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

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Commissioning Thing

Carving of a hunted animal - 12,000 years old
In the background of recent debate about Creative Scotland (CS) an ideological debate is also going on about the role of the arts in our democratic society. So far this debate has been contained entirely within the context of analysis of one particular element in the whole picture ie CS. While CS brought the issues into full public view, CS is not and should not be the complete focus of this larger debate - rather I believe, we need to step back from analysis of the functioning of a 'machine' and look instead at the purpose we wish to achieve - this, in order to better refine/reconfigure the means of delivering this purpose.....part of this means will be CS Mk2

There are many think-tanks and theorists working on the way that society needs to best equip itself for the future. One of the oft cited conclusions of these debates is that creativity and adaptability will be key skills for coping with/making the best of the future. The more radical thinking (eg IFF or Afternow or The Play Ethic) goes further suggesting that 'unless we (creatively) imagine a future, we will be condemned to live in someone elses'. 

This appears a compelling argument for the arts as something to be supported by the state  - but with it comes a key question - 'should we be supporting professional artists to do the creativity themselves and ask them to pass on the knowledge via the traditional media of literature, performance, visual art etc......OR...should we be asking our artists to re-imagine their roles as leaders/facilitators/provocateurs in a more participatory relationship with the rest of society (ie challenging traditional notions of 'audience')?'

If we are to explore what the second of these options might look like, then we need to start from the premise of believing in the principle of creativity - by this I mean, we need to start from what artists are doing in their own practice...NOT decide what artists should be doing and then attempt to impose that through a funding regime in a similar way say to the Common Agriculture Policy trying to control food production and land management through grants to farmers.

This has been one of the great failings of CS Mk1 - to separate the strategy of the organisation from real practice in the arts sector. It has often been difficult to see where strategic direction of CS is coming from - this opacity was a problem irrespective of the merits or otherwise of the policy direction. I believe it is a fundamental principle that practitioners from the arts need to be an active an ongoing part of the way arts strategy is formed and enacted.

There is another side to the way we look at this question, that is the way that we educate our professional creative artists. Obviously this is a massive topic - but the point I want to make now is simply that I believe too much emphasis is placed on a single career trajectory ie to discover a unique 'creative voice' and then get that heard within the 'right circles'. I feel that this educational model only serves a tiny percentage of people and society at large suffers from the high percentage of creative people who give up on creative careers altogether.

Having introduced some of the larger context for the discussions around arts policy I believe it is easier to look at some of the main debating points that have surfaced in the discussions about CS Mk1....'commissioning'

One of the questions at the core of that debate is whether it is better to give support to artists simply to make the work they want to make….or whether particular aims should be decided at 'high level' and support be streamed according to such aims (ie that support for artists be judged on how well their work meets fits with those objectives).

mythological scene - 550 years old

Let me declare from the outset, that I believe passionately in art for arts sake and I believe that, as a society, we should contribute some of our precious communal resource towards the support of completely undirected artistic expression. But, for me the key word here is ‘some’. I think of this in a similar way to the way we support scientific research…..there is always a provision for  ‘blue-skies’ thinking – BUT the majority of publically supported scientific research (read practice in the arts) is drawn from funds with a strategic direction ie how the work interacts with or serves society.

(I'd be interested to see how Science education works in this regard - are all student scientists single-mindedly striving to be 'blue-skies researchers' or is their a more diverse field of expected career paths?)

In laying the ground, from an arts perspective, about a diversity of approach to the 'contract' between artist and society - I'd like to suggest two positions:

1) From an analysis of artistic practice – since the dawn of time the artist has had a commission from their society….their job was to articulate/illuminate concepts that were important to a society, be that creating a magical object to bring good fortune in the hunt or telling a creation myth that cemented kinship bonds in a group. Only with the Enlightenment emphasis on hermetic disciplines did it become possible to separate the artist as something self-contained and self-directed. We created a mythology of the ‘artist genius’ - someone who was not only highly skilled in realising ideas in creative form….but also capable of generating the worldview that they represent. In short, artists were re-imagined as self-contained generators and purveyors of myth. There is no doubt that there are people who are capable of this extraordinary role, but to cast this mantle upon everyone who wishes to take the role of artist in society is a form of madness. I believe it is time that we began to integrate our artists back into society (they are always going to be a bit ‘different’ of course!) – time that we stopped looking to them for ‘answers’ , but rather involved them in the big conversations and looked to them, instead, for ways to articulate/illuminate in extraordinary ways.

Song of worship - 450 years old

2) My second perspective is as someone who cares passionately about creativity. I am desperately worried that, should the arts insist on a hermetic and intrinsic discourse (ie that art is specifically for an arts audience), – then it will gradually be corralled into a smaller and smaller section of the public consciousness and gradually the democratic government will reduce the amount of support given to the arts as a direct proportion of the size of its audience. I believe that it is only through the arts working in collaboration with other agendas (Education, Environment, Health, etc) that we can prove ourselves as a vital and living contributor to our society and therefore worthy of support and patronage. I genuinely believe that this will not be to the ‘detriment’ of the arts…rather that it will herald the next great age of art (and society) in Scotland.

Tragedy (Macbeth) - 390 /5 years old

Looking at the currents at work in the world just now, my judgement is that momentum is away from specialisations and towards cross-disciplinary working. While the appalling phrase ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ still has currency, I believe there is a move towards adaptability (or in Scots terms ‘crofting’) and creative responses to situations, responses that are prepared to draw on experience from any discipline without prejudice (eg Curriculum for Excellence in general education). 

This is a time in the world that could genuinely be called post modernity….or the post post enlightenment – but one that, hopefully, will soon take its own name without need of reference to the age previous. 

In this context the urge to maintain an arts structure which is built around independent specialisms (particularly based on an artist’s ‘medium’) seems backward looking, when the arts should be leading from the front.

Tragedy - 30 years old

Also, let us not be under any illusion about the idea that public support for ‘art for arts sake’ is NOT commissioning. Art is by definition subjective…..therefore the choice of who receives support and who doesn’ also subjective. It is impossible for any group, who sit in judgement, to abstract themselves entirely from the society of the artists they are judging. We have all heard stories of ‘pressures’ being brought to bear within the dynamics of selection panels. Artists know that they need the support of key ‘influencers of taste’ in order to be successful in their applications for funds for their work. This means, defacto, that work being produced ‘for arts sake’ is in fact being ‘commissioned’ by a certain circle of taste……now, you could argue that this was in the service of a growing ‘national culture’ and keeping us on a level with other world-class art nations……but aren’t those the same arguments that are made for the much maligned practice of public sector ‘commissioning’??

Vessel - 1300 years old

Returning to the smaller conversation about Creative Scotland for a moment…..I have not a shred of doubt that there are very valid questions to be answered about the commissioning directions, communication with the sector and the way the organisation was run – these things must be addressed and I believe there is a will on both sides to do this. (And there is a HUGE debate to be had about managing political influence being brought to bear on a public commissioning strategy). But, within the arts sector we need the time and space to debate:

* The way we divide resources between ‘blue-skies’ and ‘applied’ practice

* How arts organisations could adapt to working within ‘policy themes’ rather than ‘intrinsic artform’ core funding

* What we need our national arts body to do to smooth the way for creative individuals and organisations to work more compatibly with ‘non-arts’ organisations and agendas

* How we can organise ourselves into forums and think-tanks to assist our arts bodies in keeping policy, methodology and selection in line with leading arts practice.

Protest poem - 350 years old

I hope whatever form the new Creative Scotland takes that it will be bold enough to make space for the big debate to take place and maintain a commitment to keeping Scotland’s artists at the forefront of that debate.

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