‘Artists don’t have to be close to government’ (SNP culture secretary). Discuss

SNP denies trying to shape artists’ ideas The Times 20 September 2017

For some time, I’ve had a post on the SNP’s approach to culture and the arts on the back burner. The statement above, by the eponymous Fiona Hyslop, cabinet secretary for culture, tourism and external affairs, has made me bring my effort forward. It’s not as forensic as originally intended, but it is at least timely in relation to Ms Hyslop’s view of the role of artists.

First, some context. The SNP Holyrood election manifesto contained the following commitment:

Most of that, you’ll notice, is in the bland and universal language of political management-speak – meaningful access, equality, excellence, engagement, partners, empowering, communities, sustainable, inclusive, and so on. You’ll look in vain for a definition of culture or art.

Ms Hyslop has, however, now provided her understanding of one requirement artists ‘have to have,’  ‘… a common understanding of what the country wants,’ generously conceding that ‘[Artists] don’t have to be close to government,’ although clearly she believes there is a sub-set of that tribe who will be. She apparently made her statement at the University of West Scotland (UWS) before the first public consultation meeting, in Paisley, on the draft National Cultural Strategy.

Now, I’ll be the first to concede that a quote taken out of context may not tell the whole story of the culture secretary’s views and intentions. Maybe they were clearer at an earlier private meeting with artists organised for the Scottish Government by arts’ charity Culture Republic:

That, perhaps more than coincidentally, led to this exchange on Twitter between Culture Republic and composer James MacMillan:

You’ll note how, in their answer, a representative of the charity cites not a Scottish government source (although there’s plenty about culture on the government website), but the SNP election manifesto, even though they were presumably commissioned to organise the meeting by the government, not by a political party.

I guess it was through this sort of detail, not to mention the fact that the meeting(s?) with artists were by invitation only, that freer spirits amongst the ‘arts community’ (inverted commas because the phrase might not be one free spirits would accept) began to feel excluded and wonder what was going on. Perhaps this is why The Times report of the UWS statement/Paisley meeting has Ms Hyslop on the back foot in relation to her party’s intent, because she also apparently insisted that in its strategy the government would not be setting out to assert ‘state control’ of the arts or be ‘prescriptive.’

I’m not so sure. I have on previous occasions documented lesser examples of the SNP government’s tendency to corral culture for their political aims, for example a small charity almost wholly funded by the government called the Scots Language Centre which in 2015 looked as if it were almost wholly aligned with the aims of nationalism, not least in this context an employee who was a poet and had stated:

A poet’s job is to serve their country and the world with words.

So I guess she would have been happy with the culture secretary’s requirement of artists. I also looked at the first minister’s reading challenge, organised by the Scottish Book Trust, another charity mainly funded by the Scottish government. I characterised that exercise as an example of the SNP ‘colonising the third sector’ and you can read the article to see if you agree.

At the heart of all this is the question of what are the purposes of art and culture. It seems reasonable to suspect that any political party would believe those purposes should be at least partly aligned with their own political philosophy. The SNP are a party of nationalism, therefore they will tend to associate art and culture with Scottishness and nation building, even at a personal level. I remember Alex Salmond many years ago saying that his favourite artist was the contemporary Scottish painter John Lowrie Morrison, whose output is almost exclusively of Scottish landscapes with the occasional croft house/but and ben thrown in. I’ll forebear further judgement on his work (you can see many of his paintings here) but there’s no doubt they shout Scottish at you.

My own wholly amateur litmus test for art and culture is that it should hold a light up to the human condition, amorphous no doubt but it works for me when I hear music, read a novel, see a play or look at a painting. Interestingly, the circulation on Twitter of Ms Hyslop’s words quoted at the beginning of this article has drawn forth a number of comments addressing the question of what art might or might not be, and it seems appropriate to conclude with a selection of these before they disappear into cyberspace.

Artists should never have the slightest obligation to have a ‘common understanding of what a country wants’. Art does not bend the knee (@ArtyBagger)

Any artist does need to know what the establishment expects in order to shock that expectation #epeterlesbourgeois (@stephensenn )

‘To wake the soul by tender strokes of art, To raise the genius, and to mend the heart’ (Alexander Pope, cited by @paget_old

I write books for readers not ‘the country’ (@JanetOkane )

What about artists who don’t care ‘what the country wants’? (@jamesmacm)

Art and obligation are very dangerous bedfellows (@SimonGuy64)

[And more politically] Well Ms Hyslop will be pleased because I’m an artist and I knew what the country wanted and that’s why I voted a very creative No (@BipolarRunner)

Of course, none of these people have the one thing Fiona Hyslop possesses – millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to disburse directly or indirectly each year to artists and cultural organisations deemed worthy of the government’s financial support. It will be instructive to see how the flawed and dangerous notion of ‘a common understanding of what the country wants’ is reflected in the new national cultural strategy.

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4 Responses to ‘Artists don’t have to be close to government’ (SNP culture secretary). Discuss

  1. Excellent Roger. Sturgeon claims to love reading Grassic Gibbon yet Gibbon detested nationalism –

    “What a curse to the Earth are small nations!” he wrote in 1935. “There is an appalling number of disgusting little stretches of the globe claimed, occupied and infected by groupings … babbling militant on the subjects (unendingly) of their exclusive cultures, their exclusive languages, their national souls, their national genius, their unique achievements in throat-cutting in this and that abominable little squabble in the past.”

    Obviously a modern Gibbon would be no friend to the SNP.

    From this fascinating Ian Jack piece –

    Liked by 4 people

    • Roger White says:

      It’s what happens when you let them out to live somewhere else! Thanks for the comment, especially welcome the link to the Ian Jack article, which I had a vague memory of but couldn’t place.


  2. SJ NM says:

    From my perspective as an outsider looking in Scotland seems like a much more centralised country than England, both in how power in Scotland is distributed vis local vs national, and how interventionist central government is.

    Now this mad centralisation seems to be going as far as culture (always a worrying trend from a historic perspective), with this “national cultural strategy”. I wonder how long it will be before voters in Scotland realise just how dangerous such ideas are and opt to tell the SNP enough is enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anonymous Arts Person says:

    Thanks for writing this. As a ‘no’ voter who works in the arts, I feel increasingly isolated and uneasy by the Scottish Govt’s courting of the arts sector, and indeed of the third sector, and also by its increasing involvement in funding streams. People in the arts, who often pride themselves on being free thinkers, need to wake up to the fact that nationalist movements throughout history have sought control over culture and heritage, and that this is not altruism. When has politics ever been altruistic, after all?


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