DON PATERSON, the award-winning Scottish poet and editor, has written a powerful critique of national arts agency Creative Scotland. Here we publish it in full:
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I have yet to meet one single serious artist who does not privately hold the word ‘creative’ in anything but contempt. While artists self-evidently are ‘creative’, they don’t regard themselves as such, because they know self-consciousness is the death of art; this is why Creative Scotland sounds like a country thoroughly uncertain if it is.
As for our ‘Year of Creative Scotland’ ... words fail us. Its vapidity and cynicism are one thing - if you click on ‘Highlight Events’ on the VisitScotland website, you will see a long list of things that were clearly going to happen anyway– but this idiocy also manages to offend every single other year since the Declaration of Arbroath.
As for next year, we can assume the nation plans to slide back into slothful unproductivity. It’s also embarrassingly provincial: how would you feel, on touching down in Skopje, of being informed that it was ‘The Year of Creative Macedonia’?
Though the misuse of the c-word is, of course, more widespread. One of the reasons I dislike the phrase ‘creative writing’ is that it insults my academic colleagues, who are creative writers too. (In my experience the only kind of tenured writer who likes to use ‘creative’ of themselves are those who declare that they are happy to draw a wage, but constitutionally unfit to do their share of the admin.
Or as Chesterton put it: ‘the artistic temperament is an affliction of the amateur.’) Everyone who makes things with skill, love and imagination is creative.
But for all their loathing of it, there’s no doubt that the arts have given the word its appeal. So why shouldn’t we sprinkle the creative fairydust around?
But does anyone really want a piece of ‘the creative’ as artists experience it? I really don’t know if they would like the dreams, or the side-effects of the medication. Most folk can leave their work at their work.
What artists often stake on their serious games are their own lives, and rarely is this an intellectual or even a conscious choice. (Poetry, for example, is not a ‘calling’ but a diagnosis.)
This conflation of life and work comes at a price: it’s a well-known and grim statistical truth that artists have the highest rate of mental illness among the professional classes. The material explanation is relatively simple.
‘Creatives’, we now think, have a lower density of dopamine-receptors in the thalamus; this reduces its effectiveness as a contextual signal filter, meaning that a lot more information reaches the cortex than in a normal individual, resulting in highly creative and divergent thought-patterns, and a kind of informational disinhibition of exactly the sort we see in schizophrenia.
This would go some way to explain the very high incidence of bipolar manic depression in the order of versifiers, writers and artists in general. Let’s all be creative? I really don’t think so. The sense in which ‘creativity’ applies directly to the artist is often a vicious one - all-consuming, deleterious to physical and mental health, and frequently fatal.
Nonetheless, there could be a positive side to the broader application of the word. The ‘creative umbrella’ could, in theory, provide cover for and a means of staging encounters between the two neutrally creative constituencies of arts and business. But this cannot come about without constructing the social arena in which they can take place. True collaboration happens socially, and between equals.
The Enlightenment was itself fuelled by just such an equalising circumstance: yes, Knox had turned education into a recreational exercise in the absence of anything else to do in the evening; but without the social concentration imposed by the architecture of the Edinburgh tenement forcing people into both socioeconomic and intellectual promiscuity, the kind of fertile interchange that allowed, for several years, the Scottish nation to dream bigger and think more deeply than any other on earth - and end the 18th century as the most literate nation in Europe - might well not have happened.
One thing everyone quickly learns from this kind of social interaction is their own limitations - where one should and must concede expertise, because someone else plainly knows far more than you. After that, after you learn a little humility, you start learn what the other knows; you share it, you import it into your own discipline. Without that sharpened perspective of social encounter, folk can delude themselves that they are far more expert than they really are, or indulge the illusion of moral or intellectual superiority when all they have is economic leverage.
We should know what we’re good and bad at. Creative Scotland is an exquisite exercise in the misappropriation and denial of expertise. The administrative wing of the arts has long failed to accept that artists are not good at strategising, form-filling, and writing business plans: indeed they are the constituency least capable of doing so.
(One of our finest living novelists recently had a Creative Scotland "trained official" explain to her that the incomprehensible form "was no more complicated or humiliating [sic] than applying for benefits" and that going to a bit of trouble was worth it to get "money for nothing”. Spot the ten things wrong with this sentence.)
For years arts funding has been disbursed in a way that hasn’t just rewarded the quality of the work, but the kind of administrative skill valorised by the people doing the disbursing. We find this increasingly in the universities, in local government and in the public services: the insistence, from the strong economic power-base of HR and middle management, that form-filling and paper-pushing are intrinsically valuable and character-building exercises.
The diagnosis is the same: an insidious and growing absence of trust. Wherever one can insert mutual suspicion, one requires the mediation of an official form, and the swift result is late-Soviet bureaucracy. It is therefore in the interests of professional bureaucrats to sow mutual distrust. But what scholars are good at is research. What artists are good at is art. An administrator’s job is to allow them to get on with it. It is currently the last thingthey are inclined to do.
The business advisers and ‘arts brokers’ of Creative Scotland should never, under any circumstances, be in the position of driving what kind of art or literature is produced by offering extravagant incentives for projects thatthey themselves would like to see, and that would not have spontaneously occurred to the artists themselves. This is medieval patronage, not support.
What they want to see, they think, is ‘innovation’ in art. What they often reward is meretricious novelty in format, often in the form of ill-thought-out interdisciplinary collaboration - rather than in those forms which have proven their equality to human creativity over five millennia of R&D, of streamlining their design in the cultural wind-tunnel.
That’s to say an apparently modest proposal to write a book or paint a couple of pictures might be a thousand times more ‘ambitious’ than that idea to shave a haiku into a dog’s arse, film the results and project it onto Calton Hill. Real ‘ambition’ is usually a matter of vision and content, not external form, which is purely a means to an end.
The present situation reminds me of a Serbian aphorism: ‘the government are using the carrot-and-stick approach: first they beat us with sticks; now they beat us with carrots.’ Carrots, in the form of large cash grants for which artists are invited to compete, do not encourage them to think big, or dream large.
What they do is encourage cynicism and second-guessing - because artists are generally very poor. But artists already dream large. Our artists are the repositories of the nation’s creative imagination, and are perfectly capable of imaginative innovation in their own terms. They should be trusted to pursue it
. Artists must stop having ideas about what kind of business plans their funders might want to hear; business leaders must stop having ideas about what kind of art artists should be making. (And it really would be better if they desisted from calling themselves ‘arts brokers’. This basic error leads them to think they can replace the folk doing the real brokerage - the expert publishers, curators, artistic directors and promoters they are currently starving out of existence.)
Art is not a democracy
A couple of years ago I was part of a group set up by one of our most literate MSPs to review literature funding in Scotland. I was honoured to find myself in a room with a handful of the more serious players in the Scottish literature sector. We were, however, assembled to do the empty busywork of visible consultation, and we should have known at the time. The process itself was unprofessional, mendacious, corrupt, and ruined by just the sort of nepotism, autocratic whim and lack of oversight that our final report complained of.
Predictably, not one recommendation was directly acted upon, nor received anything but the most anodyne lip-service. The report was charged with providing a strategy. That the one we proposed was summarily rejected was bad enough; perhaps it was the wrong one. But that precisely none has been seen or enunciated since is wholly unforgivable.
Tellingly, one of our central proposals – the formation of a kind of Scottish Academy of Letters – was the most violently rejected. Such a National Academy would not only have consolidated an invaluable body of expertise; it would have brought our major Scottish writers living and/or published outside of Scotland (i.e. 90% of them) back into the fold, and acknowledged those who have contributed substantially to Scottish literary culture. The most prestigious awards our writers receive are almost all given in England.
Symbolic acknowledgement may seem a meretricious thing – but in a game so financially and emotionally precarious, where the link between work and reward is so often delayed, broken or incommensurate – these peer-awarded tokens mean a great deal to the man or woman who must somehow find the self-confidence to make the mark on the page, the canvas or the stave.
An Academy might also arrange some financial support for its very poorest members; and crucially, it could provide a ready-made panel of experts to help manage the disbursal of public funds to writers and publishers. Despite our showing that it could cost virtually nothing to run, it was firmly kicked into touch as too expensive – and too ‘elitist’.
In no other walk of life would such a ridiculous objection arise. But then this is Scotland, 2012: through our determination to marginalise our own experts we have debased and perverted the idea of the democratic intellect.
As for the need for that consolidated expertise – a small anecdote: there was a young author, English but resident in Scotland, who made an application to a core-funded Scottish arts body for a small grant for new writers. It was still a make-or-break amount of money for her, and would’ve meant the difference between her remaining in Scotland or moving back in with her parents in Suffolk.
The gatekeepers in this case were unqualified to judge. The poet received a letter saying that it had been a very competitive year, and there had been stronger entries. I saw some of those entries and they were, scrupulously, not. More personally galling was the fact that I’d gone to the trouble of writing a careful reference extolling the virtues of this individual.
I know very little, but have enough evidence to suggest I may be a reasonable judge of poetry. I decided to publish the author myself, in England, on the list I edit at Picador. Rachael Boast has gone on to be shortlisted for everything, and won the two main UK prizes for first collections; she has been hailed by everyone from Carol Ann Duffy to Seamus Heaney as a important new voice. She’s now based in Bristol.
But I won’t write another reference to that body again; my carefully-phrased opinion was entirely disregarded in the sole area where I have any proven expertise. I am certainly not arrogant enough to insist that it should have counted!
But it should have been dismissed by a peer, not a minor apparatchik brought up to think that all opinions in the arts are of equal value. And while it may have been a tiny amount of money, this one bad decision meant we lost a great potential Scot. Academies enshrine a basic principle, without which all other realms of human knowledge would fail: peer review.
An end to ‘creativity’
Just as ‘a healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones’, a confident nation has no need to think of itself as ‘creative’. But semi-autonomous nations cannot fully know themselves, as they can’t fully partake in that international community which would permit them an honest reflection of their own character and worth. We currently seem to know that we are somewhere in size between the Isle of Man and Germany in size, but tend to act like one or the other, rather than anything sensibly in between.
So what’s to be done? Firstly, we must abandon all foolish, short-term, PR-driven, empty and self-conscious celebrations of our own creativity, more appropriate to and becoming of a county the size of Rutland than a real nation. This perspective that cannot be aided by the adolescent, craven, and nervous recruitment of non-residents to the most culturally sensitive positions in the national arts. What is this, exactly? The football?
Regardless of their abilities, how can anyone who has not lived here for some time - who does not know our complex history, who has no first-hand experience of the psychological make-up of our citizenry, who is not familiar with the work of our leading artists and writers - possibly react to our cultural biosphere in a way that will not caricature it, elide it, or reinvent the wheel? Yes, we were legally obliged to advertise these posts UK-wide - but we can now infer how negligible a knowledge of Scottish culture was in the interview process.
I propose that we end any further neurotic ‘celebration’ of our creativity. We need the direct appreciation of the arts, not some sentimental, reflexive, self-congratulatory meta-appreciation. We need the freedom to start failing a little, and to learn a modesty appropriate to our imminent international status. ‘Celebrating our creativity’ simply repeats our old nervous habit of selling ourselves back to ourselves, and is Kailyard 2.0.
This is not helped by the Little Scotlanders in the academy, the government and the arts themselves who insist on either the democracy of talent, or surveying that talent at such a high degree of resolution that they see it flourishing everywhere. (For perspective: a Scottish body equivalent to the RSL in its selectivity would have 30-odd members. What is it, precisely, that makes us so exceptionally talented that we would feel this to be an elitist outrage?) This leaves such genuine talent as we do have often left to fight its own way into the public mind. Again, the absence of any oversight from those best placed to provide it does nothing to help.
In bringing some perspective, we remain grateful to England. Lord alone knows how long it would’ve taken me to read WS Graham without the meticulous advocacy of my Southron cousins, while my elders were still telling me to read Sydney Goodsir Smith. In that regard, we are still deeply ill-qualified to go it alone.
The longer we see each other acting like children, the longer trust will take to establish. But if we can learn to trust ourselves, and trust each other, create social structures where experts can meet as peers, and there concede and share our various creative expertise; if we can allow the ideas and books and art that emerge to be properly disseminated, exposed to and corrected by an educated lay consensus – I believe Scotland can begin to dream the way it used to.
The first step will be to entirely destroy Creative Scotland’s dysfunctional ant-heap (I could find no polite synonym for ‘cluster***k’), the product of a shocking SNP policy vacuum and a New Labour neo-managerialism incapable of understanding the difference between art and business. (Let me spell it out for those still confused: investing in art has no guaranteed return. If it does, it isn’t art.)
The second will be to take the adult decision of trusting its artists with art, its administrators with administration, its brokers with brokerage – and then make the almost unimaginable leap of simply trusting each other. Until then we will deserve our reputation as nation of amateurs, who invest their precious and shrinking resources not in the creation and distribution of books, art, music, drama, not in the means by which the nation can dream, aspire, inspire - but in third-rate cookery programmes.
As I write, I note that the almost uniformly illiterate Creative Scotland Awards website is asking for nominations. Under ‘Literature Awards’, we read that ‘Scotland is home to some of the most celebrated literary works in history, and continues to produce writers with skill, flare and the ability to communicate.’
‘Flare’ as in ‘distress flare’, we assume – of the kind now being fired from the restless graves of Dunbar, Lyndsay, Hume, Burns, Scott, MacDiarmid and Spark. The outcry is growing, but you can be certain of one thing: Creative Scotland’s first thought will not be a reimagining, a rebirth or a reform - but a rebrand. We should not allow it.
This article will be published in the book Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence, published by WordPower andedited by Scott Hames, which is due out in November.