Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 8 June, 2023
Neil Ashley via
# Opinion
Column: What is an artist for?
Denis Buckley has been a doorman and a welder but now that he’s a poet, he’s trying to define what exactly that value that holds at this time…

WHAT ARE POETS for in a destitute time? That was one of many questions asked by John Moriarty at the beginning of his 1994 work Dreamtime. The phase originated in a work by German Romantic Poet Friedrich Hölderlin and was followed up a century later by his fellow countryman, philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Moriarty is a fellow countyman of mine and I am currently asking the same question as part of the ABSOLUT Fringe Festival.

I came to Moriarty as I did to Joyce, a visual artist who eschewed the bourgeois concerns of the contemporary novel, seeking instead the verbal experimentation of the page as riff.

I was schooled that way. After coming to England my static art school head was blown apart by the blisteringly hip People Show, whose performances were based on classic quartets of post war Jazz. On stage, a word, a gesture, a sound could set off a tributary of experiential cause and effect, inducing much bewilderment among audiences far too accustomed to the theatre of one man shouting at them in the dark then waiting for another to do the same. I came, I saw and I got taken on.

What is an artist for? It’s a question that has plagued me all my artistic life

I was introduced to Coltrane by those who saw him play, to Ferlinghetti, and Trocchi, by those who first invited them to London in ’65, to Bix Beiderbecke and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, to Max Wall and the Highbury Roar. What a gift. But like every ungrateful student I was too busy reacting to the minute concerns of visual art to appreciate the legacy. I was fighting hard to forge a visual language emanating from the modern European tradition into which my formal training attempted to place me and if it wasn’t for the encounter with People Show I would still be today probably quoting Foucault as a middle-aged man’s poor excuse for avoiding lived experience.

What is an artist for? It’s a question that has plagued me all my artistic life. I know what a doorman does and a welder, (I should, I’ve done both), but an artist? When Moriarty dropped out of his academic career, he ended up being a gardener, as did Wittgenstein. The clear defining of an intellectual life from more practical concerns must have helped both men elevate the confusion that comes when one is in a position of dispensing knowledge when one can’t really be sure of the validity of the knowledge dispensed.

Be warned however if you do come to CityArts I don’t really proffer much in the way of an answer. What I do suggest is that art and artists are primarily in the imagination business and this brings responsibility. I suggest also that Ireland was imagined into being by Vision. The written documents that forge Free State identity are Vision Texts, speculative shots at utopia by the partially sighted.

The poet in my show is a lazy sod who needs a bit of an awakening

Of course the artist cannot be held accountable that his/her imagination will not be used to justify the most pernicious of political realities. Did the great German literary/philosophy/music of the period of Hölderlin and Hegel begat the Nazis? I doubt it but what is said in drawing rooms to impress your friends or your friend’s sister could end up justifying some bone headed encounter.

My modest offer for this year’s Fringe is a contemporary artist constructing a contemporary vision text in the classic Aisling format. The Vision muse here however is part dominatrix and the poet is a lazy sod who needs a bit of an awakening. The hero is the fallen man. He is the unlikely saviour because he has been to hell and it wasn’t that bad. The overall message is deliberately obtuse in order that any future political leaders can’t use any of it as an example of the rich “cultural pantheon” that inspires industry, revitalises capital and makes fat girls thin.

Be my guest. It would be good to see you.

Denis Buckley’s WHAT ARE POETS FOR (in a destitute time) CityArts, from today until Saturday, 8.30pm.

Read a reader’s review of Buckley’s show here>

Read more of’s ABSOLUT Fringe coverage here>

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