Conference on the Relationship between the Arts, State and National Identity

Posted on: 27 April 2009

A two-day conference examining the relationship between the arts, state, and national/ regional identity in both Ireland and Scotland took place in Trinity College Dublin last week. The interdisciplinary conference titled, ‘The Arts, the State and the Wealth of Nations: Case Studies of Ireland and Scotland’ considered the wealth of nations in both cultural and financial terms. It focused on three areas of the arts which relate specifically to questions of national and regional identity in an Irish and Scottish context: museums and the built environment; traditional and folk music; and literature and drama. The conference was hosted by the  Trinity Long Room Hub and  Centre for Irish-Scottish and Comparative Studies, both at TCD,  in conjunction with the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies and the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, both at the University of Aberdeen.

Notions of what it means to be Irish have changed rapidly over the past two decades. How have the arts responded to, and impacted upon, these enormous changes? Will these new conceptions of identity and nationality survive the strains that will be placed on Irish society over the coming years by a completely altered economic landscape? What role should, or will, the arts play in these cultural and economic adjustments? In what ways has the experience of Scotland been similar to, or different from Ireland, in this regard? Such issues were discussed throughout the two-day event.

The speakers at the conference included TCD’s economist,  Professor John O’Hagan and the literary scholar,  Professor Terence Brown. The musician and author, Dr Fintan Vallely spoke on the link between national identity and popular music, and Professor Kevin Whelan of the Keough Naughton Notre Dame Centre   spoke on the likely future relationship between the arts and politics in Ireland. Mr Pat Cooke, Director of the MA in Cultural Policy and Arts Management at UCD, spoke on economics and identity in the Irish heritage sector. Professor David McCrone, Co-Director of the Institute of Governance in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh  discussed ‘National Identity and Culture in Scotland’, and Dr Ian Russell, Director of the Ephinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen  examined the traditional music of Scotland as cultural, social and economic assets. Mr Mark O’Neill, Head of Arts & Museums at Glasgow City Council spoke  on the topic of history, heritage and urban tourism in Glasgow.

In his presentation, TCD economist,  Professor John O’Hagan  examined the contributions the arts could make to the wealth of a nation/region, where wealth is defined much more broadly than is usual in economics.   He discussed the concept of national/regional identity and outlined why it was related so closely to the issue of state funding and its links to social cohesion and national prestige. The more usual interpretations in economics of contributions to national wealth, such as the research or experimental role of state-funded arts and other types of spin-off, in terms of employment and tourism creation, were also considered. Central to the case for all of these contributions, he argued was the concept of a distinct identity associated with the arts, be it at local, regional or national level.

In his presentation, Mr Pat Cooke of UCD, looked at the economic exploitation of heritage as a tourism resource in Ireland. He surveyed the history of the state’s involvement with heritage since independence, noting how for the first sixty years or so the state’s attitude towards it was largely defined by neglect or indifference.  The year 1989, was the watershed year for Irish heritage, being the year that the Operational Programmes for Tourism (1989-99) commenced. Millions of Euro of investment poured into the heritage sector by means of the Programmes for Tourism. He concluded by trying to answer the question of whether culture or heritage as an economic resource could be exploited without fundamentally compromising authentic cultural experience in the process.

Mr Mark O Neill used the experience of Glasgow to argue “that heritage is the use of the past by the present, for example as an educational resource, a commodity sold to tourists or as an inspiration to civic identity. The degree to which this can be done with integrity and honesty depends on being open and critical about the values on which it is based”.

Dr Fintan Vallely argued that “what has come to be known and respected as ‘traditional’ music In Ireland is the one-time popular music of its rural people, the indigenous recreational music. Before the assembly of Gaelic consciousness and the age of recording, this was unremarked upon. With the commodification facilitated by the recorded, and broadcast, sound object, and transmission radicalised by revivalist thinking, developing technologies, tourism markets and identity within Europe, this music however evolved from decline as a strong artistic and ideological constituency in the second half of the 20th century”.  His paper charted the role of state support and initiative in this process in tandem with extra-state cultural commitment and organisation.

About the Trinity Long Room Hub:

The Trinity Long Room Hub is a research institute which aims to foster and develop world-leading research in the arts and humanities at TCD. The Hub is funded by the Irish Government through the Higher Education Authority under the PRTLI IV programme.

The Trinity Long Room Hub aims to cultivate and facilitate a new generation of researchers through the fuller exploitation of the College’s outstanding research collections.  The Hub initiative will enable scholars to access the College’s Library’s rich resources of materials and collections. The Hub will stimulate individual and collaborative research in existing and new disciplines.

The Trinity Long Room Hub is sponsoring this event in conjunction with its partners at the University of Aberdeen in order to focus attention on the educational, cultural and economic benefit of the arts to society and the economy. The arts, it will be argued, are an integral part of the ‘knowledge economy’ that will drive future prosperity, and they are also vital to the morale and self-perception of the nation.