James Kelman

Art and Subsidy, and some Politics of Culture City

Arguments against public funding of the arts in this society might well be logical but they aren't rational; and decisions to cut or withdraw subsidy are always political. Greed is the ultimate motivation. This is illustrated by the national government which pretends to various philosophic absurdities while doling out massive sums of public money to private enterprise. It applies also to local government. And in Scotland local government where it matters is not Tory, it is Labour.

What is happening in the arts is happening in every field where public funding is paramount, especially in those very rare instances where actual ‘profit’ remains with the public. In our society profit is supposed to be private; the ordinary public is left with the loss: thus questions to do with art and subsidy move rapidly into other areas, and ‘profit’ can be defined in any number of ways, eg. good health, a pleasant environment, efficient transport, a just legal system, a high standard of general education, and so on.

An integral part of the ‘City of Culture’ concept is crucial to anybody with the slightest interest in art, and I'm talking generally, not just about painting but literature, theatre, music: anything. It’s the assumption that a partnership already exists between the arts and big business and that such a partnership is ‘healthy’. It suggests a heady mixture of high principles coupled with ‘sound’ business sense. Business sense equates with common sense. It is implicit that left to their own devices those already engaged in the field are not quite up to the more mundane practicalities. Art doesn’t just need the money it needs the thinking behind the money. Folk already engaged in the field might hold lofty ideas to do with morality, aesthetics, the human condition, and so on and so forth, but when it comes to making a thing ‘work’ they need help from more down-to-earth sort of chaps. Art is all very well but out there in the ‘real’ world it’s a fight for survival.

The battle has been on for years, people struggling for private funding, trying to tempt open the sponsor’s purse; competing with each other, some winning, some losing. The evaluative criteria employed by those in control of this purse are not known to myself. Predicting motivation is more straightforward. But it seems safe to suggest that the art most likely ‘to win the money’ will conform to certain precepts deriving from these criteria and will be decorative rather than challenging. The work of an unknown sculptor, poet, painter, playwright or whatever begins with a handicap, as does anything too radical or experimental or in some other sense ‘geared to a minority audience’. Like any successful product, a work of art should be acceptable to as wide-ranging a market as possible. ‘Market’ here means media-response as much as potential audience. If a subsidised theatre company or gallery or publishing house is doing its job properly - that is, acting in line with current philosophy - then ‘sponsor-appeal’ exercises an influence on how it commissions plays, events, novels, exhibitions and so on. In the case of theatre, for example, a company no longer approaches a variety of local business folk for various bits and pieces connected with the production itself; an initial cash injection is nowadays essential. Therefore the criteria of the market-place will come to form part of the company’s own criteria for judging the worth of new work. Not the merit, the worth. Its value is determined by its potential ‘sale’ to the private sector. A ‘difficult’ play - or novel, or painting - is no longer a challenging piece of original work, it is one deemed worthwhile but thought unlikely to find major funding from private sponsors.

When a theatre company wants to produce a ‘difficult’ play but cannot entice a private funding body to help subsidise the enterprise it is left with a limited set of options.

Offering a ‘workshop’ production is one. This immediately breaks through the public subsidy ‘barrier’. Any publicly funded arts body must abide by certain agreements, one of which guarantees the artist a minimum fee for her or his work. On a ‘workshop’ production the playwright has the freedom to choose either a token fee or else no fee at all. It further solves the ‘union problem’: the company need not pay its members to the minimum Equity rate. In fact, they need pay no wages at all, only expenses. A ‘workshop’ production offers not the ultimate exercise in cost-cutting, which is voluntary liquidation, but it does mean great savings all the same: no rehearsals, no set, no sound, no lighting. The actors wear their own clothes or no clothes at all, and stand on the stage with manuscripts in hand, doing a sort of performance reading.

Obviously there are drawbacks: nobody has the remotest sense of being involved in an actual play; and for the audience (who frequently have to pay at the door for the privilege) the experience is not quite as good as being present in a recording studio when a radio dramatisation is taking place. ‘Workshop’ is a way of paying lip service to original work and new writing. Few companies like doing it. And one which wants to maintain full production interest in a ‘difficult’ play can feel entitled to wonder if an element of ‘script-liberation’ would broaden its sponsor-appeal, i.e. can the manuscript be adjusted slightly to make it that bit less off-putting to the folk holding the purse. So as well as controlling initial decisions on the production of new work the private sector is soon exerting influence on ‘script-development’.

What it comes down to is imposition, the imposition of external value on criteria that should be the province of art. The folk with the money hold the power. This is true to the point of banality for those writers, directors, actors and others engaged in dramatic art forms within film and television; and a short answer to the depressing state of affairs in either medium, where to describe current output as second-rate is generally taken as a compliment. The artists there have long since conceded control.

The one obvious, though seldom acknowledged, correlate of the shift from public into private sector arts subsidy is the increase in suppression and censorship. It’s very hard to imagine a dramatisation of the offshore oil workers’ fight for improved safety conditions being sponsored by one or other of the major oil corporations; as hard as it is to imagine U.S. corporate funding for a realistic portrayal of its entrepreneurial activity in Central America or the Middle East.

And oppression leads to repression; the situation where writers and artists stop creating their own work. They no longer see what they do as an end in itself; they too adopt the criteria of the ‘market-place’; they begin producing what they think the customer wants. The customer is no longer even the audience, nor is it the commissioning agent of the theatre company, or gallery, or publisher; the customer has become the potential sponsor, the person holding the purse strings on behalf of private business interests. What the artist is now producing has ceased to be art; it has become something else, perhaps a form of decoration, or worse, just another sell-out.

People engaged in creating art continually make decisions on whether or not to continue working at what they do. Even where it becomes possible to survive economically at it. This is because the vast bulk of the work on offer is geared to the needs of private sector money. Such work is not only meaningless but often in direct conflict with the artists’ own motivation, I mean political, moral, aesthetic, the lot. Some hold out by entering extended periods of ‘rest’; others try for a compromise; they do the hack stuff and trust the money earned ‘buys time’ for more meaningful work in the future. But anyone who relies on the private sector for the economic means to create art, and continues to believe they are in control of the situation is very naive indeed.

Within the higher income bracket in this country many people express concern at the hardship endured by artists. They assume the group is part of their own and therefore empathise with them. “That could be me”, they think. Others from the same income bracket are not depressed, they take the more aggressively romantic line and accept the necessity of suffering for art’s sake. They do not for one minute think ‘that could be them’ but believe in the freedom to starve. Members of either faction assume artists receive their just reward at some indefinable point in the future, in the form of cash or glory, perhaps posthumously. If some artists never succeed in ‘winning a reward’ from society at all then they couldn’t have been worth rewarding in the first place. Perhaps the work they produced wasn’t very good. Perhaps it was ‘wrong’. Maybe it just wasn’t Art at all: for within these circles of conventional left as well as right wing thought the myth that art with a capital ‘a’ is both product and property of society’s upper orders is taken for granted. They’re always surprised by the idea of ‘working-class’ people reading a book or listening to a piece of classical music. The possibility had never occurred to them.

And there’s another line springs from the same mentality, the opposite side of the coin, often thought to derive from a ‘class position’. This one accepts the elitist myth wholeheartedly, and therefore denounces Art for that very reason, it is elitist; and all of those engaged in its creation are self- indulgent time-wasters, dilettantis.

Those who take this line will make a case for Agit Prop, or so-called Social Realism, or revues where every song, joke or dance is followed by some polemic or other, working on the same principle as the Band of Hope when I was a boy; they gave you a biscuit and a cup of milk but insisted you watch the slideshow about the missionaries in exchange. It never crosses the mind of the vanguard that people living in Castlemilk or Drumchapel or Easterhouse or Craigmillar might prefer a play by Chekov or a painting by Cezanne to whatever else is being forced on them. A case will be advanced by those and others for what is euphemistically termed ‘community art’, i.e. art of the ‘workshop’ variety; apart from administrative and basic material costs it is produced for virtually nothing, and helps keep idle hands at work - thus groups of teenagers trying to survive on no-money per week are given a tin of dulux and told to paint their face, or maybe pensioners are asked to write their memoirs which are eventually photo-copied and stapled together, then dumped into the shredder when the next administration takes over.

In this past year in Glasgow conventional myths to do with art and culture and public funding and private funding have been given full rein. The concept itself, ‘City of Culture’, was always hazy, extremely dubious indeed. It had more to with etiquette than anything else. But if boldness is one essential ingredient of entrepreneurial activity then those who decided to ‘go for it’ are champions of the new realism which nowdays seems to cross not only national but party political boundaries. What becomes clearer by the day is that both the adoption and application of the concept derived from another heady mixture: intellectual poverty, moral bankruptcy and political cowardice.

It might appear contradictory to describe such a bold and grandiose scheme as cowardice. We are talking about an outlay of some £50 millions after all, given in the name of art and culture, to entice private investment to the place.

But it was an act of cowardice. At national level Scotland is ruled by a minority party. The holders of municipal and regional office are elected by the people to offer some sort of local challenge to the Tory government. Instead of offering such a challenge our politicians have capitulated in an embarrassing, quite shameful manner. Instead of attacking the national government they attack the people. They are presently implementing policies of a sort no Tory administration would dare attempt this side of the border.

Over the coming years the cost of this one P.R. exercise will have grave repercussions for the ordinary cultural life of the city. The money must come from somewhere. Major cuts will take place in these areas precisely concerned with art and culture. The public funding of libraries, art galleries and museums; swimming baths, public parks and public halls; all will be cut drastically. In many cases such services to the community will be closed down and sold off altogether, to private developers, to big business. What has been presented as a celebration of art in all its diversity has become an actual assault on the artistic and cultural life of the city.

After 1990, beyond the servicing of visitors to the cultural complexes, there must be some sort of ‘reward’ for the people of Glasgow. No one can spend that amount of money and fail to buy something. But authentic benefit for the many rather than the few seems destined to concern art itself. And art is the product of artists. And so-called ‘community art’ is also the product of artists, that is, if so-called ‘community art’ is anything other than a necessary part of that foregoing elitist myth.

Art is not the product of ‘the cultural workforce’, a term I first discovered in the summer of 1990 and which seems to refer to those who administer public funding and/or private sponsorship for ‘arts initiatives’, and gives rise to the peculiar notion that without such a workforce culture would not exist properly, that without such a team of administrative experts who operate on behalf of that heady mixture of public and private enterprise, art itself might not exist, not ‘out there’, in the real world, where life is a war and poor old Art, with all its high principles and quaint ideals, would simply wither away and vanish altogether.

In that so-called ‘real’ world the only real terms are cash terms. And the only real criteria are the criteria that set the conditions for real cash profit. Those who are not in some way or another funded by the Festivals Unit or District Council and insist on defending the ‘Year of Culture’ must face up to the fact that within the terms of their own argument they are defending such glaring blunders as the Glasgow’s Glasgow temporary exhibition. It is a measure of the repressed nature of this country that people who would align themselves on the left are still trying to do exactly that. They find it possible to accept the misconceived farce as an ‘aberration’, a phenomenon, somehow managing to ignore what has been public knowledge for at least six months, that Ms Elspeth King and Mr Michael Donnelly predicted the outcome more than a year ago. They are further forced to defend inefficiency, humbug, hypocrisy, diverse victimisation and misrepresentation, not to mention financial dealings verging on wilful negligence if not fraud. They can accept all of this in some kind of half-embarrassed, patriotic high-dive towards a mythical general good, which if it doesn’t exist has at least found a name, ‘Culture’.

If there is an air of familiarity about the logic of their argument, recollect Lord Denning’s suggestion that it was for the common good that innocent people be incarcerated for life - better a miscarriage of justice than that the fact itself should be admitted: nothing is more damaging to the Law than when it is not only wrong but shown to be wrong, not only wrong but confesses itself wrong.

The architects of the adoption of the concept ‘City of Culture’ were politicians and entrepreneurs; the politicians represent themselves as the public and the entrepreneurs represent themselves period. Cash investment in the city and environs was the primary motivation, as the politicians have confirmed publicly. There is nothing wrong in that as far as their view of the ‘real’ world is concerned, it is perfectly consistent. And also quite consistent to assume, given the criteria, that profit in real cash terms from the investment will remain private, that the costs and any ultimate loss will once again belong to the public. It is important at this point to distinguish between politicians and those whom they are elected to represent

Folk who defend or justify the expense in terms of art and the cultural benefits to the public have no valid argument at all. If they manage to rid themselves of the criteria of the so-called ‘real’ world then they are left with millions of pounds of public money to spend on the arts and culture in this world. This world is different from that other world. In that other world there is only one set of criteria, designed to set the conditions for monetary gain: in this world - the one where art and culture exist - there are a variety of sets of criteria; they include the one mentioned, but also others such as the moral, the aesthetic, the humanitarian and so on. In Glasgow there are a great many artists and others already engaged in the field itself who could have made a job of that £50 million.

No one has to be opposed to art ‘dirtying its fingers in the market-place’. Nor does anyone have to be in favour of it. The question is irrelevant. What is at issue is value; the criteria by which we determine merit. In the world of the 'European Cities of Culture’ a work of art is judged by the financial expediency of big business.

The people of Glasgow - artists and everybody else - were presented with a fait accompli, by a partnership supposedly there to represent public and private interests. But in reality the interests were always private. The only surprising thing about the fact is that people are surprised by it.

Meaningful debate on the subject was never allowed.

This too should not be surprising. Secrecy, censorship and suppression are essential ingredients of the ‘real’ world of private profit and public loss. Nowadays this is achieved by open decree. Taking its lead from the Tory national government, local officials of the Labour-controlled District Council tried to suppress and censor voices of dissent. And when that failed they succeeded, to their eternal shame, in punishing those who dared speak out.

Contemporary government, municipal, regional and national, is rooted firmly in the structure of U.S. corporate business management. Those who should be our elected representatives and custodians are transformed into chief executives. At the highest level their power is centralised to the point of autonomy. They are no longer accountable to anyone. Our artistic and cultural assets, in common with our economic resources, have become their property, not to keep for themselves but to dispose of, and to dispose of entirely, as they see fit, to whomsoever they see fit.

The mainstream media and the problems faced by those who attempt to work within them while retaining a degree of integrity is much too large an issue to discuss fully here. But it makes no difference how good a journalist is if the work cannot be done in the way it should be done, if the values of the journalist are not only an irrelevance but a positive hindrance in the face of those who own or control the purse strings. Unfortunately many of those engaged in the field are so far repressed they have lost sight of the reality. When confronted by folk who persist in criticising certain aspects of society they cannot get beyond the criteria within which they themselves are forced to operate and thus, intentionally or otherwise, are forced to seek ulterior motive or personal interest where none exist. It has been interesting to observe the response - and lack of response - of the media in general to the welter of controversy surrounding ‘Culture City’, and how in some cases blame for the many disasters has been shifted from the actual culprits onto the people who have directed the criticism.

It is always easier to focus attention on a victim rather than seek out the cause of the violation. It is further true of this society that we make victims of people and then punish them for being victims, frequently by transforming them into objects of ridicule or even criminals. Those who attempt to defend the victims are then punished themselves; sometimes they too are ‘criminalised’.

But whether we attack victims or defend victims, in a repressed society, we will do so by ignoring the context. If we go through the list of oppressed groups and communities of people in this country we see that our institutions are geared to punish them, and are being refined constantly to that purpose. We can attack black people or defend black people and somehow manage to ignore our actual institutions which are, quite simply, racist; they are designed to victimise black people. And whenever somebody excavates a hole in some oppressive legislation or other a government expert is sitting about waiting to pour in a ton of concrete. The current situation in Southall, London is a prime example; here a body of folk - the local Monitoring Group - exist solely to aid and support victims of racist violation, which includes murder; they themselves are being punished, and criminalised. Their public subsidy has now been withdrawn; they are repeatedly harassed and intimidated in one form or another, by the Forces of that Law and Order so beloved by the likes of Lord Denning. Their aims and objectives have been distorted and misrepresented in one way or another by a majority of the mainstream media.

We can attack or defend folk claiming income support and ignore the institutions of the country which are designed to punish them further. And we can then find ways of attacking those who go to their aid, whether individuals or even official organisations connected to the social services. Anyone who signally highlights the plight of society’s victims is guilty, in the eyes of those who control society; they are guilty of implying a cause of the violation. The most straightforward method of punishment is the slow withdrawal of public funding. The cost-cutting exercises then begin. The service provided to the victims is eroded until eventually the entire edifice collapses. As with subsidised theatre companies and other arts’ bodies this can lead to the drive for private funding - which at this stage is classified as ‘charity’ within the criteria of the ‘real’ world; in the event of a total sell-out it may be described as ‘privatisation’. But if we are talking about a service for the people then normally it just becomes absent, it ceases to exist.

A few older, liberal-minded folk still maintain that An Age of Liberalism existed from a point in the mid 1960’s until a point in the early 1970’s. I'm speaking of the arts in particular although some might want to generalise. In either case it may or may not be true. It probably is true for those who assume that the British Broadcasting Corporation was once an authentic instrument for freedom. But in present day Scotland, as elsewhere in Britain and most of the so-called ‘free world’, it isn’t art and big business that are close allies, it’s art and subversion; the notion that creative endeavour has a right to public - let alone private - subsidy is not a paradox, it is a straightforward contradiction.

This derives from the introduction to my forthcoming collection of plays, Hardie and Baird: the last days.