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The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community spacer The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community
Identity Crisis
by Pauline Hadaway
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Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act (1998) requires public authorities to actively promote equality of opportunity between and within categories of community, defined by, among other things, religious belief, political opinion, race, gender and sexual orientation. Under the legislation, public bodies responsible for allocating resources, from the Arts Council to regional health boards, development agencies and police authorities, must carry out regular 'equality impact assessments' to ensure equitable distribution across nine designated categories. Arts administrators contribute to the process by regularly submitting data based on assessments of the religious belief, political opinion, race, sexual orientation etc of members of the public and communities taking part in the events and activities they organise.
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Given the sensitivity of the data, practical problems of appraisal and accuracy should not be underestimated, but organising public life around the management of difference raises deeper questions. Beyond issues of physical access, for example, are there any measurable connections between categories of identity and the practice or appreciation of art? How is identity defined? Through objective racial or sectarian categorisation? Is it a state of mind? The product of a particular political world view or approach to arts practice? And why, in Northern Ireland, are categories of political opinion and religious belief, aspects of identity, widely understood as fluid, complex and above all consciously determined, being fixed, alongside race and gender, within predetermined groupings? In any event, outside the realm of political debate or private confessional, should people be routinely required to place their beliefs, opinions or sexual preferences on public record?
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Given Northern Ireland's history of institutionalised discrimination and inter communal conflict, it is no surprise that disputes around recognition of community identity and allocation of resources should remain fixed at the centre of public life. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, community activists and radical artists combining oppositional politics within oppositional forms of art practice, were demanding recognition within the funding mainstream, in the name of free and democratic access to the arts. Meanwhile, activists within the republican and nationalist traditions, criticised the historic under funding of the Irish arts under the banner of parity of esteem. In the context of wider discussions around patterns of under representation among women, ethnic minorities and others, local preoccupations with issues of community and identity, expressed through the language of inclusion, relevance and cultural diversity, have been incorporated into much mainstream policy. There remains, however, an inconsistency between the historical experience of discrimination and many contemporary attitudes to difference, in which those most opposed to assertions of superiority and inferiority in terms of socially or racially determined identity, will often celebrate cultural and regional difference, to the extent of arguing for differential treatment as a means to establishing a more just society. In terms of social cohesion, however, as the way forward from institutionalised tolerance to real peace becomes more ambiguous and given Northern Ireland's deep sectarian and political antagonisms, shouldn't we be questioning whether the adoption of identity focussed approaches to arts policy may simply be adding to our problems? Is it, for example, appropriate to generalise certain categories of community or identity as being permanently outside the mainstream?
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As an explicitly defined and exclusive category, community remains an elusive concept, open to endless interpretation and re interpretation. For all the problems of the old nationalism, national identity could, at least in part, be understood in terms of political identity; a product of the relationship between the individual and the state. Rooted in collective memory and experience, definitions of community are less certain. 'A highly charged and elastic political term' according to American critic, Miwon Kwon. On the one hand associated with 'disenfranchised social groups', on the other providing intellectual cover for neo-conservative attacks on universal values and social provision. Parochial or progressive, inclusive or exclusionary? Artists like Chris Ofili, and writers like Philip Roth and Monica Ali, by appropriating and playing with symbols of cultural and ethnic differentiation, have made questions of identity central to their work. By focussing on the centrality of identity in the realm of policy, however, attention inevitably shifts from the object to the artist, in effect replacing aesthetic criteria with sociological categorisation.
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Whether in the arts or in the arena of political action and public debate, contesting the power of ethnicity and territory to determine identity and breaking the apparently simple sequence of explanatory links between place and consciousness, opens up boundless creative possibility. Ossified into policy or legislation, ideas lose their creative meaning to be replaced by sterile orthodoxy and a bureaucratic culture of tick boxes. If the crisis of community, beset by uncertainty, reflects the crisis of contemporary politics, then attempts to freeze meaning into legislative categories of identity may well be premature.
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