Music and the Arts Need Ideas and Debate Too

The writer Desmond Fennell, who died this week, had clear ideas about the role of new thinking and debate in society. They are relevant to Irish music today, writes Toner Quinn.

One of the lessons I learned from the Irish writer Desmond Fennell, who sadly passed away this week, was that every societal challenge is all down to the way we think about it, and therefore applying yourself to thinking in new ways about a particular issue is valuable. He took the role of thinking and articulating new ideas seriously and dedicated his life to it. 

In his articles, essays and books, he also often stated how important it is for society itself to have a strong process for the creation, dissemination and discussion of new ideas. By this, he meant suggestions for addressing the ongoing challenges of society, whether that is unaffordable housing, political conflict, or unaccountable corporate power. Fresh ideas, new perspectives, original thinking – they can be liberating for people and inspire action. That’s why Fennell felt they were valuable. Without them, a society struggles and stagnates. But it’s not enough to just have ideas. They must be discussed, fine-tuned and made the best they can be before we decide to implement them. The relationship between those who come up with new thinking – writers, commentators, artists, intellectuals – and the media and state institutions who might discuss, implement or reject those ideas, is therefore critical to society.

Fennell described the workings of this process in his essay ‘Intellect and National Welfare’. When the process works well, there is a constant flow of new thought and fruitful public discussion. When the process is dysfunctional, ideas, even if they are good ones, are met with a wall of silence and apathy, and simply fade away. Another possibility is that ideas might be blithely implemented without any discussion, which is just as frustrating. Fennell was committed to this intellectual process and often dedicated his writing to analysing and tackling blockages to it, whether that was in the media, through political power or historical myopia. He could handle his ideas being criticised, but he refused to tolerate them not being discussed in the first place.

Big ideas in music and the arts
The examples Fennell often gave were in politics and literature, but the process is relevant to music and the wider arts too. There are several big ideas floating around Irish music and the arts at the moment, and they provide a good example of how important the Fennell process of idea development is.

The chief idea that has garnered most attention in recent months is the basic income pilot for artists. Championed by the Minister for Arts Catherine Martin, it will provide artists with a basic payment, a social security net, below which no one can fall. Given that Irish musicians and artists live precarious lives, this has been widely welcomed.

Of course, the understandable excitement around the proposal obscures another issue, which is the long-term development of the Irish music industry. It has been through a torrid fifteen months. Four months ago, Gareth Murphy published a major essay on how the Irish music sector could be transformed, by developing our record label culture so that the traditional ‘copyright drain’ from Ireland could be stemmed, and the profits generated could be invested in new generations of artists. It was widely welcomed within the music community, but unlike the basic income idea, Murphy’s ideas have received zero public discussion in the national media. We therefore face a situation whereby we may have a social security net at the bottom, but no plan to actually increase incomes and career prospects in Irish music in the long term.

Another big idea that is already a fait accompli, but still with hardly any substantial public discussion, is the plan to transfer administration of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra to the National Concert Hall. RTÉ says it can no longer afford it, and it has built up a range of problems, including staffing issues, narrow programming, no touring and inconsistent commissioning. But there has been little real public discussion about this relocation idea, never mind any consultation with the concert-going public. It is not clear how the historic issues will be resolved by simply moving it to a different postcode, for its problems lie not just with money but also with vision and long-term planning. Music critic Adrian Smith has published a number of articles and essays on the artistic programming of the NSO, but there has been no wider discussion about his ideas.

Thirdly, the idea that Lyric FM’s Limerick studios should close and that the station should move to Dublin and Cork was also suggested in late 2019 without any public discussion, and it disappeared as fast when there was a public outcry. Is there merit in the idea? Will it happen? We do not know. No clear rationale was ever presented publicly, and it was never fully discussed, so the station continues under a layer of confusion. In April it advertised for a new head of the station, and it says it has a three-year road-map, but a detailed vision about what the station is for and where it is going is no clearer than before. Any articles that have raised issues about Lyric FM have been met with media silence.

We need new ideas and brave initiatives, but we also have to get better at discussing them. This is about intellectual curiosity and enquiry – online, in newspapers, on radio, television and podcasts, and in book and magazine publishing. We do not know if the above ideas will be successful, and we have reduced the chances by not having robust processes by which these ideas could be strengthened through public debate.

The only solution that Fennell came up with to ensure his ideas were discussed was to be dogged about it, to prepare for criticism, and to persist. He had the courage and determination to do that, and paid a personal cost. But must it always be this way? How can we ensure that debate about music and the arts is locked into our society’s values? The alternative is stumbling along, hoping for the best, building up frustration and cynicism. At least we do have a body of work that shows us how it should be done. To anyone interested in ideas and debate, Fennell’s work will always be an inspiration.

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