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Art in The Rare Oul’ Times

OSCAR Wilde once wrote that “an ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style”. But in today’s more sensitive, multicultural world, just how do the musings of the literary legend fare? Aubrey O’Connell takes a look.

I’m not racist but… A line which I’m sure we’ve all heard from our older (and wiser?) generations, making us instantly slam our heads in our hands as they rattle off once acceptable statements. But is that knee-jerk reaction to close our ears to what they’re saying the right thing to do? Political correctness is a nice idea in theory. I mean the majority of us don’t want to cause offence to anyone, and racism in general is plain wrong. Communism is a nice idea in theory too (am I allowed say that?).

Art, whether it be music or painting or the likes, has always served to provoke thought and emotion in its audience. If it didn’t it wouldn’t be much use to anyone, right? Well, sometimes to stir this response it inadvertently steps on a few toes. Until recently this hasn’t been a huge problem, but as multiculturalism continues to grow, artists risk offense by creating anything slightly controversial.

An example would be the recent protest by an Irish radio listener to the line: “I lost her to a student chap with a skin as black as coal” in the Dubliners’ “The Rare Oul’ Times”. Violin-wielding John Sheahan calmly stated that it was revealing a real time in Ireland when not many black people were seen, and thus they were considered as competition when on the pull for Irish girls. Is this racist and does it deserve to be torn from the song?

If we look back to the minstrel shows it is impossible to imagine them being performed in the present day. There is a fine line between art tackling sensitive subjects and art just seeking to be offensive. I have a feeling that should one of these blackface shows return that there would be mass protests taking place. And you couldn’t argue against that. They were crude shows that simply centred on the fact that faces had been blacked up which is be construed as racist.

The fact is, in many senses, our own island is becoming more and more of a nanny state, telling its inhabitants when they can consume alcohol, where they can smoke and so on.

Record companies hold a tight grasp upon the integrity of many artists’ work and publishers control the flow of the written word. The very reason being that they know their audience is becoming more sensitive and conservative and wish to shy away from repercussions. If we continue on this road art forms will become so stifled that their artists’ produce will be meaningless grey matter. We need to learn the difference between art attempting to tackle tricky subjects to make a point and those just spreading hate. We shouldn’t let mindless moaning via Joe Duffy and the likes decide which category art falls into.

Aubrey O’Connell



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