Open access papers

In the spirit of Open Access I’m posting my 2007 M.Phil dissertation as a pdf on and here on wordpress under a Creative Commons licence. Titled ‘Repositioning Irish identities’, the subject was exhibitions of Irish art abroad from 1980 to 2005. It examined the complexities of national representation in the international contexts of contemporary art and cultural diplomacy. One can get an idea of my take and findings from the Trinity Long Room Hub poster on TARA, Trinity College Dublin’s  open access repository. That year I was lucky enough to share the History of Art’s Crooskhank-Glin Prize for best dissertation with Jennifer FitzGibbon.

I’ll take this blogging opportunity to thank again Dr. Donna Romano, director of the National Irish Visual Art Library, for facilitating my archival research, Dr. Yvonne Scott, director of the Trinity Irish Art Research Centre for her patient supervision and Patrick Murphy, director of the Royal Hibernian Academy, for his insightful interview on exhibition making.

 A culture of exhibitions

I came of age as an art student in the late nineties at time of several large-scale, touring group shows of Irish artists (Irish Art Now at IMMA, 0044  at the Crawford) but it wasn’t until I was working at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, thrust into the heart of the spectacle of the 51st Biennale, did the critical discourse fully register. And then it was in the air!

The issue of Printed Project (‘another monumental metaphor’ edited/‘curated’ by Alan Phelan) published as part of the Irish participation in Venice in 2005, allowed one to gauge the kind of conversations that were happening. The 2005 special edition of Third Text, edited by Lucy Cotter, was dedicated to considering post-colonial perspectives on Irish art practices and histories. Timely and welcomed!  Fiona Barber’s forensic chapter ‘Excavating Room 50: Irish Art at the 1950 Venice Biennale’ (2005) ably demonstrated the possibility of a history of exhibitions. A culture of exhibitions was a developing intellectual field and I was happy to engage with that conversational world; Róisín Kennedy’s article on The Irish Imagination 71 (2013) published online in the  Journal of Art Historiography I first heard as a conference paper and suggested the angle to take; Riann Coulter’s Irish Modernism seminars on the Living Irish Art and Rosc exhibitions set the context. And to cap it all, I discovered a wealth of material in Nival, including the folder marked ‘Irish Art Abroad’!

If I was to single out the two contributions by Irish critics that were most significant to my thinking on the topic,  they would be Mick Wilson’s pugnacious essay Tricks of Trade and Terms of Art (2005) in Third Text and Gavin Murphy’s more resigned article Global enterprise (2007) in Circa.  My conclusions matched Gavin Murphy’s: as exhibiting abroad and international dialogue become ever more important for Irish artists, curatorial discourse over that period was moving away from ‘the problematics of national sovereignty and modes of representation.’

Enough with the art history already!

One of the appendices is an exhibition chronology (1980 -2005), listing the venues and dates of exhibition, the exhibiting artists, the curator(s) and major funding partners. I think there is scope for a digital humanities project, turning a list into a searchable database, possibly linked with Nival’s online artists and exhibitions database. The method of my dissertation was analysis of a developing curatorial discourse evidenced in catalogue essays, exhibition reviews and art criticism. I’m not sure that the patterns and connections that would become apparent  if one takes a ‘data’ led approach  would come as a surprise to anyone who had to sift through the files and press cuttings but the point is who knows what will come from research made publicly and freely available!


More Pierre Bourdieu, less TED gurus

In our discussion of the importance of creative and divergent thinking in teaching and learning we were pointed to Ken Robinson’s critque of mainstream education practice  and asked, in particular,  to consider the visual presentation of an section of his speech, Changing Education Paradigms, delivered at the RSA in 2008.  The full lecture and unedited transcript are available online. My immediate response was positive but, on reflection, I’ve reservations about the elements in both the argument and the animated film, which I share below.

goya ass
Francisco de Goya, Si sabrá mas el discipulo? (Might the pupil know more?) 1797c.

In his 2006 TED talk How schools kill creativity, Ken Robinson gives the example of the little girl finally allowed to dance and going on to achieve Broadway and West End success with Andrew Loyd Weber. Rightly, to my mind, Robinson has little time for the maginalisation of dance in the liberal art heirachy of disciplines.  However, my suspicion is, as the accomplished speaker he is,  Robinson knows and plays to his audience. I’m no doubt betraying my own prejudicies, but as a defense of the pursuit of creativity, a narrrative involving ‘multimillionare’ showbiz/choreographer is, for me, all too American, too market orientated. Contemporary dance is an art practice; at its best it’s an in-depth and open-ended inquiry that involves reflection, reflexivity and criticality. In the words of Gillian Lynne herself:

You have to understand that movement and thought are wedded together. You can’t just go and dance without a thought in your head. You need to know why you are doing the movements, what they mean to you and what they may mean to others.

I wouldn’t argue about the imperative to teach the whole child (only point out that the idea has a long history from the Enlightenment and its Romantic critique: Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Johann Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel). If a change of educational culture is needed, it’s one that should attend to art processes, for their own sake, as part of a broad and balanced curriculum. There are many (historical) definitions of creativity, but I understand it as a series of related conceptual and physical skills that can be taught through art. Rebranding creativity as something measurable and quantifiable, as ‘divergent thinking’ (which is the rhetorical move in the RSA Animate talk -‘isn’t the same thing as creativity…is the essential capacity for creativity’) won’t make up for schools increasing class sizes and pupil teacher ratios and underfunding learning supports. Ultimately, for all his talk praising the arts, Robinson doesn’t address the question tacitly raised by the animated film: how is it that he can enjoy a performance of Shakespeare whereas as for a child, he would have us presume, Shakespeare is in the category of the ‘boring stuff’ of a subject-specific curriculum? Robinson’s cartoon avatar is shown seated in the theatre, glowing with aesthetic experience, linked by a dashed red sight line to Hamlet on the stage. This image of the rational subject fully realised in a bourgeois public sphere (6:11) is in contrast to that of the screen addled (and, we are asked to think, drug addled) teenager struggling to distinguish his bedroom from his classroom (4:53).




The move may be on to reconceive creativity as a new form of  productivity, ever ‘more social, practical, and mercantile’, but I’d argue that to think critically about education one would also need to consider the transmission of cultural capital and the formation of habitus within the home (something Robinson brings up in his 2006 talk only to skip over as a joke scenario with Shakespeare’s father telling William to ‘put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It’s confusing everybody.’). More Pierre Bourdieu, less TED gurus.