The Aisling

(who might have the answer)

We all expect something better than what is in front of us. We all hope that the new year will bring something positive. We vote to initiate change, to make last year’s politics obsolete. We look toward a vision of something whole and tangible, but at best, what we find is shrouded in fog and mist, an apparition appearing briefly, calling our name, and then disappearing.

The myth of the Aisling (pronounced; ASH-ling) has been used in Irish literature for a long time. Its roots are political in nature because England suppressed Catholicism and Irish culture in general. The idea of a spirit appearing in a vision had been used by symbolist painters in the 1800s, the French in particular. The Aisling, usually portrayed as a woman, appears in a vision and points the way to something better. She lets it be known that there is change on the horizon if we care to look. Yet the Aisling is fleeting; she never hangs about long enough to allow us to see what that horizon might look like or if the vision she points to has any significance or bearing. It is left to those of flesh and blood to make sense of it all. Yet she has done her job. She has planted the seeds and how they grow depends upon what we wish to see.

Maybe the myth of the Aisling isn’t the most accurate example of a human’s search for what might be. Yet, I use it to illustrate the need to dream our way forward, to see that where we are in the present continuum might change for the better, or at least make us realize that what we consider to be our “center” is fragile at best. For those of us who make art, that center can ebb and flow and, depending on how our day is shaping up, can make us doubt or proceed with conviction. Creativity is viewed through a prism. It changes and mutates depending on how it is held to the light. It can become intangible and transient, but more importantly, it can be shaped and bent to our liking. Ideals, principles, and a future state of our own passions are things we place in a utopian basket of our own making.

The Union of Maine Visual Artists held to the belief that all would be well in the world of art, as long as the community was recognized—a community of artists and art lovers, those individuals who believed that art in all its forms was something to be respected and cherished. This vision was the belief of one man in a society of artists banding together to elevate each other. More than strength in numbers, there was a desire to create a durable home in which the artist might find like minds.

Charles Stanley (a.k.a. Carlo Pittore 1943–2005) was not only the founder of the Union, he was the Father of the Union. He was passionate and outspoken and believed in artists and the art they made. He wanted to craft a community that would be recognized beyond the boundaries of the State. This is from an undated newsletter (1987?): “Without community, the probability of delusion, mediocrity, and failure is profound.” This was part and parcel of a vision that proved invaluable; it gave those early Union members an open door into understanding not just Carlo’s ideals, but what they themselves sought, what they envisioned as a personal utopia, and it gave them a voice.

Utopia is a myth in itself. It has found a home in many philosophic works and yet cannot be defined as truth. The Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski says of the word utopia that it has “acquired in the last centuries, a sense so extended that it not only refers to a literary genre but to a way of thinking, to a mentality, to a philosophic attitude.” This philosophic attitude is where Carlo Pittore found his personal utopia, where all art and artists would be afforded dignity. This is what kept him charged, to be able to share this vision of his own making. This again from Carlo Pittore, UMVA newsletter May/June 1989: “I have always believed fervently that artists ought to unite, and be united, in a formal way, to advocate what we as a community believe in, and stand for, and to oppose those forces that encumber the creative process.” His beliefs were universal. He saw art as a clarion call, a shout in the wilderness.

There is no utopia, at least not here in Ireland. Ireland, like all nations, has its problemsno place is perfectbut Ireland has a reputation for doing what it can to support the arts. It is a land of “Saints and Sinners,” a land that many in the world see as a mecca for artists. Currently, the Irish Government has devised a plan to pay artists a weekly salary. The scheme at present is still in the developmental stage, referred to as a pilot program. At some point in the early part of 2022, an application will go out to artists for submission, of which 2000 lucky individuals from all sectors of the arts will be chosen. The program intends to pay approximately €350 per week for a period of three years, and it will not be means-tested. How this intends to play out is yet to be seen. We shall wait with bated breath!

I have not been able to find a figure, as to how many people self-identify as artists. Surely there are more than 2000 living here in the Republic, which begs the question: if you simply say you’re an artist, will you be eligible for the cash? How the Government intends to make this determination should be very interesting. Considering how society views art and the artist today, I’m reminded of that quip from Marshall McLuhan, “Art is anything you can get away with.” How true, yet those piles of garbage bags on the gallery floor represent something more to the artist who arranged them, than to the viewer who nearly tripped over them. Each to his/her own utopia: what we see is not necessarily what we get.

I hope that this pilot scheme can work out, not just for the initial three years, but for all time. Even if my number doesn’t come up, and I’m not one of the lucky 2000, I want the program to be successful and be able to establish a sense of stability, and with that sense, make a place for someone to live, at least for a while, in their own corner of utopia.

Today as I write this, there are horrors being perpetrated on innocent people in Eastern Europe, nothing is stable, or secure . . . “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats). I wish for the people of Ukraine a return to the life they have lost. Perhaps it will seem better than any utopia. Me . . ., I will keep a wary eye out for the Aisling, and hope for an answer.

All the Best from the West (of Ireland),

Tony and Pat Owen


Image at top: Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, The Dream, oil on canvas, 32.2 x 40.1 in., 1883 (photo: Wikipedia Commons).