An artwork that does not contain nudity or blasphemy provokes public outrage? What the hell is going on?

It’s rare for a piece of art to make a stir in public discourse and when it does it’s usually because it’s terrible – the famous Anna Livia sculpture in Dublin is the classic example, known to locals as The Floosie In the Jacuzzi – or astonishingly different like ‘The Spike’ in Dublin’s O’Connell street. But a piece of political satire by the artist Spicebag has brought out rightwing politicians, journalists and Twitter commentators in strength to declare it depraved, an attack on the Gardaí, a betrayal of all those who have died for Ireland and precisely what is wrong with the modern world. The extent of the reaction needs some comment, as the Right very rarely takes any interest in art, political or otherwise.

The piece is a manipulation of a Great Famine-era eviction image by Daniel Macdonald. In the original artwork, from around 1850, the eviction is attended by the Royal Irish Constabulary, a colonial era police force. The painting, aside from being a powerful social document, makes plain that the apparatus of the colonial state is on the side of the landlord against the poor. The police are ‘assisting’ bailiffs to evict a family that includes an elderly man and woman with a babe in arms, another young woman, perhaps a sister, and a child. A young man hands the key to the landlord while a bailiff turns guiltily away, one hand in an inside pocket, perhaps indicating that he is pocketing his fee. The misery of the family is palpable. The elderly woman is on her knees praying while her husband looks on grimly silent.

The Spicebag print, while using the famine cottage as the backdrop, is, in fact a manipulation of a different eviction scene (partly covered in this series of tweets In this scene from 2020, the Gardaí, wearing balaclavas assist in the eviction of a group of squatters from a disused building. In the background the bailiffs do their work. These modern day images provoked no more than bored yawns from the rightwing press and politicians. The gardaí are present merely to keep the peace, they say, and the rights of the property owner, guaranteed by the constitution, must be upheld. The squatters are, anyway, dangerous anarchists who have no right to seize empty properties.

Spicebag’s image shows the same setting as the 1850 Macdonald painting, but the police and bailiffs come directly from the 2020 scene. It is this conjunction of a colonial era eviction and a modern day one that has provoked fury. More on that later.

Since 2020, however, the discourse around housing has changed radically. There is now, for example, a powerful movement against dereliction. Many houses are left derelict by owners in order to be in a position to declare them dangerous so they can be demolished and replaced by modern buildings, or left idle until the price rises. The result is that many useable properties are lying unoccupied during a desperate housing shortage and many cities, towns and villages suffer from all the problems of dereliction – rats, damage to surrounding dwellings, eyesores etc. Making these properties safe is often a charge on the local council.

In the meantime, the shortage of houses is such that multinationals now cite it as the number one reason why they cannot attract enough workers to the country! 

Even the government acknowledges the failure of public policy. Councils have long ceased building public housing and government has signally failed to make up the shortfall over decades, relying instead on private enterprise to build on their behalf. The failure of the state to grasp in time that the market would never supply enough houses (for various reasons including that it suits market forces to have a shortage) is perhaps the single greatest failure of public policy, greater even than its failure to establish a free and fair healthcare service. If – and this seems highly likely – the next election is won by Sinn Féin it will be because of this disastrous housing policy.

Into this maelstrom of anger and despair, the image by Spicebag dropped like a bomb. 

The complaints centre on two issues. The first is the depiction of the police assisting an eviction. The second is the implication that nothing has changed since independence and we are still somebody’s colony, in this case the colony of the propertied class. 

It has been observed that the reactions are primarily aimed at deflecting from the core import of the image – that evictions are evictions no matter what the period; that the traditional hatred of the evicting landlord should not be confined to the pre-independence period but should focus on landlords as a class which has survived through independence and still exercises the same rights; and that the state, exactly as in the colonial era, privileges the rights of property over the right to shelter and lends its repressive power to the property owner to defend such rights. In this analysis the Gardaí are present not as individuals but as representatives of the repressive arm of the state. When enforcers are required the Gardaí are called.

The Right focuses on the fact that the Gardaí are ‘only doing their duty’ and that many Gardaí have sacrificed their lives in the fulfilment of this duty and it is therefore unfair to characterise the Gardaí in this way.

However, this argument is fatally flawed. If the duty of the Gardaí is to protect the evictors over the victims, then they are on the side of the oppressor whether they like it or not.

The artist himself, in a heated confrontation with the rightwing journalist Fionnán Sheehan, has pointed out that perhaps the focus on the Gardaí in the image was misplaced considering that people as old as 85 were being evicted from their homes. Perhaps, he implied, we should be focusing on the plight of the victims.

As regards Fionnán Sheehan’s observation about Spicebag’s art being political, it is a truism of political theory that all art is political. Should someone choose to, for example, paint flowers, during a political crisis, they are in effect looking away, turning their back on the crisis. And to condemn a piece of political art qua political art is to condemn all political art from Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. The right tends to look benignly on art because for the most part it doesn’t touch a nerve. They damn it by ignoring it, knowing that a reaction will very likely serve to promote it.

The importance of Spicebag’s piece is that it has broken through this crust of indifference to open a raw wound in the body politic. 

The housing crisis is likely to be the single biggest issue in the next election and the role of the state in enabling landlords to evict their tenants when there are no available houses for them is likely to be the downfall of the traditional parties of the right. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are profoundly troubled by the fact that this artwork lays bare the role of the state that they have constructed over a hundred years – a capitalist state dedicated to the rights of property over the rights of citizens to shelter, proper medical care and free education – rights which were promised in the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.