Darren McGarvey: Accommodating artists instead of the homeless paints pretty sad picture

Hell froze over last week when an original thought emerged from the mouth of a Scottish politician. Though it quickly thawed when word spread that the idea was, in fact, offensively stupid. Astonishingly, this had nothing to do with Anas Sarwar.

In Glasgow, hundreds of needy people are to be found sleeping rough throughout the year. Picture: John Devlin
In Glasgow, hundreds of needy people are to be found sleeping rough throughout the year. Picture: John Devlin

Councillor David McDonald, chairman of Glasgow Life – an organisation so dysfunctional even Glasgow City Council keeps it at arm’s length – blurted out something about old sandstone schools and listed buildings being developed into “artist colonies”.

These colonies, in theory, would provide support to local artists whose work has contributed to the national and international reputation of the city.

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Speaking to a newspaper last week, McDonald said: “One of the issues that is increasingly becoming clear was that if you are an artist on a low income, how do you afford your rent, how do you afford to live?

“Is there something we could be doing in terms of housing for artists? That could be bringing back into use one of the council’s facilities, so we could provide low-cost artist housing, which would also include studio space.

“I think that would be quite unique, but something I would be keen to find a way of doing.”

I wonder how this idea would have gone down on doorsteps in Pollok, where he was recently elected?

On the surface, the idea seems fair. Radical even. But the first alarm bell, for me at least, is the notion that any extra space identified by the council could possibly be earmarked for anything but the homeless. In Glasgow, hundreds of people sleep rough on countless occasions throughout the year, many doing so after being turned away by the very services that have a statutory obligation to accommodate them.

I’m not saying we use the extra space for housing the homeless, but there are many organisations in the city working tirelessly to support people sleeping rough – and raising broader awareness of their plight – that could do with premises.

It’s not that artists don’t deserve the support – they do – but we must decide what our priorities are as a city. Speaking as a working artist and someone who has experienced homelessness, it’s a no-brainer.

But now, to the most important question of all: What in God’s name is an “artist colony” and who in God’s name would want to become part of such a thing? Wait, I think I know the answer to this one.

Is it “artists who don’t criticise the government? How bland, unthreatening and right-on would your work have to be that Scotland’s largest local authority, an organisation that still hasn’t figured out how to use Facebook, would be prepared not only to subsidise you but provide safe haven for your meandering?

Then we have the small matters of “inclusion” and “diversity”, which in the Bermuda twilight zone of SNP Scotland simply means everybody can look and sound different as long as they think the same.

Being middle-class also helps – especially in the arts.

Call me cynical, but I suspect these colonies might be cover for a top-secret National Collective Makar-cloning program, where mediocre artists are grown in test tubes before being forced into creative servitude, writing partisan press releases and twee baby-box poetry. Baby-boxes which, as we all know, have six sides, much like reality itself in post-referendum Scotland.

And for those unfortunates who decide they want to be colonised, how would they even gain access to it? Surely it would involve some kind of selection process? Otherwise, unwieldy live wires like myself, with thick Glaswegian accents and criminal records, might start rolling up with our “offensive”, “dangerous” ideas. Which makes me think the arguably original aspect of this idea lies in the fact it’s the only underhanded method of gentrification Glasgow City Council hasn’t tried.

Just in case you don’t know what “gentrification” means, it’s when people with more money than you, but not more money than people with money, parachute into your area on the cheap, based on a theory that merely their presence will lift you out of the gutter. When you are sitting in a vegan café called Soy Division in the middle of a slum being served gender-neutral gingerbread by a barista named Felix as a toddler named Wagner eats tofu off the floor, that’s gentrification.

And just like hipster coffee houses, mediocre artists with nothing to say, who think waving a saltire constitutes a moral act, are fanning out across your scheme, with one eye on the cheap rent and one on their carefully contrived legacies; professionalising the art of telling working class people to “calm down” as they extract narrative from our poorest communities to fill in the blanks of their own fabricated hero-journeys.

If these artist colonies were going to provide premises or accommodation for artists and writers to inspire the city out of its homelessness crisis then I’d be all for it. Culturally, we’re in something of a cul-de-sac in relation to this issue, where rough sleepers linger between the rock of “discomforting but ignorable eye-sore” and the hard place of “utterly contemptible animals” in the Glaswegian public mind.

When Councillor McDonald speaks of the city’s national and international reputation, is he referring to rising drug-related deaths or the all-but-dead river running through Glasgow, lined with gated, trend-ridden millennial housing, 24-hour casinos and American diner food that perfectly sums up our lack of imagination as a city.

One suspects that an artist who wanted to address these truths in a sufficiently pointed manner would likely be unwelcome at a government-sponsored artist colony.

l Darren McGarvey is also known as Loki, a Scottish rapper and social ­commentator @lokiscottishrap