New York

Les Levine

Finch College Museum of Art

Les Levine’s show, “The Troubles: An Artist’s Document of Ulster,” also at Finch College, was an exhibit more in the legal sense, or in that of pedagogical museums of history, than an art exhibition on the situation in Northern Ireland. Photographs of Catholic and Protestant working people and British soldiers, in the various situations in which they find themselves today, appeared behind screens of barbed wire like that of the concentration camps used to intern Irishmen suspected of I.R.A. activities or of violence. Other rooms provided printed materials used by the various political factions, front pages of newspapers, works of folk art made by prisoners, a dark room in which a tape recorder played sound-torture material used by the British Army, and an absorbing home movie made by Levine using people directly involved in “The Troubles.”

As an exhibit it is a great success, and the Architectural League of New York deserved credit for underwriting it. As an art exhibition it has relations to Warhol’s disaster themes, but with an altogether less absurd and more urgent tone. Its reticence is a stylistic feature, but one highly appropriate to the problem: by the artist’s remaining cool, the emotion is generated vividly in the spectator’s mind.

My only criticism is that the approach is too liberal for the situation. The hopelessness and desperation and the sad mutual victimization of the people are made vivid enough, but this is left on the level of a purely emotional response, confirmed by the sense that there is no reasonable way out of the dilemma. These facts are true enough in human terms, but it deserves to be made clear that not all the positions in the struggle carry equal moral weight. The I.R.A. has a bad enough press as it is; it is time to remind people how much of that story is designed to frighten Irishmen (and Americans) away from their socialism.

In actual fact the problems of Ireland will not even begin to be solved until the Catholic and Protestant working class line up together against British capital, moving toward a socialist republic as envisioned years ago by James Connolly. The roots of this solution go back to 1798, when Catholics and Protestants actually did join together (unsuccessfully) against British rule. But ever since Connolly the Irish people have been forced to settle for one or another liberal compromise, only to have their “troubles” renewed. Everybody knows it is not a religious struggle, and everybodyknows that the politics of the border question are not merely parliamentary, so why not give credit where credit is due and emphasize the socialist view?

The present heir to this political tradition is, of course, Bernadette Devlin. No wonder her appearance in Levine’s film is so thrilling. But, especially for the sake of Americans, she deserves to have her position made clear; too often she is disarmed by being presented as an Irish “character.” Of course, even Bernadette has said that we are not at the beginning of a socialist revolution in Ireland. But it is a socialist struggle nevertheless; no wonder the Irish situation was better handled under Wilson’s socialist government than it has been since—another worthwhile distinction that Levine could have drawn. I don’t mean that there are any easy solutions which Levine could have presented. It is a very confused situation, but in the treatment of the I.R.A. and of Bernadette Devlin a more active stance was called for than the one Levine takes. Levine, however, knows more about Ireland than I do, and perhaps his understated presentation of the unqualified facts will effect more real understanding of “The Troubles” than one that would turn many spectators off.

Joseph Masheck