Leading figures within the arts in Scotland, including Sir Sean Connery, painter John Bellany and writer Alasdair Gray, have roundly condemned Labour’s leader at Holyrood Iain Gray after he described the post of Culture Minister as “a non-job” within Government.

Mr Gray’s attitude was labelled as “philistine”, “idiotic”, “old fashioned” and “depressing”.

The Labour leader was not alone in attracting artistic ire however. There was also widespread dismay about the general tenor of the debate last week, where Fiona Hyslop’s move to the culture post was widely reported as being “a demotion”. Many said this nakedly reflects how culture is viewed by the entire political class.

Mr Gray’s comments were made to BBC Radio Scotland on Tuesday, after it was announced that the embattled Education Secretary Hyslop would swap positions with Michael Russell, the Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution. Alex Salmond has since personally taken on the constitution brief.

Mr Gray said: “[Salmond] has had to sack her but had to hide it by giving her this non-job in culture and external affairs.”

Speaking from his home in the Bahamas, while watching the Rangers-Falkirk game, Sir Sean said he was “fed up” with all “the stupid bitchiness” that has gone on. He called for the bickering to stop following this week’s reshuffle and for MSPs to work together for the good of Scotland.

“Instead of uniting for this stupid recession where we see things disintegrating, everyone is squabbling,” he said. “Fiona Hyslop had to go. That is a reshuffle. That is normal procedure. But the thing has got so petty. This is instead of getting behind anything that is going to release energy and allow people to be optimistic. Christ ... it is just depressing.”

On Gray’s comments he said with a sigh: “It doesn’t surprise me.” He added: “Education and culture are so important to Scotland.”

Film-maker and founding member of Fife punk band The Skids, Richard Jobson, said Gray’s remarks were “stupid”. “I’m very disappointed to hear that,” he said.

“People come to Scotland to visit because of the culture. What we create is one of the great exports of the country. We have a world-wide reputation because of it. It is just idiotic to say that.”

Canongate publisher Jamie Byng agreed. “What a stupid remark,” he said. “But it says a lot about what politicians value. It is a typical politicians’ reaction. They don’t ever see how much culture contributes to the economy. They can’t think like that.”

The creative industries, which are part of the remit of Culture Minister, employs over 60,000 and are worth £5.7 billion to Scotland’s economy according to a Government report published last week. Architecture alone is worth over £1bn.

Neil Baxter, secretary of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, was vociferous about Mr Gray’s definition of the Culture Minister’s job.

“If Mr Gray thinks Scotland’s identity and inherent qualities as a nation of thinking and creative individuals is irrelevant and a secondary issue in Government, then perhaps he isn’t the best person to be serving the interests of the Scottish people,” he said. “Culture is not a secondary issue and it is appalling that it should become that.”

The Scottish Government was quick to latch on to Mr Gray’s comments. A spokesperson for Fiona Hyslop said: “Unfortunately, Iain Gray is so immersed in pursuing negative politics within the Holyrood bubble that he has insulted all the people in Scotland’s cultural sector who do excellent work, and make a significant contribution to the Scottish economy, as well as dismissing the importance of promoting Scotland. This is a real job, and Fiona Hyslop will do a fantastic job.”

However, many within the arts believe Mr Gray’s comments belie a deeper malaise that crosses all political boundaries. John Bellany, arguably Scotland’s greatest painter, described Gray’s comments as “an insult”.

“It really is atrocious,” he added. “To make a statement like that is ignorant. I am speechless. I feel so insulted that arts are rejected to the sidelines. This is serious business. It covers every facet of the human condition.”

But the 67-year-old painter, who this year alone had shows at the National Gallery in China and two exhibitions in Germany, believes art and culture is being “demeaned more and more” within all political circles. He is not alone.

“Politicians, Scottish and otherwise, can only regard what is sometimes called culture, as something for education or tourism,” said Alasdair Gray, who counts himself among the many “not surprised” by Mr Gray’s remark. “They can’t see it without serving one or the other. And of course they have no idea about it themselves. They only trust arts administrators.”

The Lanark author cites the enlightened exception to the rule. In 1958, Andre Malraux, a novelist and art critic, was appointed France’s culture minister. He had the benighted idea to commission Marc Chagall to paint murals on the ceilings of the Paris Opera house. “He actually got artists making works of art,” said Mr Gray. “You won’t get politicians doing that here.”

The language employed by all political parties and the media this week, of Hyslop’s “demotion to culture”, has confirmed many people’s worst fears about how the Culture Minister’s job is viewed by individuals of all political stripes, not just Labour, and of culture in general within the Government.

Staff within state-funded arts organisations have privately shared their dismay at the “pass the parcel” approach all administrations have taken with the Culture Minister job since devolution. Hyslop is now the 10th holder of the post in 10 years, the highest turnover in Government.

“I think it is a terrible, bad habit that the Scottish Parliament has got itself into,” said Hue and Cry singer Pat Kane. “It’s crap to have the Culture Minister’s job treated as the training ground for other ministries. I feel upset by Mike Russell’s willingness to leave the post for what is regarded as a more powerful ministerial position. I thought his appointment would show the beginning of commitment to the post, but I guess not.”

“I have some anxieties, that I share with other people, that the job is passed around too much,” said Stuart Cosgrove, director of nations and regions for Channel 4. “You have to be sure it doesn’t become the booby prize for Government. I would always argue culture is in the very core of Government, as opposed to peripheral.”

For the Queen’s Sculptor in O­rdinary in Scotland, Alexander Stoddart, the prepositions used in last week’s res­huffle “shocked” him.

“The kernel of the problem is that culture is seen to be a ‘downward’ step,” he said. “I was very shocked to hear that Russell had moved ‘up’ from culture. That is inconceivable, this whole idea that culture is something you can gravitate away from.”

He also drew an unflattering comparison between dictatorships from the 20th century and the current political mindset towards the arts.

He added: “Even the worst dictatorships of the last century knew that culture was very, very important thing. Possibly the most. Why are modern democracies so bad at understanding this?”

Best-selling crime novelist Denise Mina said that Gray’s comments and the tone of last week’s debate made her “despair”.

“It’s just really old fashioned thinking about what culture is, and it is very depressing,” she said. “There is still this division within Government between people who think that culture is significant and people who think it is a luxury, a frivolous thing for the middle classes. And it just makes me despair. We bring so much money to the country, we represent the Scotland all over the world, and yet you still have to justify your existence, or justify culture as something that needs representation.”

Andy Arnold, director of the Tron theatre in Glasgow, said Mr Gray’s remarks smacked of “philistinism”. He added: “For all the aspirations of how important Scottish culture would be within the Scottish Parliament, and considering how important it is within the international scene, it is very disappointing that the minister of culture should be seen as a demotion.”

Labour were unapologetic in face of the criticism over calling the culture minister’s role a “non-job”

A spokesman for Gray said: “It is ridiculous to try and say that anyone was downgrading the culture job. Iain Gray was referring to Fiona Hyslop being demoted from her education post and not being considered capable enough to handle the role of both culture and constitutional affairs.”