Comment: Making a stand for real art
What we need is a new body for arts funding that is not run by businessmen and doesn’t dictate what must be created, writes Robin McAlpine
For quite a while I used to be of the opinion that the dominant government policy towards the arts should be Hippocratic – “first do no harm”. This stemmed from the observation that well-meaning politicians have a habit of causing dreadful art.
The moment when my opinion finally changed was in the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art. Its collection covers the period from the Second World War until now and for decades-worth of wall space I found myself entranced by wonderful, interesting, involving paintings. Until the section from the 1990s, which devolved into mediocre art-school-degree-show installation stuff.
I realised the reason. For most of the 20th century, Latvian artists had to work within the constraints of the propaganda model of art as dictated by the Soviet Union. It made them creative, subversive. When the restrictions were removed, when anything became possible, they seemed to lose their way.
So why could the Soviet Union intervene in art in the most intrusive and prescriptive of ways and not ruin the art? Because, whatever else can be said about the relationship between the Soviets and the artists, the Soviets knew that art mattered. They cared about art and what it meant for society. They were misguided, they got it wrong, the persecuted artists who didn’t conform, but they cared.
Oh for a Soviet dictatorship in the Scottish arts world. I’d be jailed for dissent, but it would still be better than Creative Scotland.
The most important thing a government can do for the arts is care, see it as important, as some kind of priority. No such government has existed in Britain in my lifetime. No such government has taken power in devolved Scotland. They all say they believe it to be true but then they all send bankers out to design arts policy for some ulterior motive.
Arts has become a sub-branch of tourism, or economic policy, or community regeneration, or educational outreach. At Holyrood, it became a ministerial portfolio that was there to be given to someone who was due a promotion as a result of loyalty but who couldn’t be trusted with a proper department (with apologies to a couple of decent occupants).
But above all, governments see the arts as a policy without a purpose. One of my lowest points since devolution was watching Jack McConnell set up a commission to tell him what “cultural entitlement” meant. That the idea was facile was bad enough; that the commission was filled with businessmen and a token artist was an unmissable message. It screamed “we need to find some sort of reason for you artists but we sure as hell don’t care what you think”.
When politicians don’t know what something is for they send in the bankers. In the arts they think bankers are qualified because they like opera. But they can only like opera because bankers die – artists live forever. Sometimes I think Creative Scotland was devised by the financial sector to make mortals out of artists in some vain hope that by so doing it is the bankers who will gain immortality.
Nietzsche wrote: “Just as the clouds tell us the direction of the wind high above our heads, so the lightest and freest spirits are in their tendencies foretellers of the weather that is coming. The wind in the valley and the opinions of the marketplace of today indicate nothing of that which is coming but only of that which has been.”
This is a neat encapsulation of a useful arts policy – markets do little but reflect themselves endlessly, art guesses at what is coming next. Markets think the national embarrassment of using the arts budget to fund a celebrity cookery programme is a great idea. Artists struggle to explain possible futures in application forms.
I have paid little attention to the chatter about how to reform Creative Scotland, including much of the parliamentary committee inquiry that ended yesterday. There are two reasons for this. The first is that sometimes something is so fundamentally flawed in its conception that reform won’t help. In my view, Creative Scotland,with its almost satirical commitment to the practices of the accountant’s office, is a case study of the sort.
The second reason is any real hope could therefore only come from a fresh start. That would require politicians who cared enough to take the exhausting and risky approach of burning down this paper kingdom and building anew. Which takes us back to the beginning of this awful feedback loop; uninterested politicians, self-certain accountants, angry artists, uninterested politicians, self-certain accountants, angry artists.
What might exist outside this feedback loop? First, a model where we stop trying to fund the arts and start funding artists. It is to be noted that bankers take a salary first and a bonus second. It is then to be noted that they expect artists and arts companies somehow to manage without the salary part.
Personally, I would create subsidised communities of artists across Scotland, allowing them to survive and then get on with things without having to generate a press release every half hour. The concept of “provisioning” – providing subsistence and infrastructure outside commercial markets – is perfectly suited to artists, especially in the earlier stages of their careers. A bit of infrastructure and subsistence seems a pitifully small ask for what we would get.
I would fund companies, groups, galleries and not worry that they are not all hitting performance indicators. The money wasted on the occasional bit of bad art would be recouped from the salaries of well-paid middle-managers currently monitoring the performance indicators.
I would democratise art, fight hard to entice the population out of the opium dens of retail malls and into theatres and galleries. The marginal cost would be tiny – we already have the art, we just need to get people to it.
A good start would be to tackle the class condescension of those that say the proles only want soap opera and game shows. How can we know that? Arts have a marketing budget a fraction of a per cent of the soap operas and game shows. I have taken many friends who have never been near an “arts venue” to everything from book readings to physical theatre to the opera. I don’t think I can remember once coming back out into the foyer without that friend bursting to talk, eyes wide, fascinated and thrilled.
People aren’t stupid, they’re made stupid by marketing and advertising. Dostoyevsky sold millions and millions of copies of Crime and Punishment across all social classes. It suits the markets to divide people from art because art isn’t really profitable. Policy should support artists and try to give them a public to engage with.
Simpler is usually better. If something that wasn’t Creative Scotland would do the least necessary to allow artists to survive and create and everything it possibly could to make the arts real for real people, Scotland and the world would be done a great service.
All we’d need is a few people in power who cared enough to put these decisions into the hands of others who cared enough. Instead, farce has become Scotland’s dominant art form, generously funded at public expense.
• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation.
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