Can Culture Heal the Wounds of the Troubles?
by Bruce Clark
Some arresting images of the healing power of culture have emerged this year from a small city in
The atmosphere has lightened over the past two decades of relative peace, but it is still punctuated by small acts of violence.
People from all over the world come to walk round the magnificent city walls and visit a small museum that does a fair job of telling the story of a divided city. Visitors this year will be extra numerous because of an extended arts festival, featuring local talent and international performers.
Memorable vignettes are coming thick and fast. On the 26-acre site of a barracks which the British army abandoned 12 years ago, local guitarists played along with one of the world's masters of contemporary dance, Hofesh Shechter, who said the town reminded him of his native
But not all the city's worries have been dispelled by the restorative power of the Muses. The very name of the festival, Derry-Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013, highlights the problem.
The G8 summit is to be held 60 miles away in the secluded confines of the Lough Erne resort in
The Mayor of Derry,
Meanwhile, some cultural statements are being made that reflect uncomfortable truths. A local author,
So is there something fraudulent about the implied message of Derry's cultural festival? Is it naive to imagine that excellence in the arts can both celebrate and reinforce a spirit of post-conflict reconciliation?
In the right conditions, the common language of culture -- music, film, literature, art -- can indeed be a powerful force for peace. When two groups of people have been told by their respective masters to regard one another as alien and hostile, artistic events can send a giant countervailing message.
Here are a few examples. First, a very local one: at the height of the Northern Irish Troubles, when urban spaces were segregated battle zones, young people enjoyed the same rock music. When a punk group called The Undertones emerged in the 1970s from the most battle-scarred Catholic areas of Derry, belting out witty, apolitical songs of youthful angst, they defied the masters of conflict by finding lots of fans in hard-core Protestant areas.
In the land of apartheid, something changed forever when the white American
Relations between the states that went to war after communist
Take another relationship which is often seen as irreducibly hostile. Over the past 50 years of fluctuating relations between Greeks and Turks, artistic portrayals of a deep, paradoxical commonality have never ceased to resonate. Eyes watered in both countries when Dido Sotiriou, a Greek novelist, described the comradeship between two farm boys who were later divided by Greek-Turkish war. In 2003, a cult film, A Touch of Spice, used culinary images to celebrate the Greek-Turkish intermingling that persisted in
What all these artistic moments have in common is that they reflected a spirit of defiance; they all involved a rejection of powerful forces which had a stake in perpetual conflict. It is a somewhat different story when reconciliation through art is fostered by officialdom. Young rock-music fans have a keen sense of when an official story is being challenged, and when it is lavishly promoted.
Magic moments in cross-cultural friendship tend to be spontaneous, not planned. For Irish music lovers across the world, the biggest show is the Fleadh (pronounced Flaah). At last year's, in Cavan, there was an electric evening when
Still, even if doesn't, that will not mean that Derry's cultural festival has served no honest purpose. This is a demographically young city where people under 30 are relatively untouched by conflict. Letting them enjoy and play along with the best artistic talents of a wider world can do nothing but good. A budget of £16 million goes a long way in a town of 110,000.
But some of the city's most important civic and artistic projects predate the festival and will, it is hoped, continue long afterwards. Council and business leaders want to make Derry a hub of 'digital culture' -- activities at the interface between the arts and information technology.
Digital culture makes sense for a city that has a large pool of artistic talent but is hampered by geographical isolation. Another feature of
Culture can douse inter-communal conflict, or sometimes inflame it. Its effects are by definition unpredictable. In the end, technology, with or without a link to the arts, may matter more.