Please find below pdf & word versions of my pamphlet On Being An Irish Working Class Writer
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On the same Easter Week of the 1916 rising, a Charlie Chaplin lookalike competition was held in Dublin. Chaplin, well-known to be a socialist as well as the world’s leading entertainer at the time, had a mass following among the Dublin working classes.
Truth be told, among many in the Dublin working class, there was probably as much interest in the Charlie Chaplin competition as there was in what the crowd of poets with guns and big ideas were at in the GPO. There were many dozens of entries to the lookalike competition and the various merits of each were discussed in newspapers and among young and old in working class communities. For many, the Chaplin lookalike competition must have seemed a supremely important event, and the unannounced eruption of the Rising an unwelcome distraction.
The story goes that about halfway through Easter Week — while field guns pummelled the GPO from across the street, and the rebels inside did their best to hold tough and return fire — one of the most impressive of the Chaplin lookalikes decided to amble Chaplinesquely right down the middle of O Connell St, in between the hostile lines.
Both sides, it is said, ceased fire and both sides, it is said, looked on in appreciative amazement at the slick and entertaining performance — as unexpected and courageous as the Easter Rising itself.
Once he/she/they had finished the cannon-silencing performance, they turned and bowed in both directions, and a general applause broke out. No observer could have told which portions of the noise of the applause was British Loyalist, and which emanated from the clapped hands of Insurrectionary Irish.
Minutes later, once the fabled impersonator was out of range, the unresolved hostilities resumed and bullets sought heads to explode in every direction.
Art does not ask or expect of its appreciators that they subscribe to one political point of view or another; does not inquire as to whether they be on one side of the class and anti-imperialist struggles or the other.
Mozart was popular among the officers of the death camps. Trotsky recognised the avid fascist Céline as the greatest of inter-war French novelists. No contemporary liberal novelist could dare claim to be of equal artistic stature to the religious reactionary Fyodor Dostoevsky.
So it’s not the purpose of this essay to dispute this fundamentally supra-political aspect of art. Great art disintegrates all borders, ignores all our divisions. Within this universally levelling effect, the aesthetic bears a radical promise of no nations, borders, classes or any kind of unequal and agitating divisions on Earth — “all the people together in harmony,” as John Lennon sings it.
Art is Utopianising in its collective effect on us as a species — it unites us by temporarily obscuring or abolishing our real divisions and without asking for a sacrifice of our individuality. Though of course it does so only temporarily, only in the realms of feeling and imagination, and without much actual impact on borders and class divisions in the here and now.
It is important not to have the illusion that making art, generally speaking, is a kind of political activism. Art is most often not political activity so much as it is the suspension or deferral of political activity.
Bertolt Brecht wrote many songs and poems and plays and novels aimed at, and enjoyed by, millions of German workers in the 1920s and 1930s. Fascism came to power anyway and would likely have done so in exactly the same way had he never in his life bothered to write a single line.
All the protest songs and singers of the 1960s and 1970s couldn’t prevent the election of Reagan and Thatcher.
There certainly are occasions when art and artists can make a centrally important contribution to social causes. The relationship between Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League is one such good news story, as is the successful resistance to the Carnsore nuclear reactor here in Ireland.
Others will have more examples, I’m sure, but all will be exceptions to a general rule of artistic creation, which is that it takes place in a separate sphere from political activity, and with its own traditions and orientations which are different to and even opposed to political activity. Activism always seeks to highlight the social divisions that anthropologists argue it is art’s social and evolutionary role in human societies to paper over and obscure.
On the other hand, this grand distinction between spheres of activity makes anyone trying to fuse them a priori a subversive. And it is obviously true that a poem on a picket-line or an artistic online video can inspire and promote causes.
But it is usually the case that artists make their best contributions to social movements in the same way as plumbers or nurses — that is, by handing out leaflets, turning up to meetings and demos etc. — by blending in rather than standing out.
Similarly, the cultural value and aesthetic quality of a work of art has nothing to with the class background or political opinions of who has produced it or who is relaying or performing it.
Nor does the personal morality of the artist have any bearing at all on whether the music they compose will be beautiful, or the book they write un-put-downable.
W.B Yeats lived a long and luxurious aristocratic life paid for by the hard labour of Irish peasants. He owed the inspiration of many of his plays and poems to the lore of Irish peasants. The music and diction of much of his poetry is simply a refined version of the daily speech rhythms of the Irish peasantry.
Nevertheless, he enthusiastically supported the war crimes of extra-judicial torture and execution of socialist and republican POWs from peasant backgrounds during the so-called Irish civil war. Yet he remains the most melodious and memorable Irish poet of the early 20th century.
Margaret Atwood’s practical support for apartheid Israel in breaking the cultural boycott does nothing to reduce her status as one of the pre-eminent global novelists.
Conversely, some of the worst poetry ever written has emerged from council estates where a local loudmouth has discovered an online rhyming dictionary and decided to inflict their thoughts on world affairs on us in toddleresque rhymes.
So when we talk about how injustice and inequality manifest themselves in class society in relation to the arts, we are not talking about anything to do with aesthetics or the internal qualities of works of art.