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A Shout in the Street: Reflections on another way of looking

Philip Napier, Ballad No 1, accordian, accordian buttons forming the face of Bobby Sands, motor, accordian bellows sound, 1992. Image courtesy of the artist.
by Declan McGonagle

As an art student in Belfast in the 1970s I, along with many others, found it very difficult if not impossible, to address what was happening on the streets throughout Northern Ireland at the time. We found the sense of separation and the apparent inadequacy of the art process to be disempowering in the face of that reality. However, I now believe that this was and is a narrow and shallow reading of the nature and purpose of art, especially if considered over the longer term.

Art was not then positioned nor understood, generally, as a means of negotiating reality; as a means of dialoguing and as a reciprocal rather than rhetorical process. Ideas of engagement were marginalised as Community Arts and engagement with political issues was held on the fringes of mainstream art practice and discourse. In thinking about that particular time for artists in Northern Ireland, I am reminded of a detective in a ‘whodunit’ who looks for motive, opportunity and means in relation to a crime. Because of the heightened reality of the Troubles in Belfast and in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, I would say there was plenty of motivation and the opportunity to explore what art’s relationship to social space could be but we did not have the means – the language – in practice or discourse. A critical language, which would have been essential to nourish and validate attempts, at any level, to address lived experience did not exist in this place at that time.

Indeed, it was only partially present in the wider art environment elsewhere. The only means available was the detached and abstracted forms of production in what was known as Political Art, embedded in a 1970s Conceptualist aesthetic, applied to generalised issues of Left and Right.


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