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Art and activism

The recent death of Irish singer Sinead O’Connor was a moment for many to reflect on the life, music and causes she championed. Eamon Dyas, a long standing participant in the labour movement looks at the career of Sinead O’Connor in the context of the developing relationship between artists and activism.

Sinead O’Connor was a remarkable vocal talent who came to be known as something more than a vocalist. Her unique status was a composite of her innate talent, her genuine artistic temperament, and the mental illness that plagued her for most of her adult life. It was this combination that went into the making of the phenomenon that was Sinead O’Connor.

It has been remarked that it is enough for us to remember Sinead O’Connor through her voice alone. Whatever the merits and popularity of a particular artist, this approach of separating art and performer throws up an interesting problem for socialists. What is the problem? The problem is that by merely concentrating on the talent – in this case the voice – we risk not seeing what the artist represents in his/her social context and the way artists can be exploited by a media that serves a purpose beyond pure entertainment.

We can appreciate Sinead O’Connor for her artistic talent and we can sympathise with her because of her mental health problems. But it also behoves us to honestly confront what she was made into by the media. We can argue about the extent to which she can be held responsible for that and given her mental health issues we can provide her with a lot of leeway but we cannot ignore it and nor can we ignore the way in which her ill-informed understanding of politics helped to facilitate this outcome.

Her determination to place her talent at the disposal of the causes she sympathised with was in itself a laudable thing. Too many artists have their critical faculties blinded by the light of celebrity status or by the fear of alienating their sponsors or, indeed, abide by the spurious claim that politics contaminates the purity of their art. Sinead O’Connor was not one of those. She chose to make a role for herself and sought to utilise her talent in pursuit of that role. The problem was that her understanding of politics was circumscribed by a combination of her innate innocence and a media that sought to direct it into the safer waters of the identity politics of the artist-activist.

This has meant that we are not allowed to just listen to the voice for she it was who chose to ensure that you are not allowed to just hear the voice. The voice has been made inseparable from the singer activist. She it was who insisted on it. She wasn’t just an artist who happened to have political opinions she was an artist who had made the decision to place her vocal-chords at the disposal of her activism and that activism was not something that served a coherent purpose. It was rather an amorphous outpouring that could never cohere around a distinct cause in a way that might make a difference.

This is because activism does not provide the artist with the stable coherent realm that politics did in the past. The likes of Harry Belafonte or Paul Robeson could combine their politics with their art because the politics they espoused was a politics that had a coherent focus. That focus in the past was in many ways provided by the symbolic and real existence of the Soviet Union. That is now a thing of the past. But that doesn’t mean that the political artist is left devoid of a focus and has no alternative. There has always been an alternative to identity politics. That alternative existed before the advent of the Soviet Union or the ideologies that went into its making and it has continued to provide the alternative since the removal of the Soviet Union from the political landscape. But it is an alternative the media does all it can to prevent the artist from exploring and because of that most artists refuse to acknowledge it.

There are however exceptions. For instance, Rob Delaney, the successful American actor who has settled in London could show up on a rail workers picket line at King’s Cross on 27 July  and use his celebrity status to espouse the cause not only of the rail workers but to express his solidarity with the working class generally. (see: ). In the absence of the Soviet Union or any ideological cause be it Marxism or anarchism the reality of the working class remains the only reliable and stable focus for the artist. 

But, unfortunately the pseudo politics that has found expression in identity “politics” has successfully inserted itself between the cause of the working class and the artistic community. The artistic temperament has always provided a vulnerable realm for political distraction. Its self-propelling belief in its own creativity and the attention-seeking requirement of celebrity status makes it reliant on the capriciousness of media exposure. The artistic temperament is as a consequence therefore intimately tied in with the idea of style and style is essentially driven by the media be it clothes, celebrities or causes. It is no accident that the working class remains the only cause that has never been given the style status by the media. Identity politics and climate change most certainly have. 

Sinead O’Connor’s combination of artistic temperament and mental fragility left her particularly vulnerable to the media. She needed it and craved it not only artistically but as the means of dealing with her sense of who she believed herself to be and the resultant symbiotic outcome was the media’s forging of her legacy in a way that has portrayed her as a messiah of identity causes. Listen to the voice and enjoy it by all means but not as a sound that is disembodied from the purpose for which its owner has put it to serve.

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