Unleash the vision of the artists
Author(s): Mark Fisher
Copyright holder(s): Mark Fisher
Watching last week’s flurry of inactivity, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an unloved corner of Bratislava I visited recently. They say it will one day become a big financial centre. Once they demolish the dingy, dilapidated buildings, it’ll be a prime site for redevelopment. At one end of this area, a massive building project has been underway for the best part of 20 years. It’s a new building for the Slovak National Theatre, but for reasons best known to the Eastern European mindset, they can never quite get round to finishing it. They call it the oldest new building in Slovakia.
And now that the area looks as if it could become an important commercial hub, the powers that be can’t help looking at the oldest new building, which is virtually complete, and wondering whether it could be better used by someone other than the National Theatre. "Why don’t we use it as a conference centre?" they ask.
You can imagine how the arts community reacts to that. Imagine also how they react when I tell them about the politicians back home in Scotland. For however much I might try to sneer at our government’s utilitarian values and its apparently cavalier attitude towards our national opera company, I can’t deny we have a First Minister who used his high-profile St Andrew’s Day speech to say he wanted the arts to be at the heart of all Scottish Executive activity. "I believe we should make the development of our creative drive the next major enterprise for our society," said Jack McConnell last November. To my friends in Bratislava, this makes Scotland sound like a cultural paradise on earth.
So before making any comment on last week’s announcement by McAveety that he’s setting up the independent commission to look into cultural provision in Scotland, it’s worth reminding ourselves how remarkable it is for our politicians to notice the arts exist at all.
It is worth reminding ourselves also that this has been a consistent theme in the Labour administration since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Back in the summer of 2000, the late Donald Dewar endorsed a document called Scotland’s National Cultural Strategy. Yes, it was full of platitudes, buzz-words, admin-speak and woolly bureaucratic twaddle, but in its own earnest way, it was an attempt to take the cultural health of the nation seriously. Rather than dreaming of conference centres, the ministers pledged to "take steps to develop a national theatre for Scotland" - the fruits of which are now as little as a year away.
The cultural commission is part of this process. A scan down the Cultural Policy Statement was enough to send readers cross-eyed trying to find meaning in the too-polished sentences. I have little idea what an "effective, sustainable infrastructure for our arts, heritage, screen and creative industries" is. Nor do I like the suggestion that creativity is "the edge we need in a competitive world". It’s wrong to evaluate the arts as a pounds-shillings-and-pence tool of business. We should enjoy and pursue them for their own sake. But perhaps this is the dull utilitarian thinking McAveety believes you need to unleash wild, untameable creative talent.
Likewise, I’m uninspired by the increasingly tedious talk of "accessibility", a politician’s watchword that has crept all over the policy statement. Accessibility is a common-sense idea you can’t argue against, but one that tends to shift discussion away from the dirty business of the art itself.
Its repetition also implies we have a particular problem with accessibility. That’s not the case. As Graham Berry, director of the Scottish Arts Council, said as he welcomed the news of the cultural commission, the arts already touch us throughout our lives. "People go to the cinema, read books, listen to music and are influenced every day by architecture and the images which surround us," he said.
Perhaps more significant is this statement by McAveety: "We need a new cultural vision for our country and a radically different way of delivering and sustaining our cultural services."
He has given the job of ascertaining what that new cultural vision should be to James Boyle. Although Boyle recently signed up for another three years as chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, he has done an about-turn and is leaving that organisation in June to head the cultural commission. He will submit a report to ministers in June 2005, with an interim report by October.
But is it true we need a new cultural vision? And do we need a radically different way of delivering it? Many would say there’s nothing wrong with the vision we have and not much wrong with the way it’s delivered: the problem is simply the amount of cash available to underpin it. Whether your taste is for Franz Ferdinand or James MacMillan, Alison Watt or Jack Vettriano or David Mackenzie, you’ll agree that we have the artists and that the artists have the vision. All it would take is for the Executive to commit to the arts, say, 1% of its total budget and the cultural landscape would be transformed.
Perhaps there is bureaucratic inefficiency here and there - it’s always healthy to ask the questions - but when McAveety says: "I believe we can do better with what we already have", it sounds too like someone with a residual suspicion of the arts. Does he mean artists and administrators are being profligate? Does he think they’re not doing all they can to reach audiences?
You might assume this to be the case when you consider the Executive’s ongoing treatment of Scottish Opera as if it were a company of elitist big spenders, instead of an organisation suffering gross underfunding, something Boyle has been keen to stamp his feet about in the past. Indeed, it’s hard to reconcile the optimistic spirit of the policy statement with the approach taken to Scottish Opera or the repeated years of standstill arts funding across the board. Despite expectations of an ultimate answer on the opera company’s future last week, the standstill looks set to drag on even further.
But what if we give McAveety the benefit of the doubt? He seems genuine in his desire for "significant change" and for the "cultural community to take this opportunity seriously". His concern, after all, is for the "governance of the cultural sector" rather than the specifics of what the artists create. His unwillingness to be drawn on the crisis at Scottish Opera had a suspicious ring of ignorance towards the company’s most recent artistic triumphs.
Maybe he’s backing an idea once proposed half in jest by playwright David Greig that we should get rid of the Arts Council middlemen and give every artist a debit card with which they could withdraw the money they need. That would be an interesting starting point for James Boyle, with his intimate knowledge of the SAC and its labyrinthine workings. Scotland is not Bratislava; we do not lack creative output or integrity. If we lack anything, it is the structural and financial encouragement that allows artists to feel confident they will not be left high and dry. If anyone can persuade the Executive to open its purse, it’s Boyle. Let’s hope last week wasn’t a passing of the buck, but a sharing of the load.
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Unleash the vision of the artists. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 7 December 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=982.
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