Saturday, 19 February 2011

The barbarians at the gate

Hugh Henry MSP, who has ascended to the giddy heights of doyen of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, lodged a motion on Thursday and it would appear that he is setting himself up as arbiter of all things cultural:
S3M-07964 Hugh Henry (Paisley South) (Scottish Labour): Creative Scotland Expenditure— That the Parliament is concerned about recently published details of Creative Scotland expenditure; considers that, in a time of austerity, Creative Scotland should consider grant applications more carefully before making awards; expresses concern at and cannot understand the justification for £58,000 of taxpayers’ money being used to fund a dance programme based on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, or paying for travel to Tonga to study Polynesian dance, and believes that ministers need to urgently investigate Creative Scotland’s spending and take action to show that taxpayers’ money is being used responsibly.
This great, towering figure of Labour's intelligentsia would appear to be starting his own war against poshlost devoid of armaments.  He will be planning, perhaps, an exhibition of Entartete Kunst, ignoring the quite clear connection between the progress of society and progress in the Arts, a progress that cannot be governed or directed by politicians without strangling the progress.  Artists of all kinds must be free (and should be encouraged) to prod politicians and governments with pointed art - Arthur Miller received funding from the US National Endowment for the Arts to write Death of a Salesman and four years later he was puncturing the McCarthy witch-hunts with The Crucible - The National Theatre of Scotland used public money to produce Black Watch, a play that was extremely critical of UK military involvement overseas - and public money is opening up opportunities for people from all kinds of places to make a mark

Politicians can't run art through our ideological prisms (although you'll have some difficulty in keeping politicians from claiming credit for successes) without destroying the essence that makes art capable of moving the spirit, of changing humanity, of touching the vitality of people.  That's why public bodies funding the arts have operated at arms length from Government - although it is interesting that Hugh Henry appears to agree with the approach of the Conservative / Lib Dem coalition which is imposing massive cuts and strange conditions on Arts Council England.  It seems that UK Ministers, like Hugh Henry, think that "a time of austerity" is a time to cut cultural funding and have forgotten (if they ever knew) that the genesis of the Arts Councils - and therefore Creative Scotland - was the bleak austerity of December 1939 when the intent was “to show publicly and unmistakably that the Government cares about the cultural life of the country. This country is supposed to be fighting for civilisation” which led to the creation of the fore-runner of the Arts Councils in 1940 - and this in the midst of a World War.  Robert Hewison puts it excellently:
The decision taken in 1940 that led to long-term funding of the arts was not taken on economic grounds, or for reasons of health, social inclusion or the prevention of crime. But it was a rational decision, based on a rational argument: that we are supposed to be fighting for civilisation. 
I am, of course, giving Mr Henry the benefit of massive doubt and assuming that he is merely labouring mightily with the concept of funding art without directing it.  He may be being wilfully ignorant or, worse, intent upon finding some spuriously populist cause celebre with no regard to the consequences of his actions.  

We fund art and do so politically blind because art is damaged when it is narrowed by politics and Hugh Henry's version of Socialist Realism would run the risk of damaging cultural advancement, of restricting and choking Scottish art, his ambition for Cultural Revolution is misplaced.  We may not like everything that is funded by Creative Scotland but no-one ever argued that everyone will like all of the art we see around us - I find Shakespeare's plays quite dull (a couple of his sonnets are ok, though), can't abide the work of Alasdair Gray (a heresy in these parts), and can't for the life of me understand what's so good about those Titians we're so collectively proud of; but I've delighted in some of the National Theatre's productions, I savour the works of Banks and of Bellany among others, and I like to spend the odd hour or two from time to time soaking up a gallery.

I may not be the person to decide where arts funding should go, but I'm prepared to bet that speculative prospecting in areas seldom trodden (say a dance programme based on the works of Alfred Hitchcock or paying for travel to Tonga to study Polynesian dance) is likely to produce nuggets of gold more often than walking the same old dusty streets.  Mr Henry seems to have a problem with modern dance as a performance art and I suggest that he takes some time to go and take some in, we've got dancers to be proud of in Scotland.

We may not be fighting a World War at the moment, but the campaign for our civilisation continues.  The barbarians are always at the gate and we should always be driving past them to improve ourselves.


Andy said...

It's not an easy argument to make, but a worthwhile one. Arts are always going to be an easy target for cuts. We should be wary of any government or politician trying to say what art is acceptable.

Anonymous said...

Hugh's got previous for this, he was responsible for shutting eleven libraries whilst in charge at Renfrewshire Council.

Andrew Nicoll said...

Gie's peace. These people get £35 million a year to hose up the wall on pay outs for their mates. Thats half the cost of the council tax freeze and as much as it takes to pay for the royals and they have castles and everything. Are you really saying that, if they choose to spend every penny of that on building a scale model of the Great Wall of China out of granny sookers, the Arts Minister can do nothing, Parliament can do nothing? Is that seriously your argument? Why is it the business of the Scottish taxpayer to fund the book launch of an American drag artist when her book has already been launched in New York, London, Bergen, Brighton and Brazil? Why am I paying for the translation of a political history of Kosovo into Ukranian? Why am I sending some lassie to learn hula dancing in Tonga? The next time the Government you work for sacks another nurse, ask yourself that, Cashers.

Calum Cashley said...

"a scale model of the Great Wall of China out of granny sookers" - interesting idea; edible art! I don't work for the Government but if you're talking about the Scottish Government you'll find that there are more nurses employed now than when the SNP came to power - a record number, in fact.

I don't know why you think a young female has any less right to funding than an old man but Rachael Aisling Smith who went to Tonga will at least know that Hula dancing is Hawaiin, the traditional dance of Tonga being Lakalaka.

It's the business of the Scottish taxpayer to fund many things, including cultural enterprise - and politicians should not direct that. You know how easy it is to spot when a journalist knows the story is garbage? They use a quote from the Taxpayers Alliance - the ultimate in self-aggrandising groups which calls for lower taxes but objects to spending cuts while calling for all public services to be outsourced, which investigated the number of bins in each local authority in Egnland and reported a "shocking disparity" with the fantastic quote: “Having to sort rubbish into numerous bins often frustrates taxpayers, even if they want to recycle. It’s ridiculous that some councils ask for waste to be sorted into seven bins or more; this places needless pressure on households and isn’t a good way of encouraging recycling."

Andrew Nicoll said...

God, I feel so foolish. Obviously it would be stupid to sack nurses to pay for hula dancing but, so long as it's for Lakalaka, that's a completely different matter. And a three week course in how to carve a wooden puppet. And a trip to the Dresden Pantomime Festival. And poetic fiction exploring transgender issues in the Old and New testaments of the Bible (my caps).
You know how you can tell when an arts subsidy junkie hasn't got a leg to stand on? They talk about emptying the bins. Not about translating a political history of Kosovo into Ukranian. Not about funding the FIFTH book launch of a New York musical hall turn, but emptying the bins.

Calum Cashley said...

feeling foolish would just be foolish, but once again, there are more nurses employed in Scotland's NHS now than there were when the SNP came to power - over 1,000 more, and a further 1,000 additional hospital cleaners, helping to cut C-Diff infection cases by 60 per cent, while MRSA cases are now at an all-time low, the number of dentists is up by 20% as well.

Then, of course, there's the commitmentto increase NHS funding by at least £1bn by 2015 if the SNP stays in Government.

All that and still supporting arts and culture of all kinds with 0.1% of the budget - a worthwhile investment.

Andrew Nicoll said...

Cashers, old boy, I would gouge my own eyes out with a plastic spoon before I would treat you like an idiot so be so good as to return the compliment.
Of course there are more nurses now than there were four years ago - but there are fewer than last year. Those two things are not mututally exclusive.
And far be it from me to suggest that you are intending to deceive but it is equally as nonsensical to suggest that every penny currently spent on the arts is well spent as it is to suggest that every penny spent by councils is well spent. Politics is always about priorities and never more so than now. So would you rather have an extra nurse for a year or two issues of The Map magazine?

Calum Cashley said...

You're quite right - spending on nurses and on culture is not mutually exclusive. To make it clear, here are the figures on nurses from the ISD of the NHS:
2007 - 58,370.0
2008 - 63,400.0
2009 - 64,836.0
2010 - 64,253.0

A headcount nearly six thousand more than when the SNP came to power and culture spending has not cost a single nursing job. To put that six thousand figure in perspective, if you moved the entire Creative Scotland budget from encouraging art of all kinds to paying for nurses you wouldn't get a quarter of the increase that's already been delivered by the SNP (you could only get 1,254 new nurses).

Not only does culture not cost the health budget, an active cultural ferment in society helps develop society which will help make society healthier - not on its own but as part of a more rounded life.

Pitting the £35.5m Creative Scotland budget against the £11,359.8m Health budget in Scotland (even if you use DEL figures and reduce Health to £11,272.4m it still takes 40% of the Scottish budget) is just daft - the Health budget is 320 times the size of the Creative Scotland budget. I don't believe that your ambitions for Scotland are really be limited to finding fault with art you disagree with, nor that you honestly believe that Creative Scotland's budget should be moved to the Health Service.

Andrew Nicoll said...

So, we agree. There are more nurses than there were in 2007, but fewer than last year. So what's your argument now?
Nobody said that we shouldn't have an Arts Budget. You have to invent that as an argument because you decline to defend the matters at issue. Of course we should have an Arts Budget. We should have a local authorities budget too. We shouldn't hose the local authorities budget up the wall on pointless nonsense and we shouldn't hose the arts budget up the wall on pointless nonsense. Cashers, it's not about spending money, it's about spending money well. I have asked you repeatedly to defend this stuff and explain, inter alia, why you think it is the business of the Scottish taxpayer to fund the FIFTH time that a New York drag king has launched her book but, since you decline to engage with the argument but prefer to invent other stuff that nobody is disagreeing with anyway, I'm stopping now.

Calum Cashley said...

I'm pleased that you've finally admitted that it was wrong to bring nurses into a debate about cultural funding and that the NHS is being excellently run by the SNP Scottish Government with more nurses now than when it came to power.

The arts budget - pointless nonsense? What I consider pointless nonsense other people consider great art (as I said in the original piece) and some of the stuff I consider great art other people consider pointless nonsense. Politicians should not be determining which arts projects get funding - if you want an example of just how bad that can get take a look at the debate that's running in British Columbia (plenty coverage in the Vancouver Sun). No politician, not even the fantastic, dedicated and committed SNP Ministers should be telling Scottish Opera what to stage, telling the National Theatre what productions it should be considering, telling the orchestras what to play - or telling Creative Scotland what to fund. It's arms-length on purpose so politicians can't jump up and down and remove funding from projects they don't like.

It's arms-length so politicians can't decide to play populism with the arts, it's arms-length so artists aren't backed into a corner and have to produce what politicians will like. It's arms-length to protect artistic freedom and expression. It's arms-length because that's how you allow culture to grow - by not forcing it.

You can tell Labourn don't understand any of that from their 2007 manifesto commitment to grow culture by 3%.

It's arms-length and it should be arms-length and I'd rather Creative Scotland went ion some strange directions and funded some projects I didn't understand than have Scotland's artists kettled into a politician's idea of what is appropriate.