This evening, in Edinburgh, the new landmark organisation for promoting culture in Scotland will be revealed, but the chances are that you won't have been invited to the launch, especially if you are a creative practitioner. Creative Scotland, as this new organisation will be known, is a hybrid creature – a replacement of Scottish Screen (the main film funding body) and the Scottish Arts Council (hitherto responsible for funding all other artforms falling outside the scope of the national bodies). Pragmatically, this might seem like a good way of saving on the overheads and administrative costs of running two separate cultural funding bodies – indeed this is how it was sold – but much more than fiscal prudence underlies this decision.
Early in the history of devolved government, it became clear that culture was one of the policy areas over which Westminster did not retain reserved powers. In his 2003 St Andrew's Day speech, Scotland's then First Minister, Jack McConnell, announced his intention to make 'the development of our creative drive, our imagination, the next major enterprise for our society'. Shortly afterwards, culture minister Frank McAveety launched the Cultural Commission as part of 'a generational opportunity – to look seriously and maturely at our culture and decide the framework for its support in the future'.
There are precedents for this kind of cultural rethinking after a rupture with the old regime – in Cuba after the 1959 revolution, for example, culture was made a priority, with new museums, galleries and casas de cultura being built across the island and the arts being made integral to education at all levels, which necessitated the training of 20,000 new instructors.
In Scotland, a team of hand-picked commissioners undertook a year-long stakeholder consultation, at a cost to the public purse of £487,000, to make a series of recommendations aimed at reforming, rather than revolutionising, cultural provision. The Scottish Government decided to take forward the merger model they called Creative Scotland, which is hardly surprising given that, in January 2003 – more than a year before the costly Cultural Commission was embarked upon – a group set up to implement the 1999 national cultural strategy was being asked to consider the creation of a new agency, Creative Scotland, which would combine responsibilities then residing with a number of different agencies.
As legislation was drawn up around the new organisation, two worrying facts became clear – the first is that Creative Scotland effectively erodes the arms-length principle inscribed into arts councils north and south of the border since the end of World War II. It is this proviso, protected by Royal Charter, which seeks to ensure that artists have relative autonomy in the face of political sea changes and while this may have been dwindling in practice as the amount of unencumbered funding diminishes, the idea of supporting freedom of expression remains an important principle to uphold.
This leads us to the second major flaw in the model for Creative Scotland; when looking at the direction in which Scottish ministers intend to instrumentalise artists, one phrase rings out like a mantra: creative industries. This largely discredited approach, which explains the appointment of businessmen and bankers onto the board of Creative Scotland, is based on the tenuous idea that creative thinking will stimulate the failing post-industrial economies of the Western world. And, while a certain amount of creativity is inherent in the work of James Dyson or the birth of Lara Croft, this kind of entrepreneurialism is a world apart from conceptions of culture as a process of continual, critical re-evaluation, which should be integral to any free and fair society.
Belatedly realising that certain artforms would be discriminated against by their rhetoric around innovation, Scottish politicians have set up the traditional arts working group to perpetuate handicrafts and linguistic forms particular to Scotland. But it is between these two artificial poles of innovation and tradition that culture lies, and the formation of Creative Scotland shows a massive failure of Scottish politicians and cultural bureaucrats to grasp this.
In post-revolutionary Cuba, the first minister of culture was incredibly articulate about the humanity underlying creative processes which could form a counterpart to beneficial Enlightenment-driven developments in science to act against cultural regressiveness and dogma. However, just as the heralded benefits of Creative Scotland have been economic ones, the only objections being raised in mainstream Scotland have been financial. The initial dedicated Creative Scotland Bill fell in parliament on a budgeting irregularity, leaving the legislation to be smuggled into the Public Services Reform Bill, while the cost of converting two organisations into one has been the major concern of those tenured culture brokers expressing their views publicly. Having been batted between a series of culture ministers and from Labour to the nationalists, responsibility for giving life to Creative Scotland has fallen to Mike Russell as minister for culture, external affairs and the constitution, who launched a series of highly selective meetings aimed at assuaging the concerns of those who matter – the great and the good of Scottish cultural life.
But, beneath the spin, hundreds of artists in Scotland have put their names to an open letter to Russell, highlighting the clear distinction made by UNESCO between culture and commerce. It is these artists, largely unrepresented in the mainstream media, whose views have been routinely ignored by parliamentarians. It is these artists on whom the burden of Creative Scotland will fall and on whom the nation's hopes of economic recovery rest. It is these artists who have not received a card inviting them to the grand unveiling, the words 'Creative Scotland' magically revealed on its surface when it comes into contact with daylight.
As the hybrid creature that is Creative Scotland is unleashed onto an unsuspecting public, it is time to ask ourselves what would happen to Robert Burns or Charles Rennie Mackintosh if they attempted to develop their art in contemporary Scotland; what fate would await James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, Frida Kahlo or Pablo Picasso, if they were to arrive on these shores, seeking support for their talents. Unable to situate themselves on the tradition-innovation continuum as it is currently defined, they would face three equally unpalatable choices: penury, obscurity or exile.
Originally published in the Scottish Review