Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter 1916 : Commemorating a hundred years on


     Today is a day of importance, pride, commemoration in Ireland. Today we mark the centenary of the Easter Rising,  Dublin 1916, when the Irish Republic was proclaimed. Easter 1916 has always been viewed as 'the pivitol moment' in Irish History. It was from this spark that led to Ireland's independence in subsequent years. This  is an area of History which has been much contested thus  has always captivated me.  It is a dynamic story, that prompts analyzing and demystifying.  Most importantly, it is a story that resonates with every believer of,  to paraphrase Seamus Heaney's words, hope and history rhyming. 

    Why is it important? A hundred years on we still dwell on that same question.  It has been discussed, investigated ,interpreted  and revised by politicians, historians and artists for decades now. Our nation as we now know it was born from myth, mysticism, hope and dreams.  Yet the event  of the actual rebellion itself was 'farcical' as many historians say. Too rash, too ill conceived, too unprepared, too naive. There are many great opinions on the details of the prelude to the Rising, the Rising itself and its aftermath. Recommended listening :

     It is the issue of commemoration today in 2016 that fascinates myself and many.  Commemoration is complex. It rekindles our thoughts on pre-conceived notions of an event we thought we knew well. It 'connects us with people from the past', as historian Charles Townshend remarks. This centenary not only celebrates the achievements of the Rising, but confronts the reality of the triumph of failure as it is well known in a new way for Ireland as a nation.  Commemoration should, as Townshend puts it 'be experienced with a degree of objective detachment' which was unthinkable of in the past. Politics were at the forefront before. How can we properly evaluate the significance of not just History  but memories if we are too attached? This is perhaps the message of the 1916 commemorations.  Does the bloodshed  during the decade of death from 1913-23, of which over 6000 died actually validate freedom?  As W.B. Yeat's questioned 'was it needless death after all?' Was it unavoidable  or pernicious?  Did it have the true welfare of Irishmen and Irish women at it's core, as stated in the Proclamation? Has the democratic system that the Rising envisioned and that was instigated in the War of Independence, been adequate?  

    Presently, for the first time in Irish History, public awareness of truth has been raised. The blinkered blindfolded biased 'simple' commemorations of the past especially that in 1966 of the 50th anniversary under the Presidency of Eamon De Valera,  have been eradicated. The power in raising the curtain on previous beliefs  and myths and seeing  events with perspective has replaced old ways. A expanded and complicated narrative of our past  is thriving as Historian Diarmuid Ferriter maintains, highlighting new fresh perspectives and proving that the Rising's history is still continuous. History is being revised, as is memory.  Commemoration draws on memory even more than on History. Memory is very different to History, as Townshend explains: 'Memory is people who carry the past with them, History is in a way an artificial attempt to re-create it, of what no longer is. Memory can be re-awakened, embodied in living society.  Historian Rebecca Graff McRae, author of 'Remembering and Forgetting 1916' gives a wonderful explanation of what commemoration is, or ought to be

       "Commemoration is thus an invocation of the past and the present, a negotiated tension between remembering and forgetting; a calling up of ghosts; a political act. The problem of commemoration does not be to define a definition - it is all of these things yet none. Commemoration serves to raise or bury political ghosts - those of unity and division, consensus and conflict, continuity and rupture, absence and presence. This appeal to memory through invocation, suppression or revision of the past inscribes or rewrites the boundaries of the political itself. It is not merely an event - a parade, a statue, a graveside aeration. It is not an act or a word. Nor is it inaction or silence. Commemoration itself is constantly under negotiation."

    Thus the question of who  actually owns the legacy of 1916 - be it the Sinn Fein of then, yet certainly not of now - political parties, or Irish citizens  comes to the forefront. It still has not been answered. Or perhaps it  has. Perhaps every person that believes in freedom and that it is worth fighting for,  believes a dream can be realized, believes in mysticism , in the power of words and of the  arts to liberate, believes in having a vision - owns the true legacy, which is a transcendental one not a political or militant one. Was  the 1916 Rising not born from poets and mystics like P.H. Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Thomas Mc Donagh ? The event  did not just declare  us as dreamers but as doers nonetheless.  Perhaps foolish unprepared preposterous  naive doers, but doers no the less.  It created of men of destiny, men of action, men of hope, men of great strength. Men that have lived become entangled in our individual and collective memory.

    More than anything,  this commemoration is not  a celebration  but rather a reflection on remembrance. Easter 1916 was not a victorious event, least not instantaneously. It was an event in which death and defeat was inevitable. Yet it empowered people, it instilled change.  Dublin was destructed as a city, physically and characteristically.  Once again, the words of Yeats ring true, 'All is changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born'. Isn't change the outset of any rebellion? Change is possible but with sacrifice.  Hence when a nation commemorates,  the question of justification is prominent. We  are still reflecting on this a hundred years later.  Was 1916 just? Ferriter points out it is important to view events through the lens of 1916, not just from hindsight. Eoin Mc Neill himself said it was unjustifiable at the time, is  that still valid today? How different a nation would Ireland bee without 1916?

    More than anything, commemoration confronts us with the idea of identity. This is important. It is identity that defines us as both a nation and an individual after all, thus creating a sense of belonging.  Through observation, we are witnesses to past and present.  Only with the  thriving of revisionism can we as a nation really growth, comprehend, really progress from the past into the future.  Yes, it is a day of remembrance rather than glorification, a day of  solidarity rather than celebration,  a day of hope rather than  nostalgia.  What is the purpose of History but to provide insight, to simplify the complex, to complicate the simple. Things are not so black and white anymore.  Easter 1916 was more  a revolution of the mind than of  the military. In that respect, it was one which  has been successful and still is influential today.

    The centenary's commemoration questions the founding myth of which the nation is based on. It dissects it, dismantles it, re-arranges it. Retells the story of our past with a fresh voice.  The polarity of events become evident. Was it a coup d'eteat or bloody protest as FX Martin  previously examined.  Common mis-beliefs become more unravelled. Now, for the first time commemoration involves all facets of the Rising including the unfavorable : recognition of all casualties  not just the rebels, including children,civilians, women, British soldiers and police; womens role in the Rising; the contrary nature of Irish soldiers fighting for Britain in WW1 at the time; the elitist aspect,the under looked characters involved in the Rising;  the British viewpoint. Many publications on these facets have become popular in the the past year, with books like Joe Duffy's 'Children of the Rising' being a bestseller. Also Neil Richardson's 'According to their Lights: Stories of Irishmen in the British Army, Easter 1916'  being a groundbreaking publication. As we well know, memory plays tricks on us, both as individuals and as a collective. Modern memorial has  disowned selectiveness,  as memory should in the name of truth and sincerity. Adverse aspects of the Rising have challenged the  mythic legacy of the Rising;  confronted illusion and clarified disillusion.

    Thankfully, commemoration of the centenary has coloured a previous black and white narrative and continues to do so.

Recent 1916 publications
Complexities of Commemoration

Monday, 21 March 2016

The Importance of Art and it's History 


    When we speak of History, many think of it solely as what has happened in the past,  the time which has preceded the present moment. The past  of course is a vast rich archive which we can delve into  in order to gain knowledge, seek understanding, investigate truth,  interpret facts, question evaluations, debate opinions, clarify memories, classify  influences ,elucidate  interpretations.  We inspect what came before us.  We learn. We grow.  We alter. We advance. 

    Yet, History does not solely consist of the past alone, as many also think, just as it does not consist of fact alone.  History  is a series of stories and memories, cultural, political, social,  personal, universal which are constantly being re-evaluated, re-interpreted, re-discovered, re-told . With study and hindsight History becomes revised; looked upon in a new light with the torch of truth shining on it. Revisionism allows for the conquest for reality, a continual development and refinement of so-called fact out of which a neoterism is born.   

    Art in all its forms is an integral part of History. Art History a visual story that has undergone the stages of progression from primitive to contemporary. Each movement represents the conscience and language of it's time in History via various mediums and via its individuals.   As E.H. Gombrich,  professor and author of the most popular art publication The Story of Art' states as his opening line  'There is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.'  How true he is. How can a story be told after all without a storyteller? What is a story be it verbal, sonic, visual but the sum of one persons thoughts, experiences and imagination.  When we view art is the artists world we see, an insight into an individuals thoughts on a pluralism.  As Arthur Dano the critic says 'art is pluralistic'  and cannot come into true being without pluralism. Indeed art is a diversity of views on a  variety of topics - history, politics, philosophy, literature, music, science, the list is endless. How one views these topics results in an expression of opinion. From primitive artwork such as Greek and Roman classics through Old Masters of the Renaissance  to  modern contemporaries, Art was and will be subjective to an artists interpretation of History, the surrounding world.  

    Prevalently,  the past is a place of reference, not residence. This is crucial to growth in all aspects, and is incontestably visually apparent in art.  Only by studying the past, contemplating happenings with hindsight, do we gain greater insights to the who's, what's, when's, why's, where's and how's. We discover truths that may have been skewered at the time . We discover faults. By discovering truth and fault, we grow, we change, we progress. We understand feelings. We learn. We are no longer content with old ways.We become acutely aware of the present, learning from the past no longer craving what was. This elevates us as  individuals, as a  people, as a nation, as a world, as artists.   This awareness allows for clearer expression to  not only occur but flourish and become more authentic and original. The result is a  colouring  of our culture and our humanity  with the hues of its time. History becomes  a yarn that is woven into the fabric of the present as much as the past, inseparable to it's culture, it's people, it's persona, it's art. Artists and Art become embedded in the tapestry of time. 

    Eduardo Galeano maintained that  'the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is'.  How very true.  We all carry inside us the ideas of people that came before us, both consciously and subconsciously. We decipher them, consume them, digest them, assimilate them, excogitate. Evidently, artists have consistently learned from their predecessors and progressed. A prime example is how the human body has been represented throughout Art History - from the primitive basic depictions in the ancient world, to the traditional classic reserved Renaissance depictions to the evocative  realistic representation in 19th century to the obscured unrecognizable morphed depictions  in the 20th century. 

    Understanding how and why things evolved throughout History helps us navigate towards the future. By making sense of  complexities and uncertainties, appreciating and disparaging attitudes, broadening   perspectives, and creating possibilities for innovation we become more innovative naturally. It provides inspiration and incentive, blatant perception that we  might otherwise lack.  We recognize endings or perhaps the lack there of. John Berger maintains 'it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act'. Indeed so. This is pivotal to when we create  Art of any genre.  Consequently  we see. 'It is seeing which established our place in the world',  the obvious fact that Berger points out. It is seeing that creates our reality, affects our knowledge and  beliefs, allows the time that was to dictate  the time that is.

    To truly comprehend  Art  from  both a creative and appreciative viewpoint, it must be set in context by studying it's history.  What is Art? That is a subjective question. The desire to create  has always been at the central core of our being, a force that makes us human. We are compelled to  express our internal and external worlds, to visualize them and transfer them to material form.  When we place  visual artworks in a timeline, not only do we see how technique, materials,  and subject matter has evolved. As David Levihan the writer says of displaying art in a gallery ' we see how art has captured time, and  how time has captured us'.  Isn't capturing time, validating it and our place in it, our  role within it been man's purpose since the beginning of time itself? Time evades us if we are not careful. Perhaps  when art is created, displayed, recognized, loved, it creates a time stamp, a memory which we can attempt to comprehend. The relation between things becomes clearer. Visual art capture time more vividly or authentically than any other means as it captures  a snapshot of  a time, a vortex into the  human condition of the era, an instantaneous view. 

    Most importantly though, Art allows us not only to release emotion but to analyze it, attempt to comprehend it. It provides a commonplace rather than a terra incognita. We see the fragments  of our own soul in another persons artwork, and fragments of their souls in ours. Emotions that elude to be personal  yet are  universal, and have been all throughout time. When we view a painting for example that has been painting hundreds of years ago by an artist residing in a different context completely to our own, yet we see ourselves in his/her work. Isn't that the perplexing.   

    Art provides us with a vocabulary about things we cannot otherwise articulate. Without it we are mute, aphasiac creatures consubstantial to animate beings. It is a unique mode of expression. Art humanizes us. It provides us with a visual for the unspeakable. We can tap into our  own empathy and that of others, providing a greater grasp of the human condition.   An epiphany even.  As the great Aristotle once said 'the aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance'. Art confronts you, raises your awareness, awakens your sense of wonder, disrupts your comfort ,calms your  fretfulness, frees you, allows you to fill a void that perhaps you were oblivious to beforehand, confronts the void.  Art forces you to see rather than look, encouraging self exploration,  a vital aspect of life. 

    The evaluation of Art via the study of Art History, appreciation  or analytical viewing  has many benefits. It provides  an informed  authentic  insight into a civilization, a  culture,  a collective, a time, an individual, a mindset. It confronts what we know or think we know. Looking can be deceitful when we look from an uninformed egotistical viewpoint. We do not really see what is actually there,  our vision is blurred. Knowledge breeds observance, receptiveness, open-mindedness. We become more amenable to see what is truly being depicted.  

    Our true self becomes identifiable via art only when we understand it.  When we understand it and thus ourselves, we accept.  Our  branch  of the tree of history becomes visible, our roots grounded, our outer and inner lives flourishing.  Self discovery takes place within the context of wider discovery, just as something beautiful connect us to the greater beauty.  Hence, art is entangled into the core of  our core being: constantly nourishing us, nurturing us, beautifying us,  encouraging us to bloom, whether you are a creator or a voyeur. To fully embrace Art is to embrace the beauty that nature instilled in us, recognize it, appreciate it  and  allow it to grow and  enrich not just our lives and the lives of others.What could possibly be better than that...