Gerry Hassan: Creative Scotland crisis is canvas for new vision

Scottish Ballet at The Playhouse Theatre. Picture: Neil Hanna
Scottish Ballet at The Playhouse Theatre. Picture: Neil Hanna
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THE quarrel between the arts organisation and artists reflects a wider cultural crisis that highlights the need for fresh thought, writes Gerry Hassan

THE past few months have seen a storm gathering around Creative Scotland, the leading arts and culture organisation in the country. A letter signed by more than one hundred of our leading artists and cultural practitioners signalled their concerns and called for a change of the organisation’s direction. The breadth of opposition, ranging across generations, political views and art forms, uniting independence-supporting James Kelman with pro-Union advocates, such as James MacMillan, cannot be easily ignored.

But what is left unsaid is the wider context, of how this came about, what it means, how we support culture or fail to, and how we might in the future.

Creative Scotland arose from the honeymoon period of New Labour, of seeing culture and creativity as forces for rebranding, modernisation and economic development, and as a means of shifting Britain from “a conservative nation” to “a young country” with talent and diversity.

Philip Schlesinger, director of the centre for cultural policy research at Glasgow University, has charted this odyssey and observes: “The Blairites were the first major popularisers of the creative industries thinking that has now circled the globe.” Behind this is an ideological interpretation of the world centred on a belief in the boom times of a different kind of capitalist economy, “the knowledge economy” based on skills and talent, and drawing on the ideas of American academic Richard Florida’s seminal book, The Rise of the Creative Class, which emphasised the characteristics of urban clusters to aid innovation, and which was jumped on by New Labour and organisations such as Scottish Enterprise.

It is illuminating that Scotland bought into this hyped-up narrative relatively late and cautiously; and that an idea fostered by Labour culture ministers Mike Watson and Frank McAveety was actively pursued by the Nationalists, who could have easily dropped it.

Something deeper and more problematic is at work in this culture and maelstrom – part of which is the crisis of institutions in British public life, from politics and media to police and banks.

How we perceive and administer organisations north of the Border mixes traditional conservatism, references to equality and inclusion, and new public management and the culture of consultancy.

The letter from cultural figures to Creative Scotland declared: “This is not about money” and instead is “about management”, but in reality this is about much more. For one, there is the issue of the narrowness of the space in Scotland between those making decisions and those affected by them; sometimes this can be good when relations are harmonious, but in this intimacy lies the possibility of the legitimacy of any decisions being questioned.

Then there is the lack of an active cultural nationalism despite the presence of a Scottish Nationalist government. It could even be argued that the greatest triumph of political nationalism has drawn the raison d’être away from cultural nationalism, but that has yet to be proven. What can be said is that these two forms of nationalism have never been in complete harmony.

Charter 88 and Open Democracy founder Anthony Barnett, speaking at the recent Changin’ Scotland weekend in Ullapool (which I organise), argued that this crisis of British institutions has a unique Scottish dimension. First, there is the question of the SNP and the degree to which it is a conservative more than radical movement, and second, there is the issue of whether wider independence forces can challenge this and release new energies.

A different kind of cultural policy has to be about more than Creative Scotland and the limits of its vision. It has to challenge the ideology of the creative industries, and take back the notions of creativity, innovation and imagination from instrumentalism and technocratic moorings.

Then there is how we conceive of the Scottish public sphere, and the need to stop seeing arts and culture and media and broadcasting as separate areas, but as inter-related, and create an approach that addresses economic development, Scottish investment and autonomy, and how we promote ourselves here and overseas.

The current crisis is a face-off between the new conservatism of free-market corporate orthodoxy and a more old-fashioned paternalist social democracy. The first is the language of much of the public sector of England, but of increasing parts of Scotland, as leaders and managers struggle to find a language and logic for making often unpopular decisions. The second is the world of enlightened elitist bodies, such as the Scottish Arts Council, prominent through much of the 1970s and 1980s, which no longer holds in today’s less deferential age.

How can we develop a different way between these two approaches? Our politicians seemingly don’t want to attempt to leave the certainties of this dichotomy. Can those outside party politics create and give form to a culture of self-determination, a way of understanding and nurturing political and social change?

One example is what Scotland beyond politics did after the referendum of 1979 when artists and cultural entrepreneurs re-imagined Scotland in fiction, theatre, film and other arts forms, surmounting the sense of loss and hurt that dominated Scotland in the early 1980s. This is now a very different environment, but one where the forces of old and new conservatism are as much a roadblock as the obstacles after 1979.

Barnett offered an observation from Umberto Eco, who spoke of the power of “the good crisis” in Italy, of crisis as about growth, transformation and maturity. Barnett observed that Britain seems unable yet to have such a thing as a good crisis, learning that the multiple problems of the established order are an opportunity to learn and change.

This is what Scotland’s public sphere has to realise to seize the moment of the crises in Britain and Scotland. The controversy around Creative Scotland is but one part of a bigger story. So far our politicians and public servants have clung to the wreckage; can the artists and public figures who have challenged the managerialists begin to map out a wider culture of self-determination?