Joyce McMillan: Arts spending a cultural necessity

A thriving creative scene is essential to any country’s wellbeing, both socially and practically, writes Joyce McMillan

A thriving creative scene is essential to any country’s wellbeing, both socially and practically, writes Joyce McMillan

LAST week, as the chill winds of economic austerity swept across Europe, a slightly startling announcement emerged from Berlin. The German government, it seemed, while implementing spending cuts of around 3 per cent across the board, was making an exception in the case of its culture budget, which was to rise by the sum of around 8 per cent. “We don’t see spending on culture as a subsidy,” said Culture Minister Bernd Neumann, “but as a vital investment in the future of our society”.

His view only confirms what most well-run governments across the western world have long since recognised: that cultural spending represents one of the most fruitful investments they can make, and not only in practical areas like economic development, social action, and international image-building. For what matters far more than any of that is the immeasurable impact of a thriving cultural life on a nation’s capacity to reflect, reinvent itself, and look to the future.

Over the last two generations – from the novels of Alasdair Gray to the National Theatre of Scotland’s great global hit Black Watch – Scotland’s artists have offered a stunning demonstration of how a rich creative life can help reinvent a nation, in its own eyes and the eyes of the world; and they have done it all with the help of public funds which still amount to something much less than 1 per cent of the Scottish Government’s total budget.

And all of this, it seems to me, should be in the minds of the board of Creative Scotland, who are meeting in Pitlochry as I write, to consider the mounting crisis that has engulfed Scotland’s new arts funding agency, founded only in 2010. The board were by all accounts looking remarkably cheerful on Wednesday night, as they took their seats at Pitlochry Festival Theatre for the gala opening of White Christmas. Perhaps they feel that they are on the way to solving the organisation’s problems, following the resignation earlier this week of chief executive Andrew Dixon.

Yet although Dixon’s position had indeed become untenable, the board should not imagine that his departure marks the end of the matter. On the contrary, most of the senior artists involved in the rebellion against Creative Scotland have been clear from the outset that this is not only about personnel, but about a culture, language, ideology, and attitude that is simply inappropriate to government support for the arts in a free society, and unless that is addressed – in ways that may call into question not only the structure of the organisation, but the position of the board itself, led as it is by former Standard Life boss Sandy Crombie – then the row will continue, to increasingly destructive effect.

Nor should the board underestimate the depth of the change which is being sought. For what Scotland’s artists are seeking is a shift in attitude to public funding which has implications far beyond the arts. As George Osborne’s autumn statement this week made abundantly clear, the structures of British government are still locked into the reactionary assumptions about public spending which originated in the 1980s. The assumption that public spending is not a positive aspect of a well-balanced society, but a problem, a drain on the system which has to be niggled at, denigrated, obsessively monitored and if possible reduced to zero.

The problem at Creative Scotland, though, is that in the workings of that organisation – a strange hybrid of arts funding body and jargon-heavy cultural enterprise agency – the irresistible force of negative, business-driven attitudes to public subsidy met the immoveable object of a cultural sector who know very well that they are not pathetic mendicants at the gate of government, but world-class artists with a global reach and reputation.

It is difficult to imagine the mindset of an ordinary arts bureaucrat on a regular salary of £70,000 a year or more, who has the face to tell a leading Scottish novelist, or theatre director, or musician, that he or she can no longer count on any steady income at all, but must limp from project to project, begging for bureaucratic approval at every turn.

Yet that is what was effectively said to many senior Scottish artists, when Creative Scotland announced the funding changes that triggered the present row; and their misjudgment lit a fire of rebellion that is still blazing brightly.

To change the terms of operation of Creative Scotland in the way that is being sought, is therefore to put down a marker that in key areas of public life, we in Scotland will no longer be complying with the neoliberal project of treating public spending as a problem, as those in receipt of it as a bunch of spongers who can be bullied and bad-mouthed with impunity.

In the arts, the natural consequence of that thinking is to give money only to those artists whose work can be justified in non-artistic terms. It turns artists into the servants of government policy, in social work, or tourism, or regional development; and if that approach stifles creative freedom and achievement in the arts, it also has a deadening effect across the whole of the not-for-profit sector.

There is, though, another approach to public funding, one that sees it as a vital form of investment in people, and in their freedom to learn and reinvent. So far as the arts is concerned, the aim of a well-run funding body should be to identify those who have shown the capacity to create great work, and to give them the support that will set them free. It’s not an easy job, in that the debate about what constitutes high artistic achievement is never conclusive, but it is far simpler than it seems, when that core task of supporting creative brilliance becomes confused by too many other priorities.

And if Creative Scotland can be remodelled in that way, then perhaps it will one day be seen as a forerunner of a more general change in the culture of government, away from the expensive pattern of over-monitoring and minor bullying that has plagued our public sector for the past generation, and on into a world which focuses rigorously on identifying fine performance in the arts and everywhere, and in offering it the support that will help it to soar, onwards and upwards.