Andrew Eaton-Lewis: These awards treat artists like government-appointed tour guides
THE morning after Django Django were shortlisted for this year’s Mercury Prize, I got an e-mail from their PR.
“As you may know, the band are 50 per cent Scottish,” it said, in a bid to persuade this newspaper to run an interview (as it happens, we already have, a few months ago).
Fifty per cent Scottish? The logic is that two of Django Django’s four members grew up in Scotland. But aren’t they 100 per cent Scottish, since the band was founded at Edinburgh College of Art? Or perhaps they’re 100 per cent English, since they’re now based in London (or else how can we claim Franz Ferdinand – a band who mostly grew up outside of Scotland before moving here – as Scottish?).
Does it matter? It does when a major new prize ceremony, the Creative Scotland Awards, seems obsessed with Scottishness above anything else (ideas, innovation, talent, track record, etc). At a high-profile, black-tie event at Kelvingrove in December, prizes will be awarded to a film or TV show “which epitomises the character and spirit of Scotland”, musicians “who capture the sound of Scotland”, a piece of art “that captures the essence of Scotland”, and an event from the past year that “successfully showcased culture and the arts in a setting that is unmistakably Scottish”. There is also a literary award but, writers be warned, you only qualify if your work “draws on Scotland for inspiration”.
I don’t envy the judges. Who was more Scottish this year: Emeli Sandé or Paul Buchanan? Is Karla Black more Scottish than Martin Creed? Was Alan Cumming’s Macbeth more Scottish than David Hayman’s King Lear? Or perhaps all these internationally successful artists will lose out to a nice photograph of a loch, or a poem about shortbread.
I get it. The point of the awards is to celebrate artistic achievement in a down to earth, populist way – which is why it’s being done in partnership with the Daily Record. In criticising it, there’s a risk of sounding like a snob. Don’t I want the arts to reach a big audience?
It depends. Not in this stupid, banal, reductive, parochial, condescending way, which treats successful artists like government-appointed tour guides (or “arts ambassadors”, as the awards insist on calling them). That is emphatically not the job of artists. Their job is to question, challenge, provoke and, yes, entertain and celebrate, but on their own terms, not in the service of unthinking patriotism. Awards like these don’t celebrate artistic achievement, they patronise and diminish it. If you were in Django Django, what award would you rather get? One for making a fantastic, exciting album or one for being the most Scottish band in Scotland?
• Last week Andrew... discovered the music of Hanna Tuulikki – a capella pieces inspired by birdsong. Utterly gorgeous stuff by a really talented Glasgow-based artist. You can listen to it at soundcloud.com/hanna-tuulikki.
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