Why Scottish culture is a risky business

Educating Scotland on the merits of artwork takes a lot more than creative genius, says Jeremy Valentine
Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin, produced in association with Creative Scotland. Picture: ContributedScarlett Johansson in Under The Skin, produced in association with Creative Scotland. Picture: Contributed
Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin, produced in association with Creative Scotland. Picture: Contributed

SINCE its establishment Creative Scotland has been subject to a stream of criticism and attack from many different directions. And it wasn’t just the stooshie that surrounded the appointment of its first CEO, Andrew Dixon, or the new funding mechanisms that were introduced which caused upset among the close-knit community of cultural producers and critics. Along with other similar organisations that form and implement cultural policy for national governments, Creative Scotland will always find itself in a no-win situation.

Its clients, from established heritage institutions to bootstrap performance spaces, are diverse, fractious and reluctant to agree on anything, especially what culture actually is. Its main funders, the citizen taxpayer and National Lottery gambler, suffer its existence and very few of them are interested in what Creative Scotland actually does. Although it’s not a particular vote winner or loser, government exercises its rule by insisting that culture is subordinate to the demands of economy and society, which are usually understood as problems for culture to fix. In budget allocation competitions within government, culture will always come off worst against things like health, schools, roads, energy and poverty.

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Whether one approaches the arts from a commercial or experimental perspective it is never a simple question of aesthetic exploration or bums on seats, and there are few outright winners. It should be borne in mind that the performance or the object, the experience or the text, doesn’t just emerge fully formed from the mind of the creative genius. It requires an infrastructure of people working to “make it happen” as the Americans say. Much of that activity results in failure. The hits are outweighed by the misses, the “stiff ratio”, and massive investment can result in flops.

Success cannot be predicted or guaranteed. It all comes down to luck, or as the Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote: “Nobody knows anything.” For some critics of cultural policy that is a very good reason not to have one. They see support for culture as encouraging waste and profligacy, and diverting people from more useful employments. But it’s hardly a glamorous life. Cultural workers take enormous risks and live a largely precarious existence.

Other critics conclude that only established and proven success should be supported. Both positions are essentially moral and recommend risk avoidance and for that reason are wrong. Because culture comes from innovation and newness, risk goes with the territory. Consider the career of Oscar winner Steve McQueen, the high-end conceptual artist who has directed the star-studded commercial and aesthetic hit 12 Years A Slave. No-one would have predicted such a trajectory and on paper it makes no sense. Except, of course, it does now.

Some insist that cultural subsidy can be justified if it leads to the development of cultural industries, and in doing so should contribute to the wider economy. But surely those cultural practices which fit that requirement should not profit at the expense of those that don’t. And any approach that encourages economic gain will be deluded if it does not embrace risk and accept failure, which raises the difficult question of how risk and reward should be distributed. Similarly, some critics insist that culture only deserves subsidy if it contributes to some social benefit. Again, some cultural practices are geared up to delivering that, often in ways that are more radical and challenging than social policies specify, but not all.

There is a more controversial criticism that stems from an often unstated requirement that culture should somehow be of some particular nation. Even if agreement was reached about what it meant to be Scottish, such a project is of doubtful worth. And it is not as if the national culture will go away, or succumb to some unspecified external threat without this protectionist approach. Instead of worrying about Scottishness, cultural policy should support and encourage the contribution of individuals and organisations that happen to be located in Scotland to the global flow of culture.

Whatever their merits, those justifications have encouraged perverse outcomes and procedures such as tick-box form filling as a condition of funding. Cultural producers just see this a hurdle and some employ people to do it for them, and those who implement cultural policy employ people to audit projects in order to check whether the boxes have been ticked in the right way and “evaluate” whether the “outcomes” have been achieved.

This is a waste of resources which encourages cynical conformism and Creative Scotland could probably drive greater cultural value by relaxing its grip and encouraging risk.

• Dr Jeremy Valentine is programme leader, MA Culture and Creative Enterprise, at Queen Margaret University, www.qmu.ac.uk