The relationship between art and politics has never been an easy one.
The artist is a cultural trouble-maker by profession, illuminating the human condition in ways that upset received wisdom and inspire angst in the powerful. This is why the Church dedicated such effort to censorship and tyrants seldom brook the dissent of novelists and playwrights. Politics yearns to mould our conscience but only art speaks to our soul. So politics tries to influence art, to set parameters for dangerous thinking and disruptive imaginations. The tension that results is essential to the cultural freedoms of liberal societies.
But what happens when that tension is absent, when artists are subsumed into the machinery of politics and their art sublimated to a cause? What becomes of art’s duty to challenge, to provoke, to pursue truth wherever it leads?
The answer is to be found in Scotland, where much of the artistic world has been absorbed into the Nationalist project. Artists, Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop has declared, ‘don’t have to be close to government. They just have to have a common understanding of what the country wants. This is a way of bridging, of helping ambition for the country’. Of all the jingoistic rhetoric the SNP has deployed over the years, none has been so sinister as that carefully considered and calmly delivered philosophy of cultural nationalism.
In fact, Hyslop was simply observing an arrangement that has been in place for some time now. The result has been to render creators compliant, dependent on government and therefore eager to please it. Politicians and artists came to see each other as peers and so doubt was given, punches pulled, cynicism indulged and hypocrisy overlooked. They were on the same side, after all.
During the independence referendum, a group of artistic radicals calling themselves National Collective pitched up. They were artistic in the sense that they wore ill-fitting jumpers and met in coffee shops with whisky casks for chairs and radical in the sense that, while they were faithfully endorsing government policy, it was a government in Edinburgh, not London, and therefore different. Scottish nationalism puts the ‘cult’ in culture.
National Collective weren’t a bad bunch. They didn’t contribute much in the way of art – a bit of an oversight for an arts group – but they did give us wish trees and the odd spot of street theatre. Their real crime was to go around stirring up poetry and there were several nasty incidents involving iambic pentameter and unicorn metaphors. The nadir came at the 2012 SNP conference when Alex Salmond read an ode to independence from the podium. It had been written, as would quickly become clear, by a man in a
pub and boasted the couplet: ‘Not I and more are yet content/ With just a devolved parliament.’
The independence referendum made for bad art and docile artists. Now, four years on, a malaise has set in as arguments rage over investment and political interference. Scotland’s artists row about funding so often they should call it performance art and put in for a grant. The past two weeks have seen the nation’s luvvies swap more press statements than air kisses as they come to terms with the latest funding announcement from Creative Scotland.
The beleaguered arts quango is under fire for cutting its subsidies to much-loved recipients. Among the 116 ‘regular funding organisations’ to share in £99million of three-year grants, 19 are new entries but 20 previously supported outfits have been dropped. These include Birds of Paradise, a disabled person-led theatre group, and Lung Ha’s, a drama troupe for people with learning disabilities. Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions, which perform plays aimed at children and youths, have been cut despite the Scottish Government designating 2018 its Year of Young People.
The decision has been denounced by artists, cultural commentators, and disability rights activists. Creative Scotland board members Ruth Wishart and Maggie Kinloch have resigned. An emergency board meeting carries the hopes of critics that the most swingeing cuts might be reversed.
Darren McGarvey, a writer and musician who raps under the stage name Loki, is known for his thoughtful commentary on culture in modern Scotland. He is troubled by the idea of requiring artists to have a shared political consciousness, especially one outlined by a government minister or public body.
He says: ‘Creative Scotland has a big remit, so any reasonable criticism must begin with an acknowledgement that the job they do is not easy. I think the Culture Secretary’s remarks about knowing “what the country wants” reveal a misunderstanding of what role art is supposed to play in a democratic society. Obviously, not all artists are obligated to be political or to challenge the status quo and I think that’s fair enough.
‘But if your starting point, as an artist, is to create something the country wants, then, in my view, you’ve already lost credibility. Can you think of one notable artist, writer, journalist or satirist that was governed by such a thought process? The role of the artist or writer is to try to challenge, respond to or to shape public opinion – not to submit to it.
‘Then we have the minor issues of Scotland not thinking with one mind and the massive assumption that audiences do not want to be challenged.’
However, the author of Poverty Safari says the funding row should be a catalyst for more artists to speak up more often, reasoning: ‘The recent anger about the funding round has seen a lot of muted critics now breaking rank. This is to be encouraged, commended and supported. I look forward to everyone keeping up the pressure when their funding is inevitably reinstated. How the arts is funded, who gets money and what they can do with that money will only change when pressure is applied from across disciplines.
‘It would anger me to think people only see fit to pipe up about this important issue when matters of funding affect them personally. This shouldn’t be an “every man and woman for themselves” thing.’
This is not the first time Creative Scotland has found itself on the wrong side of the nation’s creators. Indeed, it seems to lurch from one row to another, disbursing as much discontent as cash. It has been this way from the start.
Creative Scotland began life in 2010 with the merger of the Scottish Arts Council and the ever-troubled Scottish Screen. It was originally the brainchild of the old Labour/Lib Dem Scottish Executive but once the SNP got its hands on it, cultural excellence was
always going to play second fiddle to the Nationalist cause.
Heralding the new quango, Hyslop said: ‘Creative Scotland will help to promote Scottish culture at home and internationally. It will be modern, vibrant and progressive; it will draw on our heritage but project Scotland in a contemporary way.’
Worthy enough goals, but rather dependent on how you define ‘modern, vibrant and progressive’. In the minds of Nationalists, progressive, pace Herbert Morrison, is whatever an SNP government does. Creative Scotland is hardly the first Labour idea the SNP has passed off as its own but it is the organisation’s role in shaping the cultural scene that leads the Nationalists to guard it so jealously.
There was a backlash in 2012 after the organisation announced a shift from providing ‘core funding’ for festivals and theatre troupes to financing individual projects, requiring greater competition between artists for grants. Later that year, 100 figures from the creative world, including Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, and Ian Rankin, penned an open letter savaging ‘ill-conceived decision-making’ and a ‘lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture’. By the year’s end, chief executive Andrew Dixon had stood down.
Creative Scotland’s funding decisions have sometimes seemed arbitrary, even perverse. It refused cash for a statue to Mary Barbour, a leading light in Red Clydeside and the 1915 Glasgow rent strikes, while subsiding Ellie Harrison £15,000 to live in Glasgow for a year for a ‘durational performance’ titled ‘the Glasgow Effect’. It chipped in £500,000 towards the making of T2 Trainspotting, a movie directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, boasting stars Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller, and which made an estimated £42million at the global box office.
Freight Books, a publishing house which pumped out the scribblings of nationalists Alan Bissett and Iain Macwhirter, raked in more than £230,000 before it was forced to appoint a liquidator. No less controversial was its subvention to The Arches. In April 2015 it made an award of £451,883, the first instalment of a three-year purse of £1,295,650. The Glasgow music venue was iconic but troubled, blighted by drug-taking among its clientele. In 2014 Regane MacColl, 17, became ill and died after apparently taking Ecstasy. Days before Creative Scotland made its grant, the club had closed briefly after a female patron was found unconscious and police recorded 26 separate drug and alcohol incidents in one night. Two months later, the venue’s licensed hours were curtailed and the owners decided to shutter the business.
There is a broader ambivalence too about the art world’s proximity to politics. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has peeled away Left-wing creatives from the national cause while those browbeaten for failing to toe the line in 2014 are finding their voice. One such example is James MacMillan, the classical composer. Celebrated around the world, he has written and performed for popes and potentates, but back home in Scotland there is an asterisk after his name. For MacMillan is out of tune with the prevailing mood of the artistic community. He is a Unionist and, unlike others of a similar mind in the creative industries, not afraid to be open about it. In an essay last week, he lamented the hijacking of the arts for political purposes (a blasphemy for which he was swiftly denounced by the hijackers).
MacMillan despairs at the state Creative Scotland finds itself in. He tells me: ‘No one really wants to criticise Creative Scotland because artists wish them well, and know that they would want to help more if their hands were not tied by government restrictions, political pressure and the constant emphasis on worthy but not particularly relevant criteria, swinging attention away from what we do as artists to “societal benefits”.
‘In the classical sphere we feel abandoned by Creative Scotland, in spite of a couple (only a couple, mind) of long-suffering, dedicated enthusiasts there who seem more sidelined as time goes on. There is an apparent ignorance that classical music in Scotland is one of the few cultural expressions in the country that has genuine international reach.
‘There is apparent ignorance that the Dunedin Consort (cut from regular funding last week) is admired around the world for its ground-breaking recordings; that the Hebrides Ensemble (also cut) is made up of some of the finest musicians in the UK; that the work of Scotland’s performers and creators has an international stage.’
Perhaps the harshest indictment of all is that few within the arts world are openly angry at Creative Scotland. Instead they feel let down by an organisation which has never really lived up to its potential. According to MacMillan, this has prompted nostalgia
for the precursor quango.
‘Many of us look back fondly on the days of the old Scottish Arts Council,’ he admits. ‘There was even less money then, but they engaged with us with a respect, honesty and openness that seems sadly missing today.’
The problem, he believes, is that investment is being directed at social and political goals rather than art for art’s sake. He explains: ‘It is not funding that suits the needs of the existing artistic communities, and some have only the most tenuous connection to the arts. As a result they have bureaucrats, in most departments, who, some say, don’t know art and who don’t understand artists.
‘They do not, perhaps, because they are not required to, make any decisions on the artistic merit of a funding application, only on the “perceived social good” and “social feel-good factor” that it will generate. The Arts Council on the other hand knew it served the artistic communities. It never attempted to redesign society through the political use of arts funding.’
MacMillan concludes: ‘The solution might be to break it up. The film department will do well, it always has done. But the music, publishing and visual arts people might have to start from scratch and either learn how to understand the needs of artists or look for other jobs in the civil service.’
For one of Scotland’s most renowned artists to pass such a stark judgment on Creative Scotland is damning.
Even if some of the more unpopular funding cuts are reversed, the tension at the heart of Creative Scotland will not ease. It is a weak organisation, torn between the celebration of culture and the demands of politics. The Culture Secretary may want artists with ‘a common understanding’ but it is she and her colleagues whose divisive nationalism has robbed Scotland of common understanding. If the arts are to be added to the long list of things Scots cannot agree on, Creative Scotland’s hybrid role as curator, funder, national ambassador and cultural enterprise body becomes all the more awkward to manage. It also becomes harder to justify its generous public subsidy.
A blank canvas is needed. That means disposing of the services of Hyslop. She is Scotland’s longest-serving Culture Secretary and considered by many to be the worst. A replacement with vision and gumption is needed and their first task should be to read Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. The Victorian essayist esteemed culture as ‘the great help out of our present difficulties’ and urged a commitment to ‘the best which has been thought and said’. A Creative Scotland remodelled along this philosophy would be the surest way to put an end to the nation’s culture wars.
Ditch the politics, the quango jargon, and the unrealistic social and economic demands. Champion art for art’s sake, be unashamedly elitist, nurture what is promising and fund what is great. Instead of pursuing what the country wants – or what politicians want the country to want – Creative Scotland should be dedicated to one cause: The best that is being thought, said, written and performed in Scotland today.