds his hands up weeping looking upwards he also appears to be screaming or yelling. A headless figure lies in the middle foreground holding a broken sword – the symbol that the republican government had commonly used to symbolize the unity of people against fascism. The image of the woman holding a dead child was sourced by Picasso himself from news reports of the German Condor Legion’s bombing of Guernica (the newsprint body of the horse is a reference to this). O’Toole’s point about Dora Maar is simply cant, people continue to look at the Dora Maar portraits to see the various ways in which she was depicted. In most of the pictures some characteristics of her face remain in others they are more difficult to discern. Public knowledge (as opposed to mere expectations) of Picasso’s work and imagery have influenced how these works are now seen. Readers will remember that O’Toole indicated that his looking at the Irish interior’s depicted in the Boston exhibition is informed by the knowledge of actual historical conditions of eviction and enforced poverty. Similarly, we bring to Picasso’s work the knowledge of Picasso’s opposition to fascism his left wing views and not with standing his “use” of women and how this influenced his imagery, the visual and technical games he played as an ironic satyr. 

Art as Information and Knowledge

O’Toole’s critical understanding of modern art is that it is (or should be) useless to other causes or agendas other than art itself. Picasso’s depiction of the woman with a dead child in Guernica is a version of the contemporary newsprint and newsreel accounts of similar images. Knowledge of the imagery of the atrocity is what he brought to the production of the painting and are part of its meaning and its historical significance. 

A picture of a subject by Picasso is a version of that subject the same as a photograph or a film of that subject is a version of that subject, each medium can offer a different version or type of knowledge of the subject and more importantly a different kind of distortion – it depends on the intention of the producer on his or her technique and ideology and on the light that falls – or doesn’t fall on the subject – no light, no film, no photograph, no picture. Reading O’Toole’s account of artistic meaning in the 20th Century the lights went out about 1960. Reading him you could be forgiven for thinking that John Berger or T. J. Clark never existed. O’Toole may have heard of them but he has certainly never read them. For O’Toole like Greenberg has been fighting his own Cold War against an alternative culture and history influenced by politics. For Greenberg the battle was against Communist content of art as proffered by the Soviet Union and its satellites. For O’Toole it is against the culture and politics of nationalism and republicanism. It is extremely ironic that O’Toole uses the example of Guernica to make distinctions between the actuality of art and actuality of life. For if we are too accept his distinction between the actuality of art and life we can’t effectively explain why Guernica is now also a well-painted Republican mural on the Falls Road in West Belfast.  


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