Joyce McMillan: Looking for a new approach to arts

Culture secretary Fiona Hyslop says expertise in form filling will not determine an artist's worth. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Culture secretary Fiona Hyslop says expertise in form filling will not determine an artist's worth. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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If economics is not to determine the value of art in Scotland, a change in institutionalised red tape is vital, writes Joyce McMillan

On Wednesday evening, at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland’s culture secretary Fiona Hyslop delivered a speech made to gladden the heart of everyone who cares about Scotland’s creative life, and about the artists, writers, performers and musicians who make it happen. Fresh from a bruising year of debate about the initial failure of the new arts agency Creative Scotland – set up in 2010, and essentially stopped in its tracks last year, by a massive rebellion of artists against its ideology, language and attitude – the culture secretary set about making it clear that so long as she and her party have anything to do with it, cultural policy in Scotland will no longer be shaped by the instrumentalising, economics-driven approach that has become increasingly prevalent in British arts funding since the 1980’s.

As an SNP politician, Fiona Hyslop is clearly interested in putting some “clear tartan water” between her approach and that of the English culture minister, Maria Miller, who recently asked England’s hard-pressed cultural sector to exert itself, once again, to demonstrate the economic benefits of arts spending, if it wants to continue to receive subsidy. For Ms Hyslop, though, that argument is over. “I know what these sectors can deliver because I see it in action,” she said. “So for this government, the case has been made.” And she went on to challenge Maria Miller’s definition of culture as a “product” to be marketed worldwide. “If ever there was a way to suck the vitality out of a topic that should energise, invigorate, inspire and move,” she said, “it is to make a perfunctory nod to generic social benefits, and then, in the next breath, to reduce it to nothing more than a commodity.”

It’s fine stuff, in other words, and it gets better. Not since the days of the wonderful Jennie Lee, perhaps, has an arts minister on this island gone on to speak with such passion about the role of culture in linking us to our past, enriching the present, and imagining new futures; and the culture secretary also paid warm tribute to David Talbot Rice himself, late professor of fine art in Edinburgh, observing that, “his life shows how much Scotland owes to those who come from other lands, and choose to make their lives here”. Her speech has received a huge welcome from artists and those who care about the arts across Scotland; and for all its genuine passion, the culture secretary would not be a politician if she did not hope that it would help strengthen support for a Yes vote in next year’s referendum, among Scotland’s most influential cultural movers and shakers.

Yet in this area, as in many others, the fine words spoken by an SNP minister leave behind a slight sense of unease. The sentiments are clearly sincere, and designed to find an echo in a Scotland that consistently rejects the market-driven ideology behind much UK government thinking. When it comes to implementation, though, there seems to be no plan for seriously confronting that thinking, for taking apart and remaking the institutional and bureaucratic structures which reflect it, or for resisting the fierce private-sector lobbying that tends to drive governments in that direction.

On the contrary, there is often real confusion about whether the SNP wants to be seen as defenders of the 1945 social democratic settlement – still cherished by a majority of Scots – or as 1990s-style “modernisers”, friendly to business, and keen on low tax. As one sage observer of the Scottish political scene observed last night, Fiona Hyslop’s speech is clearly “off message” compared with recent pronouncements from finance and energy ministers John Swinney and Fergus Ewing, to the effect that everything the Scottish Government does, without exception, has to be about “sustainable economic growth”.

So as Scotland moves towards the 2014 referendum, one of the biggest questions remaining unanswered is whether its governing party really has the political will to deliver on its warm words. Yesterday, the morning after the minister’s speech, Creative Scotland announced the appointment of its new boss, after a tortuous six months of deliberation. She is Janet Archer, currently dance director of the Arts Council of England; and if the culture secretary’s speech is to be taken at face value, she will have, when she arrives in July, to begin the herculean and highly political task of transforming Creative Scotland from a late-20th-century target-driven “delivery” agency focused on assessing artists’ skill in filling in forms – including the notorious raft of questions about the “economic impact” of activities such as novel-writing – to a 21st-century one, one which rediscovers the nerve to assess artists on the basis of the work they have done, and to give support to those who have shown that they are most likely to make brilliant creative use of it.

And what I wonder, as I read Fiona Hyslop’s inspiring speech, is whether either the minister or Creative Scotland’s new director really recognises the depth of the cultural change – almost a revolution – which would be involved in achieving that goal. It would mean dropping most of the language of assessment and development with which the current generation of arts administrators have grown up. It would mean rediscovering the confidence to make judgments of cultural value, albeit in a more open and consultative context than would have been recognised by the Arts Council grandees of old; it would mean talking the language of art and of human experience, rather than of business and economic development.

On Wednesday evening the minister made a fine start along this road. Yet she and her colleagues should be in no doubt that a negative, mistrustful and deeply economistic attitude to public spending, obsessed with the delivery of easily measurable goals, is now written deep into the DNA of British public administration. Which means that if ministers wish to mount a serious challenge to those assumptions, their decision will have implications that go far beyond arts and heritage; into a profound confrontation with the centre-right consensus that now unites the main parties at Westminster, and into the fiercest and most significant political battle the SNP has ever known.