IN her essay ‘Writing without borders’ today, novelist Kirsty Gunn dares to suggest that central government influence in the arts – specifically, in literature – can be unhealthy and unhelpful. It can contribute to the creation of a contrived and compromised culture.
She will be aware that this point of view might not make her many friends, and will be flatly rejected by some of her peers. But she may also find that her stance earns her admirers who had not previously felt able to voice such concerns. One of the unspoken truths of the current situation is that if a writer or an artist wants to get ahead, and that could simply mean gaining access to funding, it does not pay to bite the hand that feeds you.
This is an unhealthy state of affairs, because open and honest debate should thrive in the arts world. For that reason, Kirsty Gunn’s decision to speak out should be applauded, whether you agree with her verdict or not. Her challenge to what she sees as a flawed strategy is refreshing.
Government funding of the arts is always going to be controversial, and it is difficult to see how conflict can be avoided. Regardless of how arms-length an organisation may appear to be, there will always be a concern that the body charged with distributing public money is influenced by the provider.
Similarly, there will always be accusations that arts bodies favour Scottish works over those that have no obvious Scottish identity. But we should expect that to be the case, because such bodies exist because Scotland exists. Creative Scotland has that name for a reason, and likewise its predecessor, the Scottish Arts Council.
Nevertheless, Kirsty Gunn has a point. Seeking a Scottish identity in all works of literature north of the Border is limiting. Does all Scottish literature have to be about Scotland to be considered of merit, or worthy of funding? We would argue that it does not have to. This debate should be full and frank, and arguments aired without fear of consequence.