Here's my latest column for the Caledonian Mercury – on rising discontent about the overall direction of the new giant public body for arts and media in Scotland, Creative Scotland. As ever keen to hear your comments.
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There's one immediate thing that can be said about the rising flurries of concern about the operations of Creative Scotland, the successor to the Scottish Arts Council: it's two cheers and a bar of tablet for the burgeoning Scottish blogosphere.
The veteran media-man Kenneth Roy's Scottish Review - an online magazine of robust older curmudgeons, for which the word 'carnaptious' was minted - broke a story based on an e-mail from the new director, Andrew Dixon. The message to an unsuccessful grant applicant claimed that "we will not be a funding body in the old sense of the Arts Council but a strategic body".
Cue general alarum from the 50 or so outfits, and who knows how many individual artists, currently receiving "funding". Green MSP Robin Harper tabled a critical motion in the Parliament, Dixon responded to both him and Roy, and now we're in the midst of a proper digital exegesis - weighing jargon for nuance, waiting for the next covertly forwarded e-bombshell.
But underneath the flyting browsers, there are some fascinating issues to explore around the distinction between a "funding" and a "strategic" arts council. In answering Roy's charges that the secret agenda of the new Creative Scotland is "the privatisation of the arts", its head Andrew Dixon says:
We intend to promote cultural exchanges between this country and the rest of the world and to ensure that the country's creative professionals can profit from their talent. That is not 'privatisation'; it is about valuing the skills and ideas of talented people and protecting their intellectual property.
From a commercial perspective in the arts and media - which is where I've been for all of my creative life - the underlying meaning of this is familiar. Creative Scotland begins to sound more like a record company, book publisher or maybe even venture capitalist. "Ensuring that creative professionals can profit from their talent" doesn't imply the old idea of giving a grant to an artist so they can clear the time in their lives to be creative, with outcomes expected but not prescribed, and with the ownership of the object staying with the artist to deploy as they wish.
No, this sounds more like what Silicon Valley VCs like Tom Perkins call "managing the risk of their investment" in a project - which is, indeed, much more about "strategy" than "funding". I've had quite a few music-biz moguls over the years face me and talk about "valuing the skills and ideas of your talent" and "protecting your intellectual property". And in the course of protecting their "investment" - another code word in Dixon's discourses - they demand a cut of the overall royalty of the intellectual property of the artworks you produce.
I'm so used to this arrangement from my own commercial creative career that it always surprises me that it doesn't operate in the traditional arts sector. I would also imagine that what haunts the new Creative Scotland is the J.K. Rowling scenario. A few thousand pounds from the Scottish Arts Council is granted to a near-starving artist to help her complete her children's novel. The book becomes of the biggest multimedia cultural franchises of the last 20 years - and no scrap of royalty returns to the organisation that played a foundational role in making it possible. Does that feel right?
But there are many subtle dimensions to the relationship between markets, property, subsidy and the autonomy of the artist. Until recently, I've been able to say that I've never taken a penny from public arts subsidy - and then I was given a few thousands pounds to be a judge, in 2009 and 2010, for the Scottish Books of the Year. Apart from it being some of the best adult fun I've ever had with my clothes on, it provided an overview of just how widely, and sensitively, the old Scottish Arts Council supported the continuing dynamism of Scottish literature.
The novel category winner this year, John Aberdein's Strip the Willow, bore its SAC-funded symbol proudly, was published by a successful Scottish commercial publisher (Polygon, enjoying the fruits of Alexander McCall Smith's success, but long the recipient of SAC grants and funds), with Aberdein receiving a £5000 prize from the sponsors Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust.
On a dreamy day in Melrose, the tensions between inveterate lefties like Aberdein being in "strategic partnership" with a perhaps-not-so-financially-innovative old Scottish bank seemed less acute than usual. And being a witness to the previous year's overall winner James Kelman, a sheet or two to the wind, railing away at the SMIT head honcho about some Chomskyian matter - and said honcho maintaining a grave, head-nodding dignity throughout the dinner - is one of my take-it-to-the-grave moments.
But I don't want to give the impression that there's some inevitable happy spot to be found between artistic autonomy and more commercially aware public arts bodies: there isn't, and shouldn't be. The outgoing SAC head, Richard Holloway, left the new body with a tract on 'creative disloyalty', hoping that artists would consistently bite the state hand that fed them. One look at the SAC-funded arts journal Variant, which devotes large stretches of its editorial to detailed critiques of arts-funding policy, demonstrates that this tendency won't be going away any time soon.
I don't go to see contemporary art, for example, hoping that it's going to be "customer-sensitive" - I want it to be customer-insensitive, to rattle and shock me into the new. The right of pure artists to maintain a creative distance from their funders must be maintained. In the overall balance of arts, even a commercial artist like me wants to be able to turn up to a space that hasn't been squeezed through the sausage grinder of formats and markets.
However much Creative Scotland wants to develop its role as a rights-sharing venture capitalist - and there may be some small scope for exploration there, either actively or as a broker - they must still recognise their ultimate function: as the organisation that allows creative imaginations to lift free from the usual pressure of consumer or investor expectations.
Scriveners and giggers like myself need those intense visions in our lives, available publicly and at no or low cost. And that's about an 'intellectual commons', not intellectual property - an ecology of creativity, not just a competitive market. Take that from a long-term hack.