WAITING for exam results can scar you for life. I have a friend who, 50 years on, still has nightmares about her Highers. Others, like me, remember the hollow feeling as the letter landed on the doormat, within which lay our university degree. This mental torment, however, is as nothing to the agony of awaiting the result of a funding application to Creative Scotland. There is a nervous air about those, be it in theatre, visual arts, or the world of books, from the moment their application has been sent, till the verdict is delivered. The word limbo might have been devised to describe precisely this situation. Just as purgatory was coined for those of us who have been unsuccessful.
As a director of the Scottish Review of Books (SRB) – and married to its editor Alan Taylor – I, and the rest of the SRB board, know these feelings all too well. When our recent application for £45,000 was turned down, shortly before a new issue was due to be published, the future of the SRB began to look shaky. Currently, while the website will continue, there is no immediate prospect of another print edition.
This is not the time to revisit the decision taken over the SRB. It is, however, justifiable to question the wider role Creative Scotland is playing in our national culture. When the SRB’s bid was rejected, advice was offered on how to strengthen a future approach. This entailed considerably enlarging our (unpaid) cottage industry into a much bigger concern, costing four times the amount we had asked for. Among the conditions imposed was a higher degree of editorial and board member diversity, thereby meeting Creative Scotland policy.
Regardless of CS injunctions, the quest for diversity is always a consideration when shaping the content of a journal, let alone selecting members of an orchestra, theatre production, or any other artistic venture. Yet, while as wide as possible a range of talents, voices, background and experience is important, the pre-eminent consideration for anyone pulling the strings, be they film director, editor, choreographer or artist, is quality and originality. These are the foremost consideration, after which all other matters must join the queue.
Creative Scotland sits in judgment on others, imposing a benchmark which its own performance does not reach. Perhaps, then, now is a good time for this perpetually-troubled outfit to pause, and consider exactly what it is hoping to achieve. The CS mantra has always been that it operates at “arm’s length”. Yet, as the SRB has discovered to its cost, this is not true. Rather, it pokes its finger into people’s eyes. In our case you could call it positively meddlesome, telling us what kind of journal they would like us to be, what our function should be, and how we ought to operate.
Unlike the majority of arts bodies requesting government subsidy, the SRB can express its dismay and dissatisfaction. Most organisations and individuals are not in that position. To publicly criticise CS is to make themselves pariahs. Disgruntled musicians, artists or writers might throw caution to the winds, risking only their own careers, but for the heads of theatres, orchestras, book festivals and the like, employees’ jobs are on the line. To challenge the process, or to refuse to agree to CS’s demands, is to find themselves precariously exposed. And, since decisions about what and who get funded are taken in secret, it is not possible to be confident there is no hidden score settling or prejudice behind the funding outcome. I am not saying there are grudges or grievances behind any decision CS makes – hopefully not. But with the names of the decision-makers redacted, how could we ever know?
This is an issue far bigger and more important than the fortunes of the SRB. If Creative Scotland now perceives its role as actively shaping the remit and expression of the arts and those who produce them, it is in danger of losing its raison d’etre as a supportive, informed and impartial source of finance. Instead, it is metamorphosing into a manifesto-waving, policy-driven arm of an increasingly authoritarian state. As such, it could fairly be accused of politicising and manipulating our culture from the top down, rather than giving those who produce music, art, poetry or drama freedom to roam and set their own agenda.
Imposing BAME diversity targets, for instance, in a country whose ethnic profile is at best patchy and in some cases negligible, is to put the implementation of an inarguably important principle higher than any other consideration. When that principle becomes inflexible or unrealistic, it ceases to be far-sighted and inclusive, and instead becomes a diktat that builds rather than demolishes walls. Implementing rules on quotas, subject matter, personnel or outlook is in effect imposing editorial control from on high. Far better would be to trust the arts to evolve, expand, advance or change as best befits their nature. To do otherwise is to turn the state into a nanny or teacher – less Mary Poppins, you might say, and more like cane-crazy Wackford Squeers.
This article was first published in The Herald newspaper.