Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Not-So-Creative Scotland - 26 May 2010

On the north bank of the river Clyde, there nestles a nineteenth century fish market, commandeered several years ago as artists’ studios and a well-equipped sculpture workshop. In July, after a period of metamorphosis, it will be reopened as ‘workspaces for visual artists and cultural organisations’ and ‘shop-front units for let to creative industries’ by developers who claim that the building was ‘predominantly empty’ when they found it. Yesterday morning, beneath its glass roof, the city’s cultural powerbrokers perched on gold-rimmed seats around draped tables, as if for an awards dinner, to listen to speeches by the cultural elite.
First up was the new Minister of Culture (an ill-fated post that has seen seven incumbents since a degree of governmental control was devolved to Scotland in 1999). Fiona Hyslop seems like a nice woman – plump and mumsie, almost confessional at times and lacking in the suspicious poise we have come to associate with career politicians. Within moments of her ascent to the podium, it was clear that her speech writers were out of touch with current discourse. As an opening gambit, evoking Voltaire’s notion of Scotland as the place where rules of taste were formulated showed no awareness that the aristocratic connotations of aesthetics have been identified as a lever with which the privileged exert their dominance.(1) After a brief nod to another flawed concept – that of individual genius – she went on to invoke the instrumental value of culture – its benefits to health, education and the economy. In a modern, progressive, ambitious country like Scotland, she reminded us, creativity (innovation) would be the key to success. Whatever evidence exists to the contrary, it would seem that culture has become the Obi-wan Kenobi of capitalism – our only hope.
The purpose of this gathering was to conclude discussion around Creative Scotland, a hybrid creature born of two funding organisations – the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. Creative Scotland has not had an easy entry into the world – the Bill that was first introduced into the Scottish Parliament to ensure its creation was rejected on financial grounds, which saw the legislation being smuggled into a much broader Public Services Reform Bill. This latter Bill cites Creative Scotland as a body corporate, autonomous from the Crown, which will consist of between eight and fourteen (non-parliamentary) members appointed by the Scottish Ministers. It may ‘do anything which appears to be necessary or expedient’ to carrying out its functions; it may ‘engage in any business or undertaking’; it may ‘form, promote or acquire (whether alone or with others) companies; it may form partnerships, accept money and other property, borrow money, acquire and dispose of land. In other words, it may behave like a corporation, which is no surprise as Creative Scotland 2009 Ltd. was registered at Companies House in December 2008.
Although Creative Scotland was officially launched in August 2009, Fiona Hyslop was only yesterday able to announce that the Bill inscribing its creation had been passed and that royal assent had been received, but nowhere in the legislation is a clue given as to the core functions of Creative Scotland. For this, we had to turn to Andrew Dixon, the newly-appointed Chief Executive, who claims thirty years’ ‘experience working in the arts media and creative industries’, latterly at the NewcastleGateshead Initiative. Sporting a Tommy Sheridan tan and a pearlescent pink, lilac and blue-striped shirt, the stuff of a football casual’s wildest dreams, Dixon graced the platform with a quick quantitative evaluation of the culture he had absorbed since his arrival in the country some weeks ago. He then spoke of the need to invent a new language that moves away from ‘funding’ and ‘subsidy’ and towards ‘investment’ in talent, ideas, people and places. The problem with this approach, as we have all recently discovered to our cost, is that people expect a return on their investment. This return, it seems, would make itself felt in measurable targets (social as well as cultural) and in contributing to ‘quality of life’. A clue to the beneficiaries of such an investment is to be found in the priority areas for the first year of Creative Scotland’s operation – the traditional arts, the creative industries and cultural tourism.
This gathering marked the last of four quarterly ‘dialogue events’ around the country, charm offensives previously chaired by the banker and acting chair of Creative Scotland, Ewan Brown. These events aimed to appease the critics of the creative industries model underlying the new body, some of whom feared that artists would be forgotten by Creative Scotland. At pains to reassure his audience that this would not be the case, Dixon brandished a David Brent-style prop – a postcard of an artwork inspired by a car park at B&Q – the perfect synergy of art and commerce.
Any dissent that may have been in evidence during earlier sessions had all but dissipated by the time the Creative Scotland roadshow reached Glasgow. The assembled audience was asked for its input into three strategic questions around new models of support, engaging the people of Scotland to champion its culture and conveying these successes internationally. After some time to ponder each of these areas in turn, limited dialogue did, indeed, take place between Hyslop and Dixon and hand-picked members of the audience. Reliant on Creative Scotland for their livelihood, this inspired bunch went further than most civil servants would dare in harking back to Victorian models of philanthropy, in encouraging private sector intervention into the arts and in prostituting Scotland’s culture as a calling card to pave the way for the international expansion of its business interests.
In this regard, the timing of George Osborne’s announcement about swingeing pubic sector cuts could not have been better. No-one asks any more why budget reductions are necessary or why we need new, more entrepreneurial models of cultural provision; at the same time, questions about the budget deficit – where and how it was incurred and why our public services have to suffer as a result – are strictly off limits. Just like Creative Scotland, this has become part of our accepted reality; but, while the last locally-caught merchandise left the market some decades ago, something still smells fishy.

Notes

1. ‘Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed’. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Routledge, London, 1984, p.6.


Originally published in Metamute

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