The Nation of Imagination: The Slow Birth of Creative Scotland
The Scotsman, January 28th 2010
Tomorrow a long run Scottish soap opera reaches a new stage. I am not talking about BBC’s ‘River City’, but the appointment of the chief executive of Creative Scotland, the new quango bringing together the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen.
It has been a long and painful birth. Creative Scotland was like many things not originally an SNP idea, instead stemming from Scottish Labour with its genesis a concept coming from UK New Labour thinking. Many pinpoint long gone Culture Minister Mike Watson as first coming up with the idea, although Frank McAveety and Patricia Ferguson in a procession of Culture Ministers need to take their share of the responsibility.
There is some similarity between Creative Scotland and ‘Year of Homecoming’, another Labour wheeze which the SNP were left to implement, claim as their own, pick up the mounting bill, and take the resulting flak for.
Most of us recognise the importance and benefits of arts and culture to Scotland, and the need for publically subsidised arts. Scotland has a renowned National Theatre of Scotland, Scottish Opera and Ballet, an internationally acclaimed festival and fringe, alongside a kaleidoscope of other festivals in Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere ranging from lesbian and gay arts with Glasgay! to a fish and chip festival in Charleston, Dundee.
Yet our culture is much more than this. It can be found in the books published and read, the works of art produced, history reclaimed and reimagined, and ideas and conversations created. In short, our culture isn’t just about subsidised or commercial art, but about Scotland, how it sees itself, its place in the world, the stories it tells itself, and the stories it chooses to neglect or ignore.
Some of this can be done by isolated individuals creating great works of art or coming up with an idea, but for a critical mass to be achieved in a society it needs institutions and infrastructure which have the aim of supporting and resourcing our culture. More importantly for this to happen, there has to be a will, a way and the imagination to do so.
A decade into devolution, this is missing in the cultural realm. It can be seen across our public life in such manifestations as the lack of serious BBC and STV coverage of our cultural and public life, and the lack of serious independent spaces for nurturing ideas and thinking.
Culture here is just one symptom of a wider weakness in Scottish society, of a failure to engage in new institution building particularly in civil society, in terms of policy, ideas, culture and innovation. It is interesting that the SNP have as a nationalist party had virtually nothing to say on, or advanced in office, a politics of cultural independence and a wider notion of self-government.
Creative Scotland does not come from such a place. Instead, it has been shaped by such mantras as ‘the knowledge economy’, ‘the weightless world’ and ‘the creative economy’, the kind of concepts beloved by New Labour and its sympathisers.
New Labour with its ‘Cool Britannia’ pretensions had at its height a Londoncentric mindset which fed into a culturally determinist approach. Culture was a ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ way to make money, think about the economy and offered the prospect of rebranding the UK in a new, exciting, dynamic way.
This perspective was eagerly fed by self-appointed gurus such as Richard Florida and Charlie Leadbeater, who gave meaning and power to a whole set of buzzwords and jargon. The professed aim was to professionalise, upskill and validate the world of arts and culture, and reflect the 21st century ‘tomorrow’s people’ in the sector, but the end result instead created a whole new set of orthodoxies and fixed mindsets.
This ‘new class’ gave birth to a conservatism of conformity, smugness and complacency. It defined Britain as this great, global creative hub, where talent, excitement and entrepreneurship were bursting from everywhere. The problem was it defined ‘creativity’ as an all-encompassing entity which ranged from arts and culture to games and advertising. It was like a 1960s version of swinging London gone wrong or developed into an Austin Powers cliché.
Strangely, just as the whole UK economy hit the buffers and with it the whole veneer of ‘creativity’, ‘innovation’ and ‘the new economy’ in Britain plc, the SNP bought eagerly into it.
Part of this was the power of this culturally determinist approach in the SNP, seeing the use and promotion of culture as a way to think about the economy. There was also another strand in the SNP representing a tradition of cultural conservatism. Neil Mulholland of Edinburgh College of Art has talked of the SNP’s propensity to want to ‘tie up the swings on a Sunday evening’, a Scottish trait not exclusive to the Nationalists, that we all know and recognise.
The party has failed to develop a ‘feel’ for much of modern Scottish culture and a confidence in celebrating Scottish culture for its own sake, while avoiding the twin peaks of tartan and kailyard on the one hand and new conservatives on the other.
The SNP set down the road to Creative Scotland under Linda Fabiani and probably realised too late the problems inherent in the idea. Mike Russell, probably the most impressive Culture Minister we have had, recognised that the whole drama had to be brought to a conclusion.
Where then after the age of the long boom and bubble, of the constant chatter about change and uncertainty, does this leave us? For a start, the environment in which Creative Scotland will find itself will be very different from first imagined. It will be one of tight, declining funding, and of artists and cultural organisations struggling even more.
Scotland needs a powerful arts and cultural body and it needs one with a confident, outward looking leadership, engaging Scotland and the wider world.
It needs to encourage mainstream and cutting edge art, while giving support and nurturing left field zones of experimentation far removed from a ‘knowledge economy’ rationale.
The power of arts and culture is not just about what use they provide to the economy or the narrow parameters of cosmopolitan class chat about ‘creativity’. Instead, they are about who and what we are as a society and nation and as a small part of humanity, posing us questions and provocations, and hopefully when they work providing some sense of meaning and even hope. Now there’s a mission statement for Creative Scotland many of us could happily sign up to.