Creative Scotland

 

Is it possible to have a creative career and earn a good living unless you’re a star? Or does the average artist, like the country’s culture itself, depend on the support of organisations like Creative Scotland? Pete Martin ponders the bind in which many creative folk find themselves.

He said he was going to be on NYPD Blue that night. The fact that he was up a ladder, paintbrush in hand, decorating our offices in mid-town Manhattan must have shown on my face. “Yeah?” I said.

“Yeah. Watch tonight. I’m playing the doorman. It’s a good part.”

So I tuned in and, sure enough, there he was. His role was key to the plot and he even had a couple of lines. Next day I congratulated him on his performance. He explained that acting was his passion, but “painting pays the bills”. The day after, he even had an audition for a movie with director Spike Lee.

I’ve always remembered his matter-of-fact acceptance that, if you want an artistic life, you need another job. In this country, of course, there’s another option. You could always hope for a handout from Creative Scotland.

Now, if you’ve been on Mars for the past few weeks – or are just the average Scottish person – you probably missed the furore surrounding Creative Scotland’s plans to change its funding arrangements. Indeed, you may belong to the vast majority of Scots who have never heard of Creative Scotland, or have little idea what purpose the public body serves.

Nonetheless, it suddenly dawned on many Scottish artists that the little security they enjoyed from predictable, consistent, public-sector subsidy was being withdrawn. Far from investing for long-term success, their organisations would find themselves bidding on a short-term, project-by-project basis. The ensuing stushie was sparked off by this paper’s Joyce McMillan, and soon seconded by a chorus of fearful, irate artists and producers.

Creative Scotland added fuel to the fire with a high octane cocktail of bad timing, poor PR and seeming high-handedness. While local artists feared for their future, Chief Executive Andrew Dixon was photographed glad-handing the stars at Cannes. When the Twittersphere passed along hearsay alleging that a Creative Scotland functionary had suggested Scottish theatre was ‘a boil that needs to be lanced’, blood did boil. Even the official response did little to contradict the impression of an organisation out of touch with its constituency.

What remains unarguable is that the creative life remains one of the most uncertain ways to make a living. The average artist in Scotland earns around £160 a week. Even well-known Scottish names get by on surprisingly small incomes. That is perhaps one reason for the anger among artists. While their own precarious livelihoods are threatened, they perceive executives at Creative Scotland to enjoy substantial, relatively secure, public sector pay packets.

Nothing’s ever that simple though. There was a small complexity rarely mentioned in the debate: a simple word that was not central to either side’s argument. That word was ‘audience’.

Sure, some events attract sell-out crowds. But for many arts organisations putting ‘bums on seats’ (and creating much-needed income) is often a struggle. Some might credibly argue that, in order to create ground-breaking new work, populist appeal would not, and should not, be the first priority. If we were feeling particularly bolshie, we could even point to some famous commercial flops of the past that have become creative gold dust of the future.

And yet, planned failure still makes for an unappetising pitch. As Scots tunesmith James Grant observes in a song he wrote for folk queen Karen Matheson ‘You won’t break somebody’s heart, Singing in the dark while no-one listens’.

In reality, audience numbers are only part of the picture. The greater difficulty is connecting with the wider population. In 2007, the UK Department of Sport and Culture commissioned a research review, Culture on Demand, which highlighted cultural poverty among the socially excluded.

Today in Scotland, the adventurous, populist ‘Black Watch’ by the National Theatre of Scotland takes most of the credit for a surge in cultural attendance. Last year, our ‘theatre without walls’ played to around 150,000 people. It’s undeniable that NTS has produced some stellar work, but that total annual attendance is only the average audience at Celtic or Rangers home matches over a few wet weekends in the Weege.

The comparison, no doubt, is odious. But it does show two things. Firstly, that there is a public appetite for brave work on Scottish themes; and secondly, that there’s an even bigger, mass audience that’s willing to pay over £500 for a season ticket for a 90-minute ‘experience’.

On twitter, the #stworldclass hashtag highlighted specific instances of Scotland’s success in exporting creative product around the globe – albeit as a specialist foreign delicacy – but fails to hide a more general disconnection with a more general, local audience.

For Scotland’s traditional theatres in particular, there’s the constant problem of re-creating the ‘classics’ for an increasingly silver-haired, middle-class audience. There isn’t an easy way out, especially not ‘stage left, pursued by a bear’. More daring ideas to bring in a younger audience (or more fun for a wider audience) present real risks. If the work fails to connect with a new public, seats remain unsold. However, Creative Scotland’s suggestion that Cirque Du Soleil was a good model – bendy young women in leotards and facepaint cavorting to 80s rock – was understandably met with derision.

Funding for the arts in Scotland probably amounts to the cost of getting a few pizzas delivered for the average family. For a lower demographic, I often wonder which they would prefer. Lottery funding is a particular issue which you would expect to give our artists pause for thought rather than cause for complaint. It’s a tax on the poor to fund middle-class indulgences, is it not?

Or, indeed, is the whole concept of public subsidy of the arts simply a way for the Establishment to co-opt the most creative, imaginative and politically-dangerous members of our society? Living on hope of support from on high, competing for scraps from the table, are our artists are too busy form-filling to really connect with others who also get a raw deal in our society? As many admitted on social media, are they too fearful – to ready to doff the cap to publicly-employed arbiters of taste – to tackle the big questions Scotland will face in the near future? (And I definitely don’t mean independence.)

Fundamentally, that’s what the argument is about. It’s not really about ‘cuts’ and ‘funding’. Of course, artists would welcome stability. Who among us would wish to go through a redundancy process every year? But it’s no accident that Creative Scotland terms its senior executives ‘Creative Directors’. It’s this arrogant assumption that public servants should be the pickers and choosers of ‘quality’ on a case-by-case basis which I believe really rankles.

In a recent talk to the International Futures Forum in Edinburgh, the poet Don Paterson damned the organisation’s taste. He described a bourgeois obsession with ‘meretricious novelty’ – ‘shaving haikus into a dog and filming the result’ – over more modest but more profound proposals. He likened the process to the Serbian approach to arts funding: ‘first, they beat us with sticks; then they beat us with carrots’.

The most basic question of all remains unanswered though. What do we want ‘public art’ for? We tie up creative integrity with Reithian principles of the ‘improving’ power of culture, along with a hotchpotch of social, political, economic and national agendas. It’s a mental and moral Gordian Knot – a tangle of bureaucracy and public sector babble that’s difficult for talent to cut through.

So, for Scotland’s artists we don’t just need a clear financial commitment. We need a new vision in which genuine, personal creative expression can connect with ordinary Scots. After all, if art cannot enrich all our lives – raising every person’s understanding of the beauty and wonder and shock of being briefly alive in this small green place, on this strange blue planet, circling a bright nuclear ball in an infinite darkness – then perhaps it’s time we all simply sent out for pizza.

 

A version of this article previously appeared in ‘The Scotsman’