A Right Stooshie and the Question of Excellence

So here’s what’s been happening:

  • An open letter signed by 100 artists was sent to Creative Scotland, expressing dismay at the way the organisation has been run so far and requesting a fresh start. Click here to read it.
  • Sir Sandy Crombie, Chairman of the Board of Directors at Creative Scotland, replied to the open letter. Some of it is reasonable, some of it is a bit disappointing, none of it is the end of the matter. Click here to read it.
  • In his State of the Arts blog for the Herald, Phil Miller shares his thoughts on Sir Sandy’s response. He suggests that some at Creative Scotland see current events as “the game-changer” and that the attitude of Holyrood towards Creative Scotland has altered drastically. Click here to read it.

If you’ve read my previous posts you’ll already know that I think Creative Scotland is troubled and in need of reform, particularly where their communication with artists is concerned. That’s why I set up Artists’ Open Space – it’s not just the fact that we talk that’s important, it’s how we do it. I’m pleased that most of Creative Scotland’s senior management team has agreed to attend, but it’s what they say and do at the meeting and afterwards that’s important, not just their attendance.

In all this back and forth between artists and CS, I see both sides laying claim to “success stories” and talking about “artistic excellence”. The thing is, I don’t see anyone defining these terms and it strikes me that this is where our communication difficulties lie.

What is “success”? Is it profit? Is it impact on people’s lives? Is it fulfilment of the artist’s goals? Is it meeting the brief set by the supplier of the funding (and if it is, is that not rife with the potential to be patronage at its most sinister?) A piece of art can be successful in many different ways, but I believe the most important function of art is to affect individuals.

It may seem very dramatic to say that a book, poem, sculpture, play, song or anything else has changed your life, but it’s not inaccurate. Mine’s been changed by very minor things, like having a song or a poem help me to make sense of events in my life, and in major ways, like seeing paintings or reading books that made me feel less alone after the double-whammy bereavement. (The latter might sound minor. It’s not. When you’re newly orphaned, anything that makes you feel less alone is a whopping great triumph.)

Numerous artforms contributed to my development not only as an artist myself, but as a person. From my first nursery rhyme onwards, the arts have helped to develop my literacy, numeracy, awareness of history, geography, science, society, empathy, identity and ethics. They played a major role in shaping me as a person and they continue to do so.

I’m not amazingly well-educated, but I’m fortunate enough to have been encouraged to think critically throughout my life. That’s why I can get this far with expressing the influence the arts have had on me. However, despite my postgraduate education and the unusually large amount of time I devote to thinking about these things, I don’t feel I’ll ever be able to tell the full story. How could I possibly disentangle my own mind to the point where I can tell you which of the many books, paintings, plays etc. gave rise to particular aspects of my thoughts, beliefs and personality? I feel ridiculously ill-equipped to figure it out. Yet due to the life and influences I’ve had, that doesn’t mean I won’t try.

When I see something for the first time, I don’t know what its long-term effect on me will be. Years ago I saw Donatello’s carving of Mary Magdalene and her face and body language have haunted me ever since – she’s a perfect picture of grief and loss, and seeing her made me feel that someone understood the magnitude of my own bereavement. Even though Donatello has been dead for centuries and I haven’t seen that carving again in almost a decade, the memory of it gives me comfort and perspective. I doubt that he knew as he created it that his work would be having such powerful effects on a young Scottish woman with dead parents so many centuries later. I certainly didn’t realise as I looked at it that it would stay with me for years to come.

Taking all of this into consideration, I would say that it’s the long-term impact of art that makes it successful. But how to measure that? If your audience is made up of people with decent critical thinking skills and an inclination towards blogging, they might continue to volunteer feedback in years to come. But what about the non-bloggers? Or, more crucially, the people who haven’t had the education or opportunity to become decent critical thinkers? It seems to me that a true measure of artistic success would require a massive change in education to enable people to  understand how the arts affect our lives, to analyse the effects and express them clearly.

Yes, it’s idealistic. There’s little point in trying to fix a problem by thinking small. Better to think of the ideal and then see how close you can get to it. That’s the bit I’ll think about in another post, since it’s going to take more energy than I currently have to start figuring it out.

Going back to the Creative Scotland stooshie, I think that if we’re going to improve communications between organisation and artists, a good first step would be to work on commonly-accepted definitions of our terms. There’s little point in talking if you’re always at cross-purposes and little point in funding criteria written in words that no-one really understands. Language reflects our ways of thinking, and before we do anything else we need to understand our own thoughts. Who would have thought that understanding your own thoughts and finding the most accurate words to express them would require such a lot of consideration and discipline? But it does, and if we haven’t done that then whatever we do next is built on shaky foundations.

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, dramaturg and director. Here you'll find posts about my work, mental health, arts politics and whatever else happens to catch my attention. View all posts by jenbitespeople

3 responses to “A Right Stooshie and the Question of Excellence

  • Variant

    Here’s also what’s been happening:

    This workshop [was] an opportunity for [artists] to learn more about the changes, enabling the organisation as a whole to more fully engage in the review process of Creative Scotland’s proposals. (June 2011)
    http://www.variant.org.uk/events/FtF/FtF.html

    For all the possible gloom of the situation we are hopeful to approach this also as an opportunity to collectively consider what we really think and what we really want, and all the differences we positively hold. (October 2011)
    http://www.variant.org.uk/events/transoct/TransOct.html

    Regarding the use-and-abuse of ‘Ecology’:
    http://www.variant.org.uk/events/FtF/ECOLOGY.pdf

    And a note on the continuing dangers of allowing structural reorganisation to be framed as merely ‘miscommunication’:
    http://creativescotland.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/scratch-communication-competencies.html

    • jenmcgregor

      I’ve replied to your post over on Blogger. Reposting it here, since there’s no pingback from your post:

      “Would you mind attributing the quotes in your opening paragraph? Your formatting makes it look as if they come from either my post or my invitation, which is not the case.

      Wanting to communicate well is not the same thing as wanting consensus or even wanting a lack of conflict. Defining our terms can mean reaching a mutual understanding which removes the need for conflict – but it can also be a metaphorical selection of weapons. If you’re going to engage in conflict, it’s best to do it effectively. You fight effectively by using your weapons well, which means you have to understand them rather than just wave them around.

      Consensus can be forced by a refusal to define terms. Indeed, that’s what first got me involved in the Creative Scotland stooshie – at the hideously-titled Theatre Sector Review meeting I requested that particular terms (‘ecology’ amongst them) be clarified. This request was denied. Without knowing how the terms are being used, how can we agree or disagree? But since we can’t disagree, a lack of opposition can be taken as acquiescence. Defining terms involves conflict. Even once they’re defined, they can and should and will be challenged. Conflict is an ongoing thing. But in order to have conflict rather than chaos, we need to be able to communicate well.

      Or are you defining conflict and consensus in a different way to me…?”

  • Variant

    I’ve tried follow up on others’ suggestion elsewhere to consider this a labour dispute, and to then position conflict within that. The following’s still more a map of concerns, but I wanted to post it now as I don’t know if I’ll be able to look at it again ahead of the Edinburgh event:

    What’s going on involves a struggle for distinction amongst competing interest groups (which form ‘constellations of opportunity’) in them reacting to Scottish government restructuring (of which Creative Scotland is but a part) based on an international ‘creative industries’ (development/growth) policy script that’s contingent on local histories and contexts.

    This policy script doesn’t act alone, rather Creative Scotland sits across and is responsive to different policy influences – as SAC was to e.g. Social Inclusion.

    The disruptive transition of restructuring is also experienced by staff across Creative Scotland as an organisation itself – as not disentangled from collegial networks which manifested with/through the art form specialisms of SAC/ SS.

    The state structure, that was necessary to protect certain interests, and which was responsive to and generative of those interests, is being recast – this was legislated for via the Public Services Reform bill (2010) and from which (as well as decades of private consultation, and as nurtured into being by bankers) Creative Scotland and its market definition was the outcome.

    (The cultural ‘Leadership’ agenda perhaps takes a slightly different turn in Scotland; contra the notion of a ‘damaged cultural Scottishness’, it’s been formative in embedding a string of the Scottish political/economic elite in public institutions involved in state production of symbolic value – it’s state formation at work, in reassuring those class interests and tying them in with an independent Scottish state’s production. Though such a view hardly fits with the ‘class racism’ that we’re all lefties in the arts in Scotland — ie Étienne Balibar’s identification of the ignoring of class within ethnicity as if ethnic groups are not fractured by class like everyone else, arguing that the notion of class is ‘ethnicised’.)

    These are state processes throughout which the distribution power and authority is uneven, which is the basis of conflict.

    The object of such conflict is the status quo and the consequences of change.

    Lewis Coser defined conflict as‚ “a struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power and resources”.

    Randall Collins believes there are certain ‘goods’ that every group wants to pursue, including ‘prestige’.

    Which is where I locate the recent self-selecting pronouncement on the parameters of “Scottish culture” – where worryingly we appear to be moving from faux-meritocracy (‘talent’) to a lodging of authenticity (‘Scottishness’).

    Much creative labour is not simply excluded but actually absented from such an intimate construction of ‘community of belonging’, as a constellation of relatively-closed (though not static) ‘familial’ network enterprises – hence disciplinary notions of moral ‘disloyalty’. Whereas solidarity is a political process not a consanguine command.

    These are the conflicts between inter-groups and intra-groups that are part of social life.

    (Some of this is necessarily abrupt in its brevity – for a more nuanced definition of conflict, I found the short section of notes on Bourdieu here useful: http://www.transcend.org/tri/downloads/Bourdieu-Foucault-Habermas.pdf> “Bourdieu refuses that agents act according to explicit norms or rules, rather it is the shared conditions of existence which produce certain inclinations of practical action, where events are met in the world with certain inclinations and dispositions shaping the specific action undertaken.”)

    So this is about the social and economic relations of cultural production, where different groups continue to have unequal power. Given these power differences, special interest groups compete over scarce resources of society – consciously/intentionally or not, it is to gain advantages over others, including advantages of distinction. There are also, however, differences in power and opinions within and across each ‘group’.

    These ‘groups’ are, rather, better described as not fully static but more dynamic and overlapping constellations formed around accruing cultural capital and labour opportunity; “products of rationalized social construction [that] lack [fully] social solidarity”.

    “To complicate matters further, different individuals enter these groups with differing levels of access to resources. Those with the greatest resources tend to have a larger say in group activities. Consequently, minorities form that feel underrepresented and powerless to compete with majoritarian views and methods. (Too often, these minorities reflect the same minoritarian structure found in culture as a whole). … Oddly enough, the worst-case scenario is not group annihilation, but the formation of a Machiavellian power base that tightens the bureaucratic rigor in order to purge the group of malcontents, and to stifle difference.” Critical Art Ensemble, ‘Observations on Collective Cultural Action’ – Variant, issue 15, Summer 2002

    So we can see that it’s a conflict based on inequality of existing power relations – an understanding necessarily backed-up here by CAE. Groups and individuals advance their own interests, struggling over control of societal resources.

    The resulting social disruption of these groups’ intra- and extra-relations is but one manifestation of latent conflict serving to create a new balance of authority. (Even in attempting to reassert old ties.) This is an ongoing process. It concerns incremental social change in adjustment to shifts in the underlying balance of constellations of power.

    ‘Destabalisation’ of what are perceived as too-closed constellations of interest, as is being pursued via CS, is thought to ‘stimulate innovation’ in the economy.

    Whatever the actual international experiences of this neoliberal competitive ‘solution’ to perceived stagnation, paradoxically CS does actually identify a very real set of conflicts in inequality of cultural provision – one which remains contrary to the ‘status quo’-framing of politics as merely a managerial task involving the identification of consensus.

    The State is not some neutral organ that equitably represents everyone’s interests. When the business of the state was more fully that of those cultural brokers and producers who are still in a relative position of authority to aggregate and voice disaffection, it also facilitated a particular dominance in means of cultural production.

    In that sense it can be considered a conflict over property rights – a right granted by the state to authoritatively exercise sovereignty over property: to exclude others from it or to regulate them in its use. That property which is socially significant establishes a relationship of domination and subordination among people. So it can be considered a conflict over relations of authority at the state level; a struggle over state power and control of property rights.

    (Re Nicholas Garnham: “the cultural industries are seen as complex value chains where profit is extracted at key nodes in the chain through control of production investment and distribution and the key ‘creative’ labour is exploited not, as in the classic Marxist analysis of surplus value, through the wage bargain, but through contracts determining the distribution of profits to various rights holders negotiated between parties with highly unequal power.” Which is why the W.A.G.E. campaign remains highly partial and so limited.)

    There is no neutral, explanatory position; no objectivity and detachment of ‘disinterestedness’ – it’s about actively defending advantages or contesting disadvantages (real and perceived).

    Such conflicts and power struggles are everywhere; something that always conditions human existence and interaction.

    Suffice to say here, neoliberalism is a programme that gained its strength from various alliances, ranging from the economic and political fields, to the academic and cultural fields.

    What we experience then is that we are caught in the midst of various forms of neoliberal enclosure and restructuring, which is seen by competing individuals, networks and agencies to offer openings for a range of agendas seeking to gain purchase on institutional structures/ bureaucracies.

    In our experience, it is precisely these meshing of egoistic interests that effaces any significant debate of the underlying antagonisms (conflicts) in Scotland’s cultural policy and provision — how it significantly differs from, say, Sweden’s earlier, more social democratic policy before its own neoliberal restructuring. It even acts to efface the previous conflicts before this round of restructuring – as if the discriminative collegial basis of art form specialisms isn’t what current restructuring is reactive to!?

    How do we call it out for all of us to see?

    To claim the disruption currently experienced as merely, or even primarily, ‘managerial’ is to limit what potential positions we may take up with regard to it. It would be to separate these processes of conflict and transformation from ‘political imagination’ – that is, from our consideration of the organisational forms, objectives and specific issues of the economic struggles of our precarious labour.

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