A misguided letter from our ‘leading’ artists and writers

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By Kenneth Roy
 
A correspondent writes: ‘You’ll have been delighted at the open letter about Creative Scotland, you having got there first. Well done’. Ah. We have a problem there. I’m not delighted. The only delightful thing I have discovered all week is that John Boyd Orr, a great Scot when we produced such people, before we started whining about universal human benefits, put down the telephone without saying goodbye. A sound strategy; it leaves future contact negotiable.

For those of you unfamiliar with the open letter to Sandy Crombie, chairman of Creative Scotland, you having more important matters to worry about – the threat to that universal human benefit known as your bus pass, to name but one – I will attempt to summarise the plot to date.

Previously on Creative Scotland…

One hundred ‘leading’ artists and writers have written to that agreeable cove, Sir Sandy, attacking the organisation’s management for its insensitivity, its market-driven policies, its abuse of language. If you have been reading the Scottish Review for the last two years, you will know the rest, for what it’s worth.

In accordance with the niceties of the open letter, the 100 ‘leading’ artists and writers circulated their missive to the Scottish meeja for maximum exposure. Sir Sandy then replied in the same spirit, but taking care to observe a short delay ‘that will allow you to forward it [his reply] to all of those you can reach by email’. Were there any of the 100 who could not be reached by email? Is there a possibility that Alasdair Gray communicates only by quill pen and continues to receive his mail by carrier pigeon? The air of urgency conveyed a certain self-importance to the ludicrous exchange. But since the newsy alternative was the uncertain fate of the headstone, the BBC resorted to the ultimate diversionary tactic: it published both letters in full. It is hard to say which is the better written – or worse.

For an introduction, the 100 ‘leading’ artists and writers settled on this: ‘We write to express our dismay at the ongoing crisis in Creative Scotland. A series of high-profile stories in various media are only one sign of a deepening malaise…’ Ongoing? The word is loathsome. A series are? There is only one series. ‘Various media’? How ugly. ‘A deepening malaise’ – it is an inescapable fact that any self-respecting malaise is deepening. It is not a malaise worthy of our attention unless it is deepening, preferably by the hour. Later in the leaden paragraph, the 100 assure Sir Sandy – try saying the last three words after half a bottle of dry white wine – that the ‘fall-out’ – another ghastly expression – ‘confronts most of us who work in the arts in Scotland every day’. Poor souls. The torture is unimaginable.

But wait – the authors go on to criticise the language of Creative Scotland. It is one of their main grouses. Does it get much richer? Will the pot ever recover from this vicious attack by the kettle?

But there are more important questions. Why 100? The convenient roundness of the figure arouses suspicion. Was anyone who was willing to be the 101st signatory shown the door, rejected as not quite leading enough? I have a theory: it was a showy, headline-grabbing figure, a figure that the Scottish meeja could get their simple heads around. It was PR puffery worthy of – yes, you’ve got it – Creative Scotland itself.

I hesitate to ask the next question, but what the hell – who are most of these ‘leading’ artists and writers? Puzzled and intrigued, I asked a genuinely ‘leading’ Scottish writer why he/she (I’m giving nothing away) was not on the list and he/she replied that he/she had not been asked. I don’t think this genuinely ‘leading’ Scottish writer feels bitter about it. But inevitably any such list excludes more than it includes; and for that reason, among other reasons, it was a dreadful idea. Of the selected 100, about 20 could fairly be described as leading; the rest are household names only in their own households; maybe not even there.

Next question. Why was the letter sent to Shir Shandy? When I first criticised Creative Scotland and its chief executive Andrew Dixon I did so in my own name without the assistance of 99 others. Mr Dixon sent a courteous if hurt, well-written letter in reply, which I took to be not for publication, expressing his disappointment, explaining his thinking about arts funding in Scotland, and suggesting that we should meet sometime. We never did meet, but I thought better of him for writing at all. I went on attacking his wrong-headed policies – in particular, the commercial ethos which underpins all of them. But, as my old friend Rose Galt would say, that doesn’t make him a bad person.

I used to be a chief executive. Thank God I’m not any more. I know what rank-pulling feels like – rank-pulling by the little people who go above you and write to your chairman. I survived the experience; I’m not sure Mr Dixon will be so lucky. The letter from the 100 saviours of the arts in Scotland should have gone to Andrew Dixon as its obvious target. That would have been proper and decent. It should have been a private letter in the first instance. If the 100 saviours were still dissatisfied, an open letter to Shir Shandy would have been in order – but only then.

If only they had asked me – fat chance – I would have advised the 100 to pursue their objections through the many representative organisations of the arts and literature in Scotland. A joint approach from that lot would have had more integrity; and possibly more effect.

The toughest journalist in Scotland, a Mr McCartney, confronted by an artist, asked a simple question: ‘Piss or paint?’. Scotland seems to be full of the former this weekend.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review