Is Scottish politics afraid of the arts?

Robin McAlpine

Last week Amanda asked you all what subjects you’d like us to cover more in the Common Weal weekly newsletter. Easily the biggest response was to say ‘culture and arts issues’. Since we are here to serve…

But can I start by saying that this does horrify me a little bit. I personally have such a strong connection with the importance of arts and culture issues I feel slightly shameful that you all think we’ve not done enough. I studied both literature and music at university and wanted to be either a novelist or a composer of classical music. It turns out I was mediocre at the latter and better at what I do now than the former. Oh well…

So when I set up Common Weal, arts was part of the picture in two important ways. First it was always in our constitution as one of the policy areas of particular interest to us. But more than that, I always wanted Common Weal to embrace the power of communication the arts offer when trying to get people interested in big ideas.

That is why we organised the biggest exhibition of political art in Scotland for decades. It was a wonderful exhibition with an excellent selection of art by some of Scotland’s best-known contemporary artists (and involved a good selection of entirely new works). That exhibition was depressingly neglected in the media. 

And of course we ran Butterfly Rammy, a 26-date political cabaret at the Edinburgh Festival with different artists every day. Part of that was to commission 26 essays, paintings and poems. It was all themed around what happened during the independence referendum and published as a book. Copies are still available if you’ve not got one. I really loved it and wish it too had got more exposure.

Likewise our ‘Red Lines’ campaign (when there was a chance the SNP might have been negotiating with a minority Labour government at Westminster) for which we commissioned five posters (also still available). I still think these are some of the best political images of recent times.

Nor are we done. During last summer the wonderful James MacConnachie did an extended volunteering project with us. James is studying music at Cambridge University and did all the work behind the arts section of Sorted. He wrote it all up as a full policy paper which we are sitting on for publication as soon as there are ten minutes of peace in Scotland when things don’t seem to be in permanent turmoil.

So Common Weal has no shortage of commitment to the arts and culture and its importance – as I hope you saw when you opened your parcel containing your copy of Sorted (you have a copy already, right?) and saw the wonderful illustrations by Lauren and Charity.

But does Scotland? I ask this question because for all the heat and noise around the SNP leadership election and the at-times hard-to-keep-up-with blizzard of promises, the arts barely featured. Humza Yousaf mentioned it and said he would be committed to the arts. But…

And this is really my point – what does that actually mean in contemporary Scottish politics? When the Scottish Parliament was first established in 1999 I was appointed as the lobbyist for the university sector. One of the first things I did was to go through the MSPs guides that proliferated and analyse their stated areas of interest.

There were a range of issues I was particularly looking for and given that I was representing two art schools and one conservatoire I was clearly looking for MSPs who expressed a strong interest in the arts. There were barely any and their interest seemed to go little further than ‘I like going to the opera’.

Since then? Well, I can think of probably one MSP who I can think of with a genuine and deep interest in arts and culture and that was Mike Russell who was almost continually in government in a totally different brief. If you think I’ve missed any, please send me their names…

Which means that the debate about arts and culture in Scottish politics has been, well, almost non-existent. And when it does crop up it is almost never strategic but rather people responding to crisis (for example the closure of the Edinburgh Filmhouse or financial difficulties at the Fringe).

And that is why it is a bit depressing that it just didn’t really come up during the leadership campaign and didn’t get much beyond ‘culture is good and I want to support good things’. Surely Scotland’s art and culture is worth more than that? Surely we should hope for more than that from our politics?

I’ve definitely concluded that politicians have no vision for arts in Scotland. When they want to show support they increase Creative Scotland’s budget which is taken as a proxy for ‘arts and culture’. But go out and ask a practicing artist in Scotland what they think of Creative Scotland. Using that quango as shorthand for art in Scotland is a bit like handing over sports policy to FIFA.

What does political support for ‘the arts’ mean? Does it mean supporting the creation of new artwork in Scotland? Does it mean developing a thriving, growing arts sector? Does it mean getting more ordinary people engaged in creative practice? Does it mean getting more people to go and consume culture? If it does, does that mean any culture or do they mean Scottish culture? If someone goes to watch a Marvel movie at the cinema, is that job done?

Scotland is pretty strong in terms of novelists and poets, less so drama (particularly in Scots). Do we want to address that? (A shout-out here again to my friends at the brilliant Braw Clan trying to forge a path in Scots language theatre). We’re pretty good on pop music and Scottish folk, but less so in ‘mainstream’ music (what classical musicians call contemporary classical music). Is that an issue?

Some of our public artworks are globally renowned (the murals on the sides of buildings in Glasgow are often simply amazing – that one on High Street of the man with the bird lifts my spirits absolutely every time I pass it). Should we do more? Is our public sculpture as inspiring as our murals? Does it matter?

What does citizen participation in the arts mean and why do we want it? Is it a feeder for elite arts? Is it a support for people’s mental health or other wellbeing issues? Is it a community development tool? Is it a means of moving away from consumerism in favour of an active, participative society? Is it purely for its own sake, for making people happier and more confident? What is it for?

Why do we think that being a surrogate fill-in for some American city when some Holywood action or adventure movie is being filmed is a major target for our domestic film industry? What have we got against funding Scottish films? We know they have international reach – why do our breakthroughs come one a decade? How can Ireland dominate the Oscars? What do they do better?

How do we feel about our television programming? Are we capturing the best of contemporary Scotland on screen? What would ‘better’ look like? We produce so many world-renowned actors, so why not more world-renowned film and TV?

The Edinburgh Festival is becoming a soulless, commercialised mess that prices everyone out. Is that its future? What about the rest of Scotland’s rich festival scene? Is it going to retrench down to a few big names run by corporations and sponsored by global drinks brands? And though we have great music festivals, what about theatre festivals, or comedy festivals, or dance festivals?

If the Edinburgh Festival is pricing people out of participation then are our national companies any better? You used to be able to get reasonable, reasonably-priced tickets which were just about affordable for people not on high incomes (like my family – we used to take the kids to Scottish Ballet whenever we could and now wince when we look at the prices). If they can’t get to ballet or opera or theatre now, is that OK? What is the alternative?

Is it still possible to be working class and become a practicing artist? The domination of privately-educated rock stars, film stars and actors may not be as bad in Scotland as in the UK as a whole, but how does someone on a low income and without industry contacts make their way in Scotland’s arts scene?

Are our venues properly supported? Should we be including architecture in our debate about Scotland’s culture? Does Scotland’s public transport simply cut rural communities out of the arts? What are the limits of free speech in Scotland’s arts? Do you want politicians interfering at all? This and many, many more questions: not coming to a parliament near you soon.

Is there a way out of this? I don’t really know. Common Weal’s proposal is to take the debate about the future of the arts out of the hands both of politicians but also of ‘arts administrators’ (bureaucrats who take home salaries your average practicing artists could only dream of) and put it back in the hands of artists themselves by abolishing Creative Scotland and replacing it with artist-elected Arts Councils.

But there seems to me a long way to go. I’m a Trustee for Brownsbank, the cottage in which Hugh MacDiarmid ended his life and which contains all his personal possessions and a lot of his archives. It is in serious, serious need of repair (it is a listed building). But let’s just say politicians don’t all rush to take our requests for meetings, MacDiarmid being a bit of a troublemaker.

Yet he is a globally renowned poet and one of the most important figures in European modernist poetry. Other nations aren’t afraid of their difficult artists. What is wrong with Scotland? Are we scared of our arts? Or just disinterested? And will we ever get round to discussing it?

Remember, nearly 20 years ago Jack McConnell set up an arts advisory committee which had one practicing artist and was otherwise made up of business figures. It was contemptuous. If there are signs that that things have gotten better since, they certainly aren’t obvious.

1 thought on “Is Scottish politics afraid of the arts?”

  1. Thanks for this article Robin. My name is Martin Oates and I am a working/exhibiting artist from of working class heritage. I was accepted for two art schools at the age of 16 but due to family circumstances never enroled. I made my living throughout life as a bricklayer and made the leap into full time painting in my 50`s (now 70)
    Making a living selling artwork is a tough gig and a tax system that supported all art would be very welcome. Traditionally artists came from wealthy backgrounds (not all and a surprising amount from the clergy) which allowed them to develop without the pressures of normal life.
    I could go on, if anyone wants any help/advice regarding this please feel free to message me through my website http://www.martinoates.co.uk

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