The barbarians at the gate


by Calum Cashley

Hugh Henry MSP, who has ascended to the giddy heights of doyen of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, lodged a motion on Thursday and it would appear that he is setting himself up as arbiter of all things cultural:

S3M-07964 Hugh Henry (Paisley South) (Scottish Labour): Creative Scotland Expenditure— That the Parliament is concerned about recently published details of Creative Scotland expenditure; considers that, in a time of austerity, Creative Scotland should consider grant applications more carefully before making awards; expresses concern at and cannot understand the justification for £58,000 of taxpayers’ money being used to fund a dance programme based on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, or paying for travel to Tonga to study Polynesian dance, and believes that ministers need to urgently investigate Creative Scotland’s spending and take action to show that taxpayers’ money is being used responsibly.

This great, towering figure of Labour’s intelligentsia would appear to be starting his own war against poshlost’ devoid of armaments.  He will be planning, perhaps, an exhibition of Entartete Kunst, ignoring the quite clear connection between the progress of society and progress in the arts, a progress that cannot be governed or directed by politicians without strangling the progress.  Artists of all kinds must be free (and should be encouraged) to prod politicians and governments with pointed art – Arthur Miller received funding from the US National Endowment for the Arts to write Death of a Salesman and four years later he was puncturing the McCarthy witch-hunts with The Crucible – The National Theatre of Scotland used public money to produce Black Watch, a play that was extremely critical of UK military involvement overseas – and public money is opening up opportunities for people from all kinds of places to make a mark.

Politicians can’t run art through our ideological prisms (although you’ll have some difficulty in keeping politicians from claiming credit for successes) without destroying the essence that makes art capable of moving the spirit, of changing humanity, of touching the vitality of people.  That’s why public bodies funding the arts have operated at arms length from Government – although it is interesting that Hugh Henry appears to agree with the approach of the Conservative / Lib Dem coalition which is imposing massive cuts and strange conditions on Arts Council England.  It seems that UK ministers, like Hugh Henry, think that “a time of austerity” is a time to cut cultural funding and have forgotten (if they ever knew) that the genesis of the Arts Councils – and therefore Creative Scotland – was the bleak austerity of December 1939 when the intent was “to show publicly and unmistakably that the Government cares about the cultural life of the country.  This country is supposed to be fighting for civilisation” which led to the creation of the fore-runner of the Arts Councils in 1940 – and this in the midst of a World War.  Robert Hewison puts it excellently:

The decision taken in 1940 that led to long-term funding of the arts was not taken on economic grounds, or for reasons of health, social inclusion or the prevention of crime.  But it was a rational decision, based on a rational argument: that we are supposed to be fighting for civilisation.

I am, of course, giving Mr Henry the benefit of massive doubt and assuming that he is merely labouring mightily with the concept of funding art without directing it.  He may be being wilfully ignorant or, worse, intent upon finding some spuriously populist cause celebre with no regard to the consequences of his actions.

We fund art and do so politically blind because art is damaged when it is narrowed by politics and Hugh Henry’s version of Socialist Realism would run the risk of damaging cultural advancement, of restricting and choking Scottish art, his ambition for Cultural Revolution is misplaced.  We may not like everything that is funded by Creative Scotland but no-one ever argued that everyone will like all of the art we see around us – I find Shakespeare’s plays quite dull (a couple of his sonnets are ok, though), can’t abide the work of Alasdair Gray (a heresy in these parts), and can’t for the life of me understand what’s so good about those Titians we’re so collectively proud of; but I’ve delighted in some of the National Theatre’s productions, I savour the works of Banks and of Bellany among others, and I like to spend the odd hour or two from time to time soaking up a gallery.

I may not be the person to decide where arts funding should go, but I’m prepared to bet that speculative prospecting in areas seldom trodden (say a dance programme based on the works of Alfred Hitchcock or paying for travel to Tonga to study Polynesian dance) is likely to produce nuggets of gold more often than walking the same old dusty streets.  Mr Henry seems to have a problem with modern dance as a performance art and I suggest that he takes some time to go and take some in, we’ve got dancers to be proud of in Scotland.

We may not be fighting a World War at the moment, but the campaign for our civilisation continues.  The barbarians are always at the gate and we should always be driving past them to improve ourselves.

Read more from Calum Cashley by visiting his blog: