Beware false prophets

The front-page splash on Saturday’s Herald was about impending cuts to public expenditure and the possible impact this could have on the arts in Scotland. Richard Findlay, Chair of Creative Scotland is raising the alarm and warning the Scottish Government and the arts world about the devastating affect these cut will have. Findlay and Creative Scotland should be congratulated for taking a lead in influencing the government and advocating for the arts.

The justification for arts funding is familiar and in summary is a. the arts don’t cost very much as a proportion of public expenditure; b. the sector employs lots of people for that money; c. their turnover runs to billions; d. the arts are good for our economy.   Given that one of the key priorities of the Scottish Government is economic growth, it is understandable why Creative Scotland is making the economic case.

However I would argue that it is not the arts’ strongest suit. First the numbers are a bit slippery. Findlay asserts that Creative Scotland supports 118 regularly funded organisations (although later in the article this figure becomes 121) and these organisations employ a total of 8,000 people. This averages 68 people per organisation. Even a cursory knowledge of the arts in Scotland suggests this is inflated- presumably by including freelance and contract artists- who are not employees and not on 12 month full time contracts. Perhaps more concerning is the conflation ‘arts and creative industries’- where 71,000 people work and these businesses turnover £5.75 billion. What the article does not say is that the creative industries include areas such as advertising, architecture, computer games, radio and TV, heritage, software/electronic publishing- all of which fall outside Creative Scotland’s remit[1]– indeed most businesses in these areas are not supported by the cultural budget at all. Perhaps it is unfair to be picky about figures quoted in a short article, but if the argument is to be made on numbers the numbers have to be clear and consistent. [2]

Second, while the arts have got a role to play in Scotland’s economy, it is hardly their raison d’être. Their role in tourism and image making is pretty clear – see the Edinburgh festivals — and Ministers regard the arts as being important in supporting Scotland’s image abroad. It is not unusual for the arts to be part of the soft diplomacy of a country, region or city. However outside these areas, arts organisations supported by Creative Scotland do not in and of themselves generate a large economic return. If people of Glasgow, for example, are spending their money in the theatre, they are not spending it in other wealth generating areas.

As we move closer to the big reckoning we are going to hear more of this. If not the case for economic impact, it will be the impact on health and education. Like the economy, the arts have a role to play in those areas too. There are examples of engagement in the arts affecting mood in those suffering from depression, or providing a therapeutic support for those with Alzheimer’s or well-designed hospitals aiding healing process. However there is a lack of robust evidence that the arts are good for your health and well-being. There is also an argument to be made in the role of the arts in schools being stimulation to learning concentration and confidence. But there are other activities and actions that can aid health and well-being or raise educational standards.   The Big Noise in Raploch has had an enormous affect on the youngsters participating in music-making. Elsewhere in Stirling a primary school has used sport and exercise to improve the health as well as the concentration of its pupils. Both these projects are excellent and in their own way support the development of the next generation. The arts do not have the monopoly on good ideas and effective interventions.

So while arts organisations should be demonstrating how they are contributing to local economic development or linking with schools, or working with people with disabilities or combatting isolation of the elderly, or supporting the refugee community as they learn about life in Scotland, the case for arts funding will not be won by claiming that the arts can solve society’s ills nor that they can be instruments in socio-economic development.[3]

So where should the arts be staking their claim? In entertainment, enlightenment and provocation; by exploring ‘who we are and how we carry ourselves’[4]. In 2000, I co-authored an article that examined the place of the arts at the start of devolution. We said about the place of the arts in the pre-devolution era[5]:

‘The impression is that in the dark days of 1980s and 1990s, when the devolution cause was nurtured in Scotland by a growing band of Scottish politicians, community leaders, churchmen and trade unionists, it was Scotland’s cultural community that kept the flame alight and warmed the spirits. It was the poet who articulated our national identity as both nostalgic and radical; it was the film maker who presented Scotland in all its beauty and quirky nature to the wider world; it was the singer who told of Scotland’s industrial devastation at the hands of an uncaring Westminster government; it was the fine artist who made us look at ourselves and our cities in a new ‘cool’ way. In these ways Scotland’s artists defined us for ourselves and re-defined our place in the world as a nation capable of at least being able to run our own domestic affairs.’

If the arts had a role in the 1980s and 1990s in how we saw ourselves, they moved nearer to centre stage last year during the referendum campaign– not only with campaigning, although some did- but in exploring ideas of cultural and civic identity and imagining a better Scotland regardless of the constitutional position.  Artists challenged ideas and images of the place we occupy in the world today. Or, to put it another way:

‘Fostering our sense of belonging by supporting and promoting cultural and creative opportunities, events, festivals and the celebration of key dates in the Scottish calendar.’ -from The Scottish Government’s National Outcomes

After the Charlie Hebdo atrocities, sales of the books of Voltaire, Montesquieu and other authors of the French enlightenment soared, in reaction to an attack on free speech. The recent attacks in Paris have led to another literary phenomenon – this time copies of Paris est une fête have sold out. Known better by its English title, A Moveable Feast, it is a memoir by Hemingway of his time in Paris in the 1920s. It is being read today as an assertion of Parisian identity and French values. The author says in his introduction:

‘If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as a fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.’

Surely this is the place of the arts and the role of the artist – to throw a light on ‘the fact’?  It’s not about the economy.


[1] (p24)

[2] Mark Brown wrote a letter to the Cabinet Secretary, Fiona Hyslop criticizing Creative Scotland’s Creative Industries strategy. Re-printed in the Sunday Herald 15 November 2015

[3] This is not just an issue for us in Scotland. Last month I was at a gathering of the European Cultural Parliament where there was a great deal of discussion about the current crisis facing Europe with the arrival of thousands of migrants (this was pre Paris). That was until a Greek delegate pointed out that culture could not prevent the deaths in the Mediterranean and Aegean nor could it solve the problem refugees landing in Lesbos or Lampedusa. There is a humanitarian crisis that demands a humanitarian solution. The arts cannot intervene where we have no real role.

[4] From the speech of the First Minister Donald Dewar MP, MSP at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, 1 July 1999.

[5] Cultural policy and Scotland: a response to the National Cultural Strategy, co-authored with Adrienne Scullion, Scottish Affairs 39 (spring, 2002): 131-48.



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