by Michael Russell

The Art of the Matter

October 28, 2009 | by Michael Russell

Who delivers to bring the arts into the mainstream of politics?

“If the real purposes of human living are to be served and the instinct we all share to work towards something we can glimpse beyond ourselves, is to be fulfilled in the happiest and most creative way, then we must certainly recognise that government has both a role and a duty where the artist
is concerned”

Charles Haughey, former Irish Finance Minister

“We need to agree first and foremost how pervasive and fundamental cultural activity and development is – how it’s as necessary in our planning policies as in our schools. As relevant to health improvement as it is to our economic development. When we acknowledge that we’ll be in a much stronger position to decide how we support our cultural activity.”

Jack McConnell, First Minister

THROUGHOUT the world government involvement in the arts is a given. Only in the darkest political backwoods – which in Scotland means on the fringes of the Tory party – is the possibility of no formal governmental responsibility or input to culture debated as a serious notion. Consequently in Scotland instead of endless doubt about the principle, we should actually be considering only the details, yet in that context the variables are not just the level of government involvement, nor only the means by which that is exercised. The expectations of government, and the relationship it establishes with artists are vital parts of the mix too.

Models vary from place to place. In the United States the tax system is used to encourage private, corporate or institutional donation with a comparatively low level of government expenditure and directed demands. In France and many other Euro-pean countries, however, the state takes a much larger role, setting firm directions and underpinning those with substantial resources. The UK has tended towards the latter model, but with elements of the American reluctance to impose too greatly on the sector and with a concomitant lower level of spending.

Another difference lies in the methods used to promote artistic activity and access to culture. Direct funding of artists has always been a strong element in the Scandinavian system, as Peter Duelund’s monumental study of Nordic Cultural Policy showed in 2003. Allied to such support is a high level of public expenditure on the arts, the use of stringent copyright laws (a matter hardly discussed in this country) and a strong encouragement of public participation.

The principles underlying such practice are well enunciated by Duelund’s colleague, Marit Bakke, in a study of specifically Nor-wegian policy. These are identified as enlightenment (culture that helps the individual find him or herself), liberty (economic, political or other forms of pressure should not be applied to the arts), egalitarianism (equal opportunities for all), and social welfare (culture as an integrated part of social policies). These are bound together with a national aim – the protection and promotion of the national cultural heritage.

Such principles are hard to disagree with but little progress has been made in Scotland even in recognising them as key elements in a national cultural policy. Devolution repatriated responsibility for the arts and culture but governmental response has been slow and very patchy: the clearest inference one can draw so far from the series of commissions and studies is that no one in government in Scotland has any clear idea about what priority cultural spending should be given, which model would best suit this small country, and how that model should be implemented. Scottish artists, always used to travelling hopefully rather than arriving, are now increasingly drawn to that maxim from the Book of Proverbs: “Hope deferred maketh the heart grow sick.”

It took more than four years for the issue of culture to be made the subject of a major speech by Scotland’s First Minister, Jack McConnell. His contribution was made on St Andrews Day 2003 in Glasgow and in it he laid out the principles on which his government would base its approach to the arts. This St Andrew’s day vision quickly assumed iconic status in the minds of the arts minister (the last one that is) and in the public pronouncements of our legion of cultural administrators. Seeking nothing less than the establishment of culture within the mainstream of Government delivery it presaged the establishment of the Cultural Commission whose deliberations were supposed to form the basis of Executive cultural policy for a generation (McConnell’s words, not mine).

Another former Finance Minister turned head of government spoke thirty years earlier on the same topic. The Irish politician Charles Haughey, addressing the Harvard Summer School Institute in July 1972, considered the topic of “Art and the Majority”. In political exile, after the celebrated arms trial, he was already known as a keen patron of the arts. In government he had freed creative artists from tax liability on their work. Ten years later as Taoiseach he was to introduce the Aosdana Scheme, guaranteeing a minimum income to 150 artists.

Haughey’s reputation is now in tatters. Forced by the Irish Revenue to sell his Dublin mansion, he is hemmed in by a plethora of potential court cases. He accepted back-handers, peddled influence, bullied friend and foe alike and lived an extravagant lifestyle supported by others. Yet his influence on Irish cultural life cannot be underestimated. He did not just talk about bringing the arts into the mainstream of politics – he did it.

The difference between what is, and what might be, is graphic. In the 1950s and 1960s Irish artists felt marginalised and neglected but Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s was not just an economic powerhouse, it was a cultural one. Working artists moved to Ire-land and young Irish artists had the opportunity to develop. Whilst no cultural scene is ever without its problems, the overall health of Irish culture could not be denied and is still robust. It is valued by the state and by the people and its principal priority is to nurture and develop the artist, from which all the rest flows. Haughey’s intention to ensure that in Ireland “the relationship of the artist to the community might be less distant than elsewhere” has been achieved.

As far as Scotland is concerned, the jury remains out. Some eighteen months after the First Minister’s contribution we are only just beginning to see the outlines of what eventually might be proposed. Even so one cannot be sanguine about success given some crucial differences between Haughey’s expression of what a cultural policy should be, and that enunciated by our First Minister.

For a start Haughey’s speech hardly mentions his own country whilst McConnell’s hardly mentions anywhere else. There is a chippy insularity about our First Minister’s approach to culture as well as a nervous self-justification of the very idea that a politician and a country might take art and artists seriously. Even if one did not know it, one would quickly realise that Haughey’s speech was drafted in part by an artist (the writer Anthony Cronin) whereas McConnell’s was written largely by arts administrators.

Haughey concludes with a magnificent peroration. “If the real purposes of human living are to be served,” he said, “and the instinct we all share to work towards something we can glimpse beyond ourselves is to be fulfilled in the happiest and most creative way, then we must certainly recognise that government has both a role and a duty where the artist is concerned.”

This belief in this humanistic “real purpose” of life for all citizens and the role of artists in achieving it, in part supported by the state, remains the prime motivator for most governments in terms of cultural spending. But this is clearly not the approach of our First Minister. To him a vibrant Scottish cultural life is necessary first of all to allow the world to see “how successful a contemporary country and culture we are”. This is art as politician’s machismo and has little to do with individual artists let alone individual Scots. It is a long way from the personal impact of Haughey’s view of art as a means to glimpse “beyond ourselves …in the happiest and most creative of ways”.

Yet McConnell goes further. Cultural diversity is to be encouraged because it will “attract more and more talented people to come and experience Scotland”. Cultural spending is to be judged by its “use” in terms of boosting educational achievement, achieving healthy bodies and minds, and delivering social justice. The right use of cultural spending, he claims, will even instil a sense of community pride in open spaces and reduce vandalism.

These are big claims to make for the effects of the arts. They are even bigger claims to make if the purpose in so doing is to justify cultural expenditure; for if they are not achieved, then presumably such spending can no longer be considered as a legitimate priority for government.

This question of a measurable degree of return on arts spending is a difficult one. Professor John Carey, in his somewhat disheartening recent book What Good are the Arts? comes to the conclusion that the benefit of culture is impossible to quantify whether in personal or community terms. Whilst that is an extreme position, whether the arts make a society or an individual “better” is a key issue, and proponents and opponents differ only in belief for the evidence is scant. Consequently to move from that degree of vagueness to the degree of certainty about specific outcomes which McConnell not only predicts, but requires, is a large leap of faith, as well as of rhetoric.

We shall soon find out if McConnell is correct, for the implementation of the Cultural Commission recommendations, whilst not a done deal, is likely at least in part even if the delay in even considering them, announced by the Culture Minister within minutes of their publication, is a cause for worry. Within a few years we may be able to say whether a “generational” cultural policy of this nature can indeed achieve all that the First Minister claimed for it.

Despite the negative reaction from certain quarters and particularly the Scottish local authorities whose influence on the Executive should never be understated and the amazing talent that the Commission’s chair appears to have for alienating his natural allies it would be whistling in the wind to attempt to derail the Cultural Commission process at this stage. It may have not been the right place to start from, but we cannot retrace our steps now. The heavy bureaucratic emphasis, the separation of funding from the setting of cultural priorities and the reluctance to do much more than pay lip service to the necessary centrality of the artist in the whole issue are worrying aspects of what has been proposed. On the other hand the desire to place culture within the national mainstream and to ensure it is well financed are plus points. If there is to be, as now seems certain, a further period of discussion – no matter how dispiriting such lack of urgency is – what we all might usefully do in the next few months is consider whether there is enough potential for growth in the Cultural Commission report to allow some new shoots to be grafted on, assuming of course that the Executive is serious about the whole matter. Such shoots should grow, in the first instance, from an appreciation of what we know works.

Ireland and the Scandinavian countries are good places to start. McConnell was right to say in his St Andrew’s Day lecture that mere discussion of structures for administering the arts is the wrong way to proceed. Structures are the means by which policy is delivered, so it is important to devise the policy first. To do that we must decide on what our priorities are and how they can contribute to our overall aims.

Although in later years Haughey increasingly imposed his own prejudices on national artistic policy, the basics of his approach remain broadly correct. The primary need is to support creativity. What new evidence exists since Haughey spoke in 1972 shows that creativity can be inculcated in a society and that by doing so, individuals in that society tend to feel better and behave better. Even John Carey admits as much.

Our overall aim must be therefore to establish and maintain cultural creativity as a part of national life. We do this not just because others do it, nor just because there are financial benefits from it. We do it because it is, in itself, a useful activity. It nurtures the talents and outlook of individual citizens and therefore nurtures the whole nation. It develops ways of seeing, tells our national story to ourselves and lets our national story be influenced, changed and developed by interaction with other national stories and with wider views. Health spending may help our bodies and education spending our potential but cultural spending underpins and creates the holistic self, both as an individual and as part of the community. Government, in this definition which applies across the whole spectrum of public service delivery, is essentially the guarantor of diversity, freedom and continuity. It does things that others cannot or will not do, though it should always seek to work with others in partnership.

Just as hospitals cannot run without doctors, nor schools without teachers, the arts cannot exist without artists. The centre piece of the policy must therefore be to encourage and sustain artists themselves. From their work grows the possibility (in certain art forms) of performance whilst in others publication or dissemination will create the opportunity for access. The state certainly has an interest in supporting performance and dissemination for those reasons, as well as, in the McConnell doctrine which is parroted in various forms by the Commission for the purpose of attracting others in and showcasing ourselves, but putting performance before creativity is putting the artistic cart before the horse.

Without original work there will either be no such opportunities or opportunities that can only be met by those from outwith our country. That is no bad thing, as part of the diet, but the level to which it can provide the whole meal is limited: taken too far it means that our national story will go untold, our deeper reactions to our changing world will be ignored and the process of national construction will be skewed. If art is, as Haughey maintained – quoting André Malraux, the French writer and de Gaulle’s minister of culture – a “unique reflection of our state as human beings” then part of that unique reflection lies in our own experiences on this particular part of the planet and contains the narrative of what that means to us.

Presently national support for artists is ad hoc: we tend to support art works rather than those who make them. Funding is project specific and the gaps between creations remain unfinanced. The establishment of a Scottish Academy of Artists, with Scotland’s foremost artists from all the genres as members, drawing a state subvention, would be the initial step. However it would be mere elitism, of the most tokenist kind to boot, if this was limited to a handful of the chosen. It would also not be enough to limit tax incentives to a very small number. Scotland could and should sustain an academy of diversity and excellence and that Academy would, in members, run into the hundreds. It would also not be static, or any type of sterile Pantheon. A system whereby new, or candidate, members were admitted and in which there was a dynamic in membership would be required and we can learn from the Irish experience of their more modest Aosdana scheme. Allied with a tax exempt status for artists – a wide-ranging exemption with an inclusive definition of the arts – we would begin to create an infrastructure for creativity.

The so called “creative industries” should not be separate from this. One of the arguments for a more determinist and economically led model is the rising prominence of these industries and the threat of globalisation, but to change one’s whole view of the relationship of the arts to society on that basis is a knee-jerk reaction. It is better to enrol these disciplines and the pressures of internationalism and learn from that process. Consequently film makers, pop musicians, television directors and critics would be an important part of such an institution, as would be those who teach. Funded by government but largely self regulating – the structural arrangements should keep it as far distant from government control or influence as it is possible to get – it would provide a developing powerhouse for the nation’s cultural life.

It should have premises and a physical incarnation as well as a strong voice and a central involvement in the wider funding and policy process. In tandem with it should be a basic structure for arts performance and for the encouragement of art forms. Our national companies form the basic foundation for such a development, but they would need to be added to or the functions of existing bodies expanded. We need a national hub for the traditional arts and one for literature to supplement a national opera company, a national theatre and national orchestras. The National Library of Scotland and the Museum of Scotland require to play a more pro-active role in encouraging creativity, rather than just recording it.

These bodies or hubs are a declaration of the core areas which government supports and will go on supporting. They provide the core opportunities for high quality provision and high quality, easy access. They are the government’s means of ensuring participation as well as consistency in quality and continuity in operation.

The third part of this structure might be concerned with stimulating partnerships with local authorities and commercial bodies, with the funding and encouragement of community activity and with the nurturing of new ideas and new talent. Its radical task would be to let a thousand blooms flourish and a thousand ideas contend. Some artists might start their careers with assistance from this body, and move on into the Academy, or into the national companies. Others might choose to remain working on an ad hoc basis and they should have not only the right, but the chance, to do so.

All these bodies – the Academy, the national companies, and a new and re-focussed Arts Council – would interface with education, with health, with social work, with justice and with community development. But their purpose would not be to serve those other worthy ends, but to produce more than the sum of the parts.

One of the most important differences between this model – which is in essence an updated and revised Haughey model leaning on much other practice and achievement elsewhere and particularly in Scandinavia – and the First Minister’s work in progress including the Commission’s recommendations, lies in the very relationship of the arts to government.

The First Minister seems to believe that the arts – and the artists – have a duty to Scot-land: a duty that requires them to subsume themselves in other policy objectives and to earn their keep by so doing. But the alternative view is surely closer to the mark – in order to “glimpse beyond ourselves in the happiest and most creative way” we have to ask not what the arts can do for Scotland, but what Scotland can do for the arts. It is to the credit of the Commission that this idea seems eventually to have driven them forward, despite their original remit. That was also Haughey’s generous approach in Ireland and the paradox is that the return that Ireland has gained has been far greater than if it had begrudged every penny and bean-counted every subsidy. We should lay on our government and our country a duty to support artists and artistic activity for only by so doing can it reap the full and unfettered benefits of both creativity and access to creativity.

That might be called the real “arm’s length” approach. Determinism implies control: it is a bargain made between the government and artists which requires a price for support to be set, and agreed product and outcomes delivered. The recognition and acceptance of a duty of government to the artist does no such thing. It pays in good faith for what it knows will be valuable and bases the relationship on shared trust and shared belief in a better future.

That idea was put well by another Government leader – the present Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern – who told the Irish Arts Council this April: “I believe there is only one persuasive case for supporting the arts ….that is art itself. Art challenges not only what we think: it changes the way we think. Real inspiration cannot be planned for.” Alas we live in a country which is led by those who believe that everything can be planned for, measured, and its worth assessed. Determinism, managerialism and overstated objectives have been a hallmark of the first six years of devolution. Our Executive truly knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

There is, however, an emerging thirst for something else across the whole political, social and cultural spectrum. Accordingly if the Cultural Commission process is to mean anything, it must, when it comes to full fruition in terms of implementation, recognise changed times, changed even from November 2003. Developing its prescriptions to take account of good faith, trust and a real arm’s length principle might be a desirable – and effective – way forward. That route starts by accepting that the case for supporting the arts is, indeed, “art itself”. For without “art itself” there is nothing to develop or support.

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