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New art riot… well, not quite… January 11, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Art, Culture, Irish Politics.
21 comments

To be honest when I briefly heard about the controversy over an artwork by Shane Cullen dealing with the hunger strike my assumption was, because I didn’t read any details, that it was in the North. My mistake.

The Phoenix, which has done a real service by highlighting the story prominently, notes that this was in Athlone, and the details reflect incredibly badly upon those on the Town Council who demanded that the artwork be removed from the local art gallery. The gallery, the Luan Gallery, was set up by the Council, but the selection of the work was made by the gallery manager, the Westmeath Arts officer and a representative of IMMA. The latter has issued a strong statement in defence of the work.

Cooney’s rationale for the motion demanding the removal seems a bit thin. He claimed:

…the installation is “offensive” and should be removed – a view shared by his father. Created by Longford-born artist Shane Cullen and titled Fragments sur les Institutions Républicaines IV, the artwork is based on a collection of Republican prisoners’ messages smuggled out of the H-Block prison in 1981.

And the IT noted that:

Cllr Cooney was reluctant to discuss the merits of his motion. “I put the motion down for the council meeting and I feel it should be debated and articulated from there,” he explained.

Interesting snippet here:

A spokeswoman for Athlone Art Heritage Ltd said “we are aware that there is a motion on the agenda for Monday. We won’t really respond to it at the moment because we don’t have the details.”
She did not know whether the artist had been alerted to the upcoming motion. However, she said, Paddy Cooney attended the gallery’s opening and was vocal in his “unhappiness” with the work and “Shane Cullen was there and he witnessed that”.

At the meeting where the amended motion was put the IT described it as follows:

Scores of protesters attended a meeting of Athlone Town Council where the motion was up for debate yesterday evening.
Those gathered in the packed public gallery included the creator of the contentious piece, artist Shane Cullen, and son of murdered Defence Forces member David Kelly.
The artwork, Fragmens sur les Institutions Républicaines IV, is based on a collection of republican prisoners’ messages smuggled out of the H-Block prison in 1981.

And David Kelly put it like this:

[he supported] the motion as he was “very disturbed” by the work.
“I viewed the piece myself and I find it deeply offensive. It basically glorifies terrorism that resulted in the deaths of Army men including my father and members of the gardaí and many innocent women and children,” he said.
“I’m just very appalled basically that school children are seeing writings by psychopaths and murderers.”

Meanwhile IMMA’s statement (and here is its overview of the exhibition – http://www.imma.ie/en/page_212689.htm ) said that the piece was ‘a major artwork by one of Ireland’s most respected artists’ and that if it were removed it would ‘undermine the Luan Gallery’s position and remit as a facilitator of contemporary art and culture’.

Hard to disagree.

The Phoenix notes:

Cullen’s… work deals with contemporary political issues, using official documents and symbols and he was recently commissioned to do a n artwork on the subject of the Good Friday Agreement.

And the Phoenix asks:

…whether we’ll see Aosdana and champions of artistic freedom like Tony Cronin rise to the gallery’s defence.

That’s a most interesting question.

It also raises the nagging question whether we would have seen this happen say five years ago, and whether the change in administration has anything to do with it. Not directly, of course, but there’s a tone to this that seems odd, and oddly familiar.

Consider Cooney’s thoughts in this comment on the day of the vote:

Cllr Cooney said he did recognise the work as art, but felt the content of the piece was hugely offensive – especially at a time when prison officers and members of the security forces were under attack again in Northern Ireland.
He said there were occasions when everybody had to censor for the good.
“We need censorship to protect our children – sometimes you have do it,” he said.

No credit to those who voted for it either – though its initial demand that the work be removed was softened to a request that the gallery consider its removal – they being FF and Labour.

That in 2013 such a demand could be made is depressing in the extreme. Of course the works could be offensive to some, it’s impossible to look back over that history without that response to some issue or another, and acts by almost all those involved will evoke that response (indeed as we know from continuing controversies over earlier parts of our history similar emotions and responses can be generated) – and to some will be deeply painful. But that’s part and parcel of engaging with that, not trying to conceal that history. Trying to censor cultural work around the history seems to me to entirely bankrupt.

George Grosz August 2, 2012

Posted by doctorfive in Art, Culture, The Left.
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‘Knowledge is power’ [board reads] The future of the working class lies in the blossoming of entrepreneurs (10% wage deduction) (United front) (piece-work) (12-hour day)

Popped in the Galway Museum last week to have a look at The Big No, an exhibit of two collections from satirist George Grosz. Founding Dadaist and revolutionary famed for his incredibly sharp depiction of Weimar Germany, particularly the inequality and human wreckage he found in Berlin post 1918.


‘Toads of property                                                                    ‘The war did me a lot of good’

The Dadaist manifesto set out the stall that art which tries to separate itself from or does not address circumstances that surround it only maintains the status quo

“Expressionist artists and writers have grouped together into a generation which is already looking longingly for literary and artistic esteem and honourable recognition from the bourgeoisie. Under the pretext of propagating spiritual values they have retreated, in their struggles against Naturalism, into a set of abstract and sentimental postures which are based on a life which is cozy but devoid of content and action.

while emphasizing the “feverish interrelatedness of everything”.

“The highest art is one that manifests in its consciousness the countless problems of the present day, that seems to have risen out of the explosions of the previous week, and that takes its form from immediate contact with the conflicts of the present.”

Grosz’s work was a direct contrast to an idealistic picture of German life. Raking up “the contradictions that capitalist society hides.”


‘Two chimneys. One Soul’                                                              ‘Stinnes and his President’


‘Those who eat well…’                                                                            ‘…easily forget’

Grosz was member of the KPD from it’s inception though sometimes at odds when it came to portal of class.

I do not consider it necessary to satisfy the demands of a ‘Hurrah’-shouting Bolshevism which images the working man with his hair neatly combed and dressed up in archaic heroic costume… I absolutely reject the idea that one can only serve the cause of propaganda by producing a one sided, flattering and false idealization of life…

The task of art is the help the worker understand his exploitation and his suffering, to compel him to acknowledge openly his wretchedness and enslavement, to awaken self-consciousness in him and to inspire him to engage in class warfare

He resigned from the party in 1923 (apparently following a visit to Russia, though I haven’t tracked down much detail. He is quoted opposing the manifesto of the election that year) but continued his agitation forming the Red Group, the first formal organisation of Artists the following year and later part of the Federation of Revolutionary Visual Artists of Germany, producing pamphlets and graphics for Communist organisations.


‘Victorious, we will hit the French…..’                            ‘against Communism they are united

As Berlin moved more and more to the right Grosz was frequently targeted. He left for the States when the writing on the wall was becoming clear in 1933. His studio was one of the first to be raided under the new Chancellor and his work featured prominently in the Entartete Kunst of 1937.

The exhibit is showing at Antrim Castle from the 7th. Well worth a look if you’re in the area as only a fraction covered here.  I’ve spent the week thinking about contemporary satire and struggling to think of much that comes close, at home at least.

We get plenty of send up but very little edge. Impersonations remain popular but since the demise of Scrap Saturday have lost a lot of the bite or at least the cleverness necessary to subvert and get away with it. Often by their nature impressions engage in stereotyping leading to the type of reinforcement Grosz went against. Turner is about as challenging as the paper he appears in while beside the occasional nugget Goldhawk have six jokes. There has been varying success online but you always have question the true reach or impact. Hopefully we will see more from DoleTV as the referendum commission parody was a great example of what can be done.

Howling laughter was heard from several fairways when the bankers learned of the eh, robust Garda operation on Conor Casby and the infamous painting of Brian Cowen ‘Master of his Brief’, a phrase coined by Harry McGee the year before. Perhaps events like this have delayed the emergence of Swift’s heir. Despite a wealth of material where do you begin to parody Ireland in 2012?

“Words” and “Fail” and “Me” June 19, 2012

Posted by Tomboktu in Art, Business, Communism, Imagery, Uncategorized.
10 comments

MasterCard issued by Sparkasse Chemnitz using image of Karl Marx

Willie O’Dea is OK (on the video) December 17, 2010

Posted by Tomboktu in Art, Class, Music, Reaction, Society.
10 comments

I don’t listen to Joe Duffy, but Panti blogged about yesterday’s programme where the Rubberbandits’ Christmas video was the topic of discussion. Interesting to hear Willie O’Dea making sense and one of the indignant caller having their lack of understanding of art exposed, and by somebody with a broad working class Limerick accent to boot.

A tape of the show is here.

24 minutes into this Joe Duffy show, some of the up-on-their-high-horse set get ripped apart by somebody with a broad Limerick accent.

Rubberbandit: “Somebody needs to give that man a dictionary and he needs to look up the word ‘irony'”

and later …

Indignant caller: “I don’t watch MTV like Martin Scorcese”.

Rubberbandit: “Then, man, you’ve no business looking at art [...] We don’t create music for people like you who are going to interpret something literally. [...] It’s about metaphor, it’s about art, it’s about different viewpoints creating the meaning. Do you know what I mean?”

Indignant caller: “Absolutely not. Why would I as an individual who would watch that video once and listen to that track once come away with all that? That’s rubbish. [...] What’s coming out of that video is the usage and promotion of drugs. It’s a joke.”

Rubberbandit: “It is a joke, yeah. You’re hitting the nail on the head there, kid.”

And the offending video:

‘Making Cents: Life Below the Bottom Rung’ October 1, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Art, Culture.
1 comment so far

Vincent Browne, journalist and broadcaster, to open the Solo Art Show of Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin

‘Making Cents: Life Below the Bottom Rung’

Exhibition Launch 6.30pm, Thursday 7th October 2010.
Open daily, Monday – Friday, in the afternoon.

‘Making Cents’ is a new series of oil paintings examining the daily existence of people making a living in the worst working conditions in the global economy.

The globalisation of the world economy has allowed for extremes of exploitation of workers in poor countries. This exploitation is ‘hidden’ behind advertising and aesthetically designed products. Looking at the people behind the products reminds us that our lifestyle has its negative side too.

Paintings can be viewed online here.

3-D or not 2-D… ahem. September 4, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Art, Culture, Film, Film and Television.
12 comments

I wonder how many times that’s been used? Anyhow, having only this last month or so actually ‘enjoyed’ the dubious benefits of 3-D cinema – Toy Story 3D as it happens, and yes, it was grand, but I preferred Inception (and indeed Up! Now I think of it), this caught my attention, a piece in Slate which argues that:

…the prognosis for 3-D seems dire: There’s either too much supply or not enough demand. For mainstream movies that can be viewed in either format, the added benefit of screening in three dimensions is trending toward zero.

This should give pause for thought to anyone thinking of shelling out for the even more dubious pleasures of a 3-D TV, assuming that is that they can afford the incredible price…

Not that the Irish Times sees it quite like that in a recent article where it waxes, well, not quite lyrical but y’know. TV channels in 3-D arriving soon, not much content though. And everyone wearing glasses abhaile? Hmmmm…

Although one way it could lever in, might – stress might, be through gaming, as also noted in the IT, although hows this for a pessimistic/realistic appraisal:

Microsoft’s Lewis also said it’s too early for 3-D gaming to take off. “We are two to three years away from that, till the price point comes down, till the experience is sufficiently social, that you don’t sit there with big glasses on and don’t talk to your family,” he said. “That will happen, there’s no doubt.”

But when Mr. Microsoft man? When?

Coincidentally I saw a TV series in/on(?) Blu-Ray recently for the first time, and quite a few episodes too.

And it was sort of the same experience, in other words, yes, it’s better but it’s not astounding, or even that remarkable. There are those who would even argue that – it being True Blood, we can do without seeing Sookie’s spots. Or that the pristine clarity of the bar set isn’t really that much to write home about.

As it happens months ago I heard a discussion on TechTalk, a good-humoured US tech podcast which is always worth a listen, where a group of tech experts and commentators came to much the same conclusion. That the leap from video to DVD was so great that the further leap from DVD to Blu-Ray while okay is a bit – meh…

I wonder is that one of the reasons Sony et al are so keen to push 3-D? It’s not that Blu-Ray is failing, per se. How could it be – at least in terms of numbers of players – when every PS3 on the planet has a Blu-Ray player, but rather that people are happy enough with DVD, particularly in the face of the current recession.

More on this debate here

Troubled Images at the Linenhall Library September 1, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in Art, Culture, The North.
3 comments

We are grateful to GoodHardRant for the following…

The Linen Hall Library, Belfast, is currently showing a selection of its collection of political posters from the 30 years of conflict and peace process in Northern Ireland. Troubled Images showed briefly in 2001 and has since been a traveling exhibition, in the United States and elsewhere. Having begun with a civil rights flyer given to librarian Jimmy Vitty in the 1960s, the Linen Hall’s collection of political material is an invaluable historical archive of the ‘Troubles’. It is also, however, a record of the way in which politics spawned varieties of visual polemic, as the conflict’s escalation occasioned more visceral means of persuasion and politicization than subtle argument. Belfast is depressingly famous for its murals, graffiti and use of graphics in expressing varieties of tribal politics, and given recent attempts to repackage the city’s history of violence as a kind of kitsch, the exhibition might seem a somewhat more respectable supplement to bus tours of the Falls, Shankill and ‘Peace Line’. A few tourists were indeed browsing the exhibit with a mixture of curiosity and incomprehension when I visited, though not too many given recent events as reflected in Australia’s recommendations to tourists.

The 70 posters hung in the narrow stairwell of the Library’s Fountain Street entrance certainly provide an interesting cross-section of the politics of Northern Ireland. The exhibition is wide-ranging, with posters from a range of parties, including the Alliance Party, UDP, IRSP, UUP, RSF, SDLP, and Women’s Coalition. Some posters rely on their image to do the talking. Sean O’Toole’s Remember Derry (1974), for instance, uses the stark white of 13 skulls on a pure black background to recall Bloody Sunday. In one 1960s poster Ian Paisley looks every bit the charismatic preacher, orating under the holy cross of a Union Jack bearing the legend ‘For God and Ulster’. Image and politics merge in such figures. The exhibition nicely represents the overlap between murals and poster politics in Danny Devenny’s iconic outline of a gun-toting, faceless RUC officer wearing an orange sash. Originally a mural in South Derry, Sinn Féin quickly redeployed the image in their campaign to have the RUC disbanded. There are some audaciously inventive images here. Robert Ballagh’s 1989 poster for the Irish National Congress celebrates the centenary of the French Revolution by reworking Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People with a tricolor, and an Easter Lily – thus linking the Irish republican movement to the European tradition of democratic struggle. Cedric Wilson’s Unionist Solidarity (1986) poster brazenly mimics the Polish mass movement, with interesting (and weird and not entirely clear) political parallels resulting. A Workers’ Party poster (The Workers’ Party Says No to Mass Unemployment, 1986) echoes the mass protest against the Anti-Anglo Irish Agreement outside Belfast City Hall (where Paisley delivered the Never, Never, Never, Never speech) but with a hell of a lot less people!

Photographs are also deployed, mostly to make graphic statements about the human cost of the conflict. Most horrifying is a 1978 Northern Ireland Office poster following the La Mon House Hotel bombing. Accompanying a photograph of charred, limbless remains the word ‘murder’ is repeated 12 times, once for each fatality. The poster does not request information. Instead, the image asserts the criminality of the offence and its horror, refusing any ideological content. This is, of course, a deliberate, artful strategy. The exhibition allows the viewer to see images such as these in context with other, competing political images; each side’s accusations of atrocity out on show. In this way, Troubled Images confirms that brutality has been a near constant in much of the visual and verbal rhetoric of Northern Irish politics. On the first floor of the Linen Hall show is a militarily precise heraldic illustration of Long Kesh, with Orange lodge-style blazons and bunting, celebrating the UFF loyalist ‘POWs’ held there. Easily overlooked, this piece is by loyalist murderer Michael Stone. That chilling fact, if nothing else, shows how politicized images have underpinned much of the politics of the last thirty years. Whatever your individual political convictions, these posters show the way in which polemical images intervened in the daily mental life of people, shaping (or warping) language and perspective for good and ill.

See here for exhibit times and duration. It’s free. Some of the images can be viewed here.

Good news for fans of John Hyatt… May 1, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Art, Culture, Music, Uncategorized.
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… formerly of The Three Johns. Hat tip to Counago & Spaves for this…

Arts and class… new research demonstrates something that might seem sort of obvious. February 28, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Art, Culture.
12 comments

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For those of you who peruse the ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute) website you are likely to come across the following. For the ESRI and the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF) have sponsored a report entitled “In the Frame or Out of the Picture? A Statistical Analysis of Public Involvement in the Arts”. It’s quite interesting, but the conclusions… well, they’re hardly surprising.

And a piece that announced this in the Irish Times on Monday noted some of the main findings:

PEOPLE FROM less well-off backgrounds are many times less likely to go to the cinema, music concerts or art exhibitions, new research shows.

Although education has the strongest influence on whether people attend arts events, people of higher income or social class are also much more likely to attend.

For example, people with a degree are nearly three times more likely to go to a film and twice as likely to attend a play or art exhibition compared with the rest of the population.

This can hardly be news, can it? Many years ago I was involved in arts administration. It was an interesting opportunity to get an insight into how the arts are structured in Ireland, and have at least some insight into the NI and UK experience. A couple of fairly obvious impressions. Firstly the arts live in a curiously symbiotic embrace with the state. Their individualism (and collectivism) draw directly upon state funding. I’m well past the argument of why we benefit from such funding, but…that said we’re not necessarily all benefiting equally, or anywhere close to equally from it. Secondly those involved tend, in the main, to be drawn from the middle classes. Neither of these is, per se, a problem, but it does indicate the terrain upon which we tread. Now, lest it seem that my second point there is an outrageous example of classism consider the following:

“What is striking is the range of events affected,” said Dr Lunn. “Social background strongly influences attendance right across the arts spectrum, from a classical concert to a gig in the pub, or from the school play to the latest blockbuster.”

Other findings show that those from less well-off backgrounds are not as likely to read for pleasure.

But the same pattern does not occur for direct participation in the arts, such as playing an instrument or performing in shows, where social background has a much weaker influence.

This is probably less true for those who organise the arts, a reasonably significant group. No, hold on, it is true of those, and moreover, as the report itself (available as PDF from the ESRI here – go to the publications page) notes:

A third policy implication arises from the finding that awareness of arts officers is heavily skewed towards higher socio-economic groups. This raises a concrete example of the kind of resource trade-offs that policy-makers must make. The result does not imply that arts officers do not do a good job, for that depends on how much emphasis is to be placed on reaching out to more disadvantaged communities as opposed to other duties. Certainly, it suggests that if cultural inclusion is to be taken seriously, a degree of redirection and training, as envisaged in NESF (2007) will be required.

Still, what are the reasons for all this? I can guess of one in particular… but let us turn to the conclusion of the Report.

It argues that:

the number of potential causal routes between socio-economic status and involvement in the arts is such that to offer a single explanation for the primary conclusion just arrived at is a daunting task.

Which is true, but… some effort should be made…

Take educational attainment. An individual with higher attainment is more likely to have been born to educated parents, who in turn would be more likely to be involved in the arts themselves. She or he will have spent longer in full-time education, surrounded by people also more likely to have a connection to the arts and, in many cases, to be studying them.

So, it’s a cultural thing.

After moving into the labour force, the individual is more likely to be surrounded by a network of other educated people, who have experienced the same advantages. Note that all of these advantages listed thus far do not take into account the simple possibility that education itself stimulates interest in the arts and promotes faculties useful for comprehending and enjoyingthe number of potential causal routes between socio-economic status and involvement in the arts is such that to offer a single explanation for the primary conclusion just arrived at is a daunting task.

No wait, that sounds like class to me, at least in part.

Still, something is missing, some factor which might in the past have predicated, even before acculturation through the relatively recently developed upper working and middle classes extant on this island, against widespread participation by those from less well off socio-economic groups.

After all, the report also notes that:

Nevertheless, there is some evidence arising from the present study that the impact of socio-economic factors extends beyond their influence on interests and tastes. The models described in Section 5 show that even comparing individuals who profess the same interest in the arts and who watch or listen to television, radio, CDs or DVDs of a particular artform, those in more advantageous circumstances are still considerably more likely actually to attend an event.

Which means there is some other factor. Something… like…perhaps…

cost – it is more expensive to attend arts events than to watch or listen. Recall that a more accurate measure of household income would be likely to be still more strongly related to involvement in the arts than is indicated by the figures presented.

Cost… who’d have thunk it? Well, actually no end of people. We see in a report available here that “Barriers to participation” include:

Family commitments, time, cost, transport, literacy, social & psychological barriers (Dec 2006 survey)

Indeed a press release from the Department of Arts, Sports, and Tourism notes that the Arts and Culture Plan 2008 will:

Also, as part of the increased access initiative, [see] proposals will be drawn up this year for the launch of a new National Cultural Day, which will begin in 2009, during which admission prices will be removed or reduced for events at publicly funded organisations.

But this is the point. If there is already a ‘social or psychological’ barrier extant that somehow arts and cultural activities are in some sense beyond the pale or elitist (not an entirely incorrect notion as it happens) then the very costs of engaging with such activities reinforces precisely those barriers and prejudices.

It is revealing, to me at least, that in Section 9, under Further Research the authors admit that:

In particular, no details of individual and regular involvements with the arts were collected, such as duration, time, context, cost, frequency, initial contact etc. Moreover, the range of background characteristics was narrow.

Yet the report suggests that:

The data analysed here also provide some suggestion that cost may be a factor for them, and so subsidies to reduce ticket prices associated with targeted marketing could be fruitful.

I’m certainly not arguing that cost alone is the determining factor. As the report notes…

Another potentially important factor, as implied by the example of educational attainment just described, is networks. We do not have data on how people first become involved, or what leads them to develop the habit of attending arts events, but social and family networks may be very instrumental.

But cost is crucial to the process of engaging with the arts and pivotal to the reinforcement of negative attitudes towards the arts. And as the report notes this isn’t restricted to the ‘high’ arts but also to cinema, music and other seemingly less elitist pursuits. And this fact that even supposedly ‘popular’ events such as music are in actual fact still tilted towards middle class participation is almost, but not quite, entertaining. Or as the Irish Times notes:

They [people with a degree] are also significantly more likely to attend music events such as pop, traditional or classical music concerts.

It makes sense when one stops and thinks about it (although it certainly sheds a certain light on claims of authenticity and credibility appropriated by those who perform). And here education is crucial. Because as qualifications spread cross class they pull, through the processes developed in secondary and tertiary education, people into engaging with the arts and culture.

Is notice being taken of these issues? In the Arts and Culture Plan launched by the government this week we read that:

[the Plan] commits additional funding of €40m for arts and culture infrastructure projects countrywide, restoration of the Heritage Fund for the acquisition of works of artistic and cultural significance, extended and more flexible opening hours at national museums, cultural venues, galleries and libraries, and a doubling of funding for national touring programmes to bring drama and cultural events to a wider audience.

And it is true that across a range of public museums, as the Plan notes: Ireland is the only country in Europe where the cultural experience is largely free of charge.

But, that is to draw a smaller circle around a specific range of cultural ‘experiences’. It is the broader area of cultural activity which is important and there cost is a factor. It is notable that the mention above in the Arts and Culture Plan is the only one that refers to cost.

Of course, much of this debate depends on how we define ‘arts’ a tricky and contentious issue in itself. It also depends on what value we accord these ‘arts’. But… to me the most interesting finding remains the fact that even supposedly middlebrow pursuits remain locked off from participation.

I have this image of a void in our society where many people simply don’t go beyond their house or their community and engage in cultural activities – other than the television. This too, the physical distance between activity and individual, is an issue. And beyond that is the sense that arts and culture are activities engaged in and produced by others. This is in no way to diminish those both from within and without communities who are working in precisely this area, but when the broader cultural narrative is one where culture is something that is locked into through education and disposable income the barriers to engagement are perhaps too high to be removed without active intervention by the state.

Talking of art and class, and perhaps the middle class in particular, can I direct you to this link which refers to the image used above…

Buying for Lefties II January 7, 2008

Posted by franklittle in Art, Books, Culture, Film.
13 comments

Last year we ran a Buying for Lefties thread, suggesting books and films that some of us here at the Cedars had enjoyed over the year. The notion was that those of us with friends or spouses without political inclinations could be quietly directed to the site to better facilitate the purchasing of presents and ensuring quieter, happier households come Christmas Day. Regrettably, we didn’t get around to it before Christmas but perhaps it’s now in time for the January sales. So these are some books or films that I highly recommend from 2007 for the lefty in your life. With one exception they all came out this year. Please feel free to add or criticise.

I was a big fan of Naomi Klein’s No Logo when it first came out and had been slightly disappointed with her works since then like Fences and Windows but she redeemed herself bigtime this year with The Shock Doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism, easily the best book I’ve read this year. Klein defines what she calls ‘the shock doctrine’, the use by capital of the disorientation left by war, revolution, coups or natural disaster to push through right-wing economic policies based on privatisation and the seizure of land and resources. She uses as a continuing metaphor the practice by the CIA in the 1950s of psychologically dismantling innocent people who had volunteered for psychiatric treatment. This practice, previously unknown to me but well-documented, was based on wiping a person’s personality and then building a new person on the ‘blank slate’. Disaster capitalism is the transference of this way of thinking to whole countries. She examines a range of countries as case studies including Chile, the Soviet Union, South Africa, Poland, Sri Lanka, the US post-Katrina and others. Highly recommended.

Níamh Puirseil’s The Irish Labour Party: 1922-73 is a workmanlike account of the history of Ireland’s third largest political party from the foundation of the state up until the 1973 election and the height of the conflict in the North. As a factual historical account of who did what, where and why it’s a pretty good read and interesting, also depressing, to see the same fights within the left fought out again and again. The weakness of the book for me was in its analysis. Puirseil, who is clearly sympathetic to Labour, ends with the damning conclusion that, “Offering little and delivering less, Labour received the support it deserved.” Yet she is clearly uncomfortable with those who argued for a move to the left within Labour over those five decades and especially so to those outside Labour on the left. She is also pretty good on the failures of Labour in government to deliver but tends to ascribe this as much to the failures of individual Labour ministers than the conservative alliances ranged against them, though the Church does come in for a bit of a kicking.

Earlier in 2007 I was delighted to get a copy of Steve McGiffen’s The European Union: A Critical Guide, a very well-written and direct analysis of the European Union from a radical left perspective. One of McGiffen’s strength is that while he makes his bias extremely clear, he is also able to separate it from the straight-forward factual information required for people to navigate the European Union. First published in 2001, an expanded edition in 2005 contains an analysis of the then European Constitution. For those on the left who always meant to find out more about the EU but never got around to it, this is the perfect choice as McGiffen brings us around the EU’s decision making structures without ever losing sight of the sheer madness of most of it.

While Noel Whelan still stalks the land touting his inept punditry and the occasional book of election statistics it is well to remember that Ted Nealon got it right a long time ago and it hasn’t been improved on since. Nealon’s Guide to the 30th Dáil and Seanad, now published by the Irish Times and edited by Stephen Collins, is still the definitive guide to Dáil elections. Every count in every constituency is broken down. Detailed profiles of TDs and Senators are contained. Well designed and laid out and even Collins is tolerable enough in it. A must for election nerds like me (I confess to having every one as far back as the ’87 election) and a valuable resource tool for political activists and commentators. Slightly surprised that nothing similar has come out from the Northern Assembly elections come to think of it but perhaps the previous effort from Whelan and Whyte showed there wasn’t a market for it.

And, moving onto films. I have to admit to having always had a sneaking regard for Michael Moore. Yes, he does occasionally play a bit fast and loose. But then, they have Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on their side and frankly, a little politically skewed editing seems like small potatoes next to outright personal, political and professional dishonesty. But in Sicko he makes his best movie to date, due perhaps in no small part to the fact that Moore has less screen time than he has had in other films and that with one big exception, he avoids a lot of the ‘stunts’ that featured in his other films. He simply allows Americans who have been victims of their health industry to tell their stories and in doing so lets them deliver a severe beating to the American health insurance industry a severe beating. While he’s wearing a seriously rosy tinted pair of spectacles when looking at the British and French health models, it does bring home how much we take public healthcare for granted when compared to the US version and when Tony Benn outlines the ideology of public healthcare, of public ownership and of solidarity with those in need, it’s almost enough to bring a lump to this old cynic’s throat.

Another outstanding documentary this year for me was Occupation 101, which I wrote about after attending the premiere back in November and so will merely direct you back there for more information.

Finally, two outstanding films for me. The first overturned years of dislike for Pat Shortt in Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage, one of the most powerful and certainly the most emotionally moving film I saw all year. It doesn’t seem to be out on DVD yet but it picked up a few prizes over the year and hopefully it’ll be available soon. Again, I wrote about this earlier in the year so more detail here. Best Irish film this year and a must-buy when it comes out.

And finally, we come to a film that can, I was surprised to discover from an old Stalinist acquaintance be seen as a tribute to the all-powerful and vigilant nature of the Stasi but which I took as an exploration of the effect living in, and assisting to administer, a totalitarian state can have on a person. In The Lives of Others Ulrich Muhe gives a very subtle, complex performance as a Stasi agent put in charge of a surveillance operation whose disquiet with the regime grows rapidly after he discovers the operation has more to do with a high-ranking official eliminating a romantic rival than the protection of the state. Deserved winner of an Oscar watching it now is especially poignant after Muhe’s death from stomach cancer earlier this year. Ironically, he was himself under surveillance by the Stasi as a young actor in the GDR and his wife was one of the agents recruited to monitor him. That level of surveillance is conveyed brilliantly in a film that brings home the atmosphere of paranoia and fear of the state that characterises totalitarian states.

Also rans. I haven’t got round to reading Judging Dev by Diarmaid Ferriter or The Corporate Takeover of Ireland by SWP capo Kieran Allen but both are on the seriously considered list. Comments on either would be welcome.

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