....Research Topics and Speculation about Art and Public Space by Scottish Citizen and artist Matt Baker

Thursday, 15 November 2012

New Deal in a Post Post Enlightenment Scotland

Apologies that this post is so long - it starts with some thoughts about the Creative Scotland Awards and goes on to speculate about a New Deal between artists and society - a deal that CS could manage on our behalf.

I have been worried for a while (see previous posts) that deeply entrenched positions are being taken around Creative Scotland and that, in the long run, this will serve no one. It has been marked that no one seems able to be positive about the upcoming Creative Scotland awards – every comment has to be followed by some aside – this to me speaks of a form of mob mentality where folk are afraid to diverge from the orthodoxy.

I must declare many interests in the discussion – but the one most pertinent here is that a project I was involved in has been nominated in the Community category of the awards in question. I am fiercely proud of NothingAboutUsWithoutUsIsForUs – it involved some 15 artists and 18 community groups and organisations – in total over 200 people were directly involved in making the project and more than 1500 people came to take part in the main event. The project was not commissioned by anyone – tsBeall and I  thought it up and spent 3 months fundraising to make it happen (none of our direct funding came from Creative Scotland – but NAU was presented as part of GlasgowInternational which itself had some CS funding). The people in Govan connected with the artwork are proud to have been recognised in a national award process – whatever the politics around Creative Scotland and their awards I do not want to see that achievement spoiled unnecessarily. (NB I do understand and share the very real concerns about the gender composition of the awards jury)

I think it is important that we keep discussion around the CS awards in proportion within the context of the very real and vital larger discussion around the arts in Scotland and CS's role within that.

Last week saw a week of live art and discussion in Inbetween:Dumfries (curated by The Stove artists collective) – this used artists interventions to highlight a discussion about the way creative practice could permeate processes in a small town – processes such as local democracy, education, generation, environment etc.

One of the invited speakers at Inbetween:Dumfries was Andrew Lyon who is the Director of the International Futures Forum (based in Fife). Andrew gave a talk called the History of the Future and began with a stark illustration of the extremes that groups of people can be driven to when they see their worldview threatened. In 1697 an 18 year old medical student in Edinburgh called Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for publicly questioning the existence of God – he was the last person to be executed for the crime of Blasphemy in Scotland. The execution took place against a backdrop of the growing ‘Enlightenment’ wherein humanist and rationalist thought were questioning religious orthodoxy. Within 30 years of poor Thomas’ death, David Hume was the toast of Edinburgh and was able to openly publish humanist texts. How much of the ‘baby’ was lost with the ‘bathwater’ through the adversarial nature of this ideological change is a question that has haunted the following 300 years.

Execution of Thomas Aikenhead

In sitting with this example the temptation is to look at the current CS situation and ask how the dynamic of old and new is working there. There certainly seem to be two groups forming – on one hand a group of artists and journalists who hold passionate views about the right to individual self-expression and the responsibility of a democratic society to support artistic practice and experimentation without a defined ‘useful’ outcome. On the other is Creative Scotland and the political machinery of state that is set on a path of placing creativity at the service of society and embedding practice at all levels without an a-priori distinction between different ‘artforms’.

On the surface the old and new question might seem obvious – ‘self-expression’ and distinct artforms was the mantra (I’m generalising..) of the old Arts Council and the embedded generalist model is the ‘new broom’…..and yet the means of delivering the ‘new’ vision seems quite old fashioned and based on the principles of a capitalist system that looks increasingly bankrupt….this is not the world we live in today. (my views on this have been published widely….in my own words they are here)

So it is not just as simple as aligning oneself with a particular camp – what is required is a synthesis – a process that I feel begins with agreement on some principles. Andrew Lyon had some incredible graphic illustrations that showed creativity as a key tool in making decisions about the future for all of us….but, I believe it is more fundamental than that – with huge trepidation (and not on Twitter!) I believe we need to introduce the idea of what art/creativity is for.

Following the recent Parliamentary Committee session on Creative Scotland I was criticised by Francis McKee (CCA Glasgow) and Joyce McMillan (Theatre Critic – Scotsman) for suggesting that the arts should be for ‘good’ in society – their point was that we should not be telling artists what to make and that if an artist wanted to make something that people found troubling or even ‘evil’ then it was important to for a society to support that. 

I agree with them wholeheartedly – but my point is that, at heart, (nearly…no absolutes here) all creative people have a very strong desire to leave the world a better place than they found it, a keen sense of social justice and an ability to project themselves into different scenarios and predict outcomes. Sometimes artists find it necessary to use shock tactics and cause upset and offence – but I believe that work comes from a deep desire to effect the world in a positive direction.
If we attempt the impossible a return to Plato’s cave….the first cavepainter was not interested in self-expression as ‘painter’ he/she was intent on creating something that was useful within the group he/she belonged to.

Our rational/humanist/enlightenment path since 1700 has had the effect that of breaking all of our society and thinking into different specialisms – this has given birth to the idea of an artist as a self-contained entity that both thinks up their own brief/mission for their practice and carries it out. I believe that what we are looking for here is a new contract between creativity and society – one that imagines a careful dismantling of specialisms and the formation of a discussion platform that values creativity as an important and useful voice in society and where artists can also hear the needs and desires of others in society.

I do not believe that such a contract can be driven by ‘market forces’ or any of the other instruments of determinism – rather there is an opportunity now for the different interest groups in this situation to agree that a deep love for humankind and our environment should be the principle that we start from and then we use the full power of our (artists) creativity together with the practical experience and political influence of CS to forge something that the world has never seen before.

What I am suggesting is a contract of trust (a New Deal) between artists and society (that is advocated, supported and administered by CS) one that allows artists complete creative freedom in return for the understanding that their work DOES have a social impact (one amongst many impacts) and that it is appropriate that this impact be subject to evaluation - in the same way as any other public spending.
I believe there will remain a place for 'pure' arts for arts sake within the same context of say 'pure' research in science - but the relationship between that work and galleries/theatres/publishers needs to be clearly defined and transparent. BUT, the majority of what CS supports (including funding) needs to be part of a clear strategy for a) education/career development b)using the arts as part of a local and national understanding of our culture and environment and c) promoting Scottish cultural production on a world stage.

Part of supporting the New Deal will involve CS in significant (but unglamorous) work behind the scenes creating new bridges that allow artists to work directly with larger organisations like Local Authorities, NHS, SNH, Visit Scotland, Education etc - we desperately need new arrangements over simple things like digital file sharing, procurement, contracts and insurances that will allow new partnerships to flourish and reach their potential.

As artists we need to understand and adapt to new circumstance and I believe there is much to celebrate in such a brave new world - what seems to have happened is that when the CS project began with ALL THOSE BLOODY CONSULTATIONS!! our sector (on the ground not the managers) did not maybe have sufficient self awareness to take a genuinely constructive part in that process. We are now ready - and CS would do well to take advantage by using this moment in time to  come out to talk to us. This must not be another set of 'Roadshows' dripping with merchandise and flashing lights - CS knows the scene well enough now to identify key broker organisations in the regions to host discussion events….events that should include the opportunity for local practitioners to show their work on an equal platform to CS so that the entire thing feels like a show and tell session amongst equals.This would be a good ground to negotiate the New Deal for artists that I describe above.

I'd be very happy to discuss any of this with anyone, anytime

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