The public (including artists) are not allowed to interject at the
Scottish Arts Council's public meetings. They are not allowed to
say anything at all. It is an Athenian Democracy but everyone must be
gagged. No wonder then that the SAC has not motivated public attendance
for these muted shows. Yet, in spite of their stiltedness, insights into
the SAC's shadowing of Cultural Policy and indications of subsequent
shifts can be gathered there, for those who do attend. The question still
has to be asked, is this the state of affairs everyone wants?
In contrast, recent artist-run events in Scotland have encouraged debate
on a wide range of issues affecting artists. Events such as the series
of panel discussions accompanying PLANO XXI (an artist-curated event of
Portuguese contemporary art and music at venues across Glasgow) and I
Love Alternative Spaces (organised by the 'artist-led' Collective
Gallery in Edinburgh). Noticeably, the participants at these events took
up the task of exploring the socio-economic conditions in which artists
live and work. Far from 'moaning and whining', these events
had an air of urgency about them.
Drawing from these events and a swathe of Cultural Policy material, this
article is an attempt to position current influences on artists and artist-run
projects; to question the authenticity of artists' alleged 'independent'
status, and to speculate on the wider implications for artists and artist-run
projects in the face of the current political re-organisation and exploitation
The received wisdom amongst artists is of the vitality and independence
of the Contemporary Visual Arts in Scotland, that they are "self-sustaining."
In contradiction to this asserted potency, another all too common assertion
(often in the same breath) is that contemporary artists' networks
in Scotland are lacking "a market."
While certain aspects of the visual arts' infrastructure in Scotland
has been publicly funded by the Scottish Arts Council's Visual Arts
Department - which is not to claim a democracy of allocation - there
is no domestic private dealership system which ultimately supports this
type of work. Yet the public funding mechanisms have functioned in absence
of this dealership, supporting a concept of work that is fundamentally
premised on its circulation as a unique commodity and, in tandem with
the art schools, abetted in internalising the narrow view of such an individualistic
system's 'reward capacity'.
As a consequence of this market hyperbole, private dealers stake a minor
amount of capital in the contemporary visual arts in the UK yet hold a
dominant position in the minds of the majority of artists and public funders.
The lack of such an explicit dealership body resident in Scotland is peddled - by
public funders and artists alike - as an obstruction to greater access
to a mythologised 'free' market. As if the existence and localisation
of private finance capital inclined to speculate in the contemporary visual
arts somehow finalise a greater Cultural maturity.
The deception is of a direct correlation between the artist's symbolic
value accrued in the public sector and a monetary value within the private
sector. That the symbolic value of the artist and work can immediately
translate into monetary reward. It is an attempt at legitimising public
spending on cultural production on the back of a particular economic mechanism,
one which documents artist-led activity as nothing other than a feeder
system for the private sector.
But public funding is not only to legislate as a research-and-development
instrument for the benefit of an allegedly remote market. The Visual Arts
Department at the SAC also have the task of coercing artists and arts
organisations to conjure both a domestic and international market for
the purpose of gradually superseding aspects of the SAC's own role.
A surrogate commercial sphere will be created, therefore marketisation
is necessary and will be instilled through a managerial discourse imposed
on the public sector.
The Visual Arts Department needs no help in condemning its own existence,
and more broadly that of the SAC's - in campaigning for the market
exploitation of culture it (mis)aligns freedom of expression with the
'free' market. It contrasts the private sector as a disinterested
unrestricted space where 'anything goes', against public money's
rationed resources and creatively prohibitive criteria. Sadly, private
finance does not work that way. It is conservatively speculative. Seeking
to appeal to the largest common denominator it reinforces orthodoxy. Far
from being innovative it is self-replicating in mimicking tried-and-tested
'formulae for success'. If the Visual Arts Department look to
commercial qualities as principle indicators of worth, they will cease
to fund 'cultural activity' that is distinguishable from a broader
marketisation and circulation of products already in existence.
The public funding system has helped sustain (if not wholly understood)
the social world of the economy of the contemporary visual arts - rather
than supporting an infrastructure which tackles deficiencies in the relations
of production and enables access to the means of production and distribution.
Supposedly it uses private capital (in the form of taxes) to offset disproportionate
distribution of opportunity and representation. But the system has been
given over to enhancing concentrations of wealth and their influence.
Commercial sponsorship often seeks to associate with the 'social
world' aspect of conspicuous consumption, which is taken to be as
equally important as any capacity for production - the cliche: "you
don't sell a product, you sell a life-style." Central to this
is a quasi-version of a concept of art that celebrates individualism by
means of the idea of the self-motivating and self-creating artist who
embodies a heightened and highly valued subjectivity.
Within the artist-lead sector the social-scene - the circulation of
fashion in clothing, music, etc. - has become increasingly foregrounded
to the point of stylistic association and accumulation not just acting
to re-inforce the social structure but becoming the very work. Accompanying
this turn in practice has been a return to a notion of the modernist autonomous
art object - not that anyone remembers it going away. Locked in its
white walled cell seemingly arrested from any external distraction or
stimuli, its ambiguousness is mitigated by a belief in the power of the
work to express itself, of the transparency of high culture. This 'return'
can be understood in part as a reaction to increasingly exclusionary public
funding criteria, the seemingly economic impoverishment of the public
sector, and an internalisation of an agenda of macho self-reliance and
a fantasy of freedom from social constraint. 'Independent' and
'alternative' as banded around the artist-led scenes relate
less, if at all, to the ideological basis of the work but more to the
economic impoverishment of the practitioners.
The breakers' yard
Having asserted the key role that the public funding bodies play for the
arts in Scotland, the explicit shift in these bodies has been from one
of an image of an advocate of cultural space based on democratic freedoms
and rights, residually open to further development and radicalisation,
to one of a more explicit 'cultural broker'. With yet another
rear-garde adoption of enterprise rhetoric, the Visual Arts Department
at the SAC has started making claims to being a 'development agency',
advocating a role in brokering relations between public and private monies
using leverage of public funds as inducement for arts organisations.
It would seem both arts organisations' and correlatively the Visual
Arts Department's 'public accountability' is to be measured
by the SAC, and in turn the Scottish Executive, in organisations'
ability to gratify the private sector in a diminishing of the Department's
role as a funding body in what were its established areas of support - for
aspects of the arts to become primarily dependent on and channelled by
private sources. In explicitly aligning Culture with commercial values
in this way, the SAC has (supposedly unproblematically) substituted a
cultural prerogative for a more conspicuous commercial competitiveness.
To participate in pronouncements of "self-sustainability" is
effectively to allude to and reinforce the compounding of the public sphere
with the commercial, a stripping-back and commodification of the properties
of the public sector altogether.
"When they hear the word Culture, they reach for their management
There is another strand of pressure currently being brought to bear on
public funding bodies such as the Scottish Arts Council and Local Authorities - the
'issues of purpose' of public money are to be more explicitly
allied with the government's fancies of social policing. This has
manifested primarily through the Scottish Executive's National Cultural
Strategy, itself an adjunct of the government's Social Inclusion
All cultural production has a political existence in that it either challenges
or supports the dominant myths a culture calls 'truths', it
participates in the circulation of relative values and meanings, and there
is an unacknowledged struggle over who determines this or these 'truths'.
Cultural practices and institutions that make meaning, where symbolic
communication is the main purpose, are being brought to heel through pressure
exerted via public funding mechanisms. The public funding mechanisms themselves
are being steadily reeled in by government with the objective of their
'issues of purpose' augmenting other areas of government policy,
such as 'education', 'urban regeneration' and whatever
else takes their fancy.
Art - more broadly Culture - is now to serve highly prescriptive
social and economic ends, and, as a medium of making sense of the world,
exploited to influence the perception of weaker state responsibility as
unavoidable. This aligning of arts' funding priorities to other fields
of government policy - and their financial resources - could be
interpreted as what is meant by 'joined-up government'.
For the SAC, claiming to be working "with greater flexibility and
effectiveness" means contorting itself to best fit the uncomfortable
mould of its new task masters.
The free Market is compulsory
'Culture' is seen as constituting a particular field of government,
on which there is heightened emphasis with new-Labour. Its vague yet viral
promotion of a 'Culture Industry' can be understood as a PR
distraction, the surrogate for an economy based on manufacturing. New-Labour
poses state intervention for a 'new economy' as seeking to influence
the public perception on which it hazards this phantasmagoric 'new'
economy to be contingent. With the constitutionally limited remit of the
Scottish Executive this is even more exposed.
Within an ideology of 'governing by influencing cultures of behaviour'
Culture is treated as one instrument of social influence. Government's
means of enshrining and invoking market values through the public sphere - its
Third Way melange. In what is a standardising of its subject audience
within a delimited culture of 'Common Purpose', Culture is to
be re-organised on custodial grounds of 'moral supervision',
intimately related to perverted versions of self-reliance and free enterprise.
It is to abet in confirming rather than contesting 'free' market
authority. The spin is: the 'socialisation' of those as seen
as outside of the labour market via the reinforcement of an image of self-esteem
through a work-ethic - an expansion of 'training programmes'
targeting the unemployed, single-parents, and now pivotally children and
young people. As a means to exert influence over 'cultures of behaviour'
on target sections of the population, Culture has become the polite and
less alarming synonym for Society.
Under the guise of inclusiveness, there is a tension between a commitment
to free access to public museums and galleries with their new task of
improving the social fabric of society in the form of an accentuated individual
responsibility, and market principles that require the generation of private
income as a leisure attraction. Pressure is on arts organisations to become
magically self-sustaining by creating and increasing their private proportion
of income whilst demonstrating a cathartic educational function. (The
fact is that this has been going on long enough for everyone to conclude
that this is not going to happen.) As a result the programming of these
venues is required to appeal to a construct of the widest possible audience
(yet paradoxically specifically for the young) and for it to be repositioned
in terms of a consumer base contained within a pseudo-populist rhetoric
of moral renewal.
Oiling the wheels of the new moral machinery
In ratifying 'marketisation', artists are also being demoted
to a client group (fodder) for an ascending private training/ administrative/
commissioning sector. This is a consequence of outsourcing from the public
to the private sector and the naturalisation (or at least tacit acceptance)
of a perception of a necessity for art to be complicit with state propaganda
amongst this professional managerial class. With new-Labour soliciting
a ménage à trois between government, the voluntary and private
sectors, public funding is ceded in the form of a financial exchange,
with virtual set briefs of their 'priorities' appearing as projects
up for tender.
Under the guise of public funds being publicly accountable, there is a
bovine bureaucratic migration towards the view that artists are in need
of administering, guiding, training, mentoring, advising, re-skilling
so as to be equipped to pay lip service to other fields of government
policy. Helpfully this will also provide the subjugated mass for the expanding
private managerial trade itself, with a vague objective of artists becoming
trainers, mentors, advisors, re-skillers of the job-less themselves in
a kind of cycle of abuse in job-creation jobs.
This is a coercive attempt at a redesignation of the locus of aesthetic
practice, announced as an attempt to make art 'useful', and
superimpose a correlative 'publicly accountable' end product.
Culture itself is to be the aggressive conditioning influence on the 'wayward'
segments of society - there is to be no room for discontent within
culture, for a critique of power relations which implies a struggle with
hegemonic powers. For this would bring to light the ideas which underlie
and represent the vested interests of retarding independent progression
Dispensing with distance
Much of what now constitutes the domain of the contemporary visual arts
is an effect of other kinds of forces and relations of power, of a ruinous
and opportunistic alignment of arts funding to other areas of government
policy by government - to the extent of the Scottish Executive commanding
direct jurisdiction over projects such as the highly suspect programme
of 'Cultural Co-ordinators in Schools', announced as part of
the National Cultural Strategy. Concern raised within the SAC is that
the programme looks set to avoid its influence altogether, more importantly
this would totally evade the vestigial political disclaimer of the Arts
Council's "arms length" adage. The concerted force of influence
is made explicit with the recent clarification from the Department of
Culture Media & Sport in England that where the Scottish Executive
ordains SAC involvement in delivering the priorities of the National Cultural
Strategy, SAC can now explicitly solicit organisations. Moreover, in the
event of those prioritised activities not being undertaken by any existing
organisation, SAC can now concoct one with the explicit function of condoning
the National Cultural Strategy - the erroneous assumption being it
is in the interests of its own survival to do so. (These revised solicitation
processes were announced and then agreed by Council in November 2000.)
With the SAC being reeled-in to become more of a direct apparatus of government - another
threat of a "bonfire of the Quangos" hanging over them, the
increasing "integration of Lottery and voted funds work", and
Lottery still centrally defined from London - its function is not to
encourage but explicitly intervene and impose what is espoused as legitimate
cultural activity. The implications for policing and censorship are obvious.
There will be very little resistance: in effect the funding system of
reinforcement and reward has already been sufficiently internalised, and
on the rare occasion when broached, too readily dismissed as nothing more
than a survival tactic for artists and organisations alike. Intellectual
honesty is not required.
Far from their pro-active independent image, many arts organisations are
re-inventing themselves in a subservient supply and demand relationship
to public funding criteria. With revenue funding for smaller organisations
in question (especially within the Visual Arts) and private capital a
figment of someone's sick imagination, 'educational workshops'
for which funding is available are considered a justifiable survival tool
for the rest of the artistic programme. It may just be out of such false
realism that artists and organisations are participating (if colluding
is too strong) in the integration of their more overt regulation.
"Their spiritual make-up has become elastic enough to make the
constant doubt about their own pursuits part of their quest for survival.
They know what they do, but they do it because, in the short run, the
objective situation and the instinct for self-preservation speak the same
language and tell them it must be so. Others would do it anyway, perhaps
Peter Sloterdijk, Cynicism - The Twilight of False Consciousness
'Innovative' or 'marginal' cultural practices are
being lost sight of in the interpretations and implementations by public
funding agencies of overarching cultural policy directives - directives
once claimed to come from 'consultation' with 'The Sector'
itself. Consistently, what pass as alleged consultative and policy informing
events are little more than one area of government (to varying degrees
of power) talking to another in their various guises, re-inforcing the
agenda of the day, re-affirming the message that is denied as being anything
other than apolitical 'common sense'.
"[T]hat a political party or movement becomes hegemonic when it
succeeds in normalising (or naturalising) its conception of the world - in
making its world-view part of the cultural and political common sense,
while simultaneously discrediting alternative worlds views."
Jacinda Swanson; Self help: Clinton, Blair and the politics of personal
responsibility, 'Radical Philosophy'
Absolute codes of behaviour based on adherence to work-ethic priorities,
consensus and central regulation abound as bureaucratic policy makers
try to dictate the very terms of support and arts officers in turn interpret
and peddle this cultural governance. Far from challenging this set of
events, artists and artists' organisations in speculating in a competition
for funding (wittingly or not) act to reinforce the tenuous grounds on
which its allocation is based. Who remembers the initial moral flurry
when the Lottery was first introduced as a potential means of additional
funding, and how many now even question the extent of its overtly prescriptive
criteria? The atomising of funding - the advent of deterministic funding
streams for specified areas of activity, and one-off project funding - has
peculiarly been allowed to act as the means of greater influence and closer
regulation over those gaining receipt. A kind of amnesia, or self-denial,
has set in as organisations continuously re-invent and re-align themselves
to annual, schizophrenic alludings to 'prioritisations'. For
those that the current 'prioritisations' - cunningly devised
fables - may in fact appear to benefit, there again seems to be little
questioning of the structural conditions that spawned them, a disinterested
"eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die."
Acceptance of short-termism is to the detriment and exclusion of others
despite all the redemptive claims. When resources are presented as scarce
and competition for them high - a self-interested 'get it while
you can' mentality proliferates. (Meanwhile there's more money
sloshing around the coffers than ever before.) What real independence
is fostered in the 'independent sector', when all policy towards
it must reinforce the dumb acceptance of this system of 'cultural
rationing' - gently explaining that there can only be room for
x,y or z and that it is perfectly acceptable for independence to be explicitly
excluded by government - in the name of cultural diversity and inclusion.
There appears to be little resistance to being over determined by relations
that fix artists and artists' organisations as always-ever affectively
subordinate to an externally devised and politically rigid agenda. The
Year of the Artist is perhaps a prime example, where the discourses of
the artists (those that survive the system of vetting) are allowed to
exist: but only if safely contained within the primary narrative of the
Year of the Artist's pan-promotionalism.
The mantras of managerial efficiency, entreprenurialism, and individual
responsibility have over-run the public sphere and been consolidated under
the new-Labour government's Third Way aberration. At the bottom end
of this, the Visual Arts Sector, we see an illusion of sustenance by a
mix of private patronage (spurred on by the state conducting itself like
some tawdry cheerleader) and public patronage in the guise of a 'culturally
Propaganda of Individualism
Within the art schools the charismatic artists' 'do-it-yourself'
rhetoric acts to conflate the existing sets of relations between the various
speculating agents in the field of cultural production, neglecting the
cumulative effects that have, and persist to cause, cultural capital to
attract cultural capital, sustained by unquestioned notions of individualism.
It has become a conventional and convenient facade that tends to obscure
the relations of power while suggesting that everyone may simply choose
to participate once equipped with the correct inclinations.
"[F]ocusing on individual agency and responsibility, such economic
common sense plays an important ideological function in diverting attention
away from structural conditions and differential power relations. Instead
it blames bad economic conditions on the vice [failure] of individuals...
The language of personal responsibility thereby reinforces a de-politicised
conception of the economy... locating the solution to economic and social
problems in the reform of individuals' character and not in government
or community efforts to alter structural conditions or relations."
Jacinda Swanson; Self help: Clinton, Blair and the politics of personal
responsibility, 'Radical Philosophy'
Public funding is increasingly cut according to unproven government theories
whilst simultaneously shifting the attention of solving structural problems
away from government and onto individuals without the resources. Social
and economic problems are re-conceived as problems of the individual,
including their causes and solutions. The visual arts in Scotland are
not an autonomous entity of their own devising but comprise of sites of
interconnection and contestation between various bodies: local/ regional/
central government funding mechanisms (with all the shifting 'prioritisations'
and 'issues of purpose' they carry with them); the corporate/
private sector; the Scottish Art Schools; workshop providers; individual
artists and artists' networks. We must then view that which manifests
as The Visual Arts in relation to the social/ political/ economic environment
that exerts influence over its production and dissemination.
One outcome of the demands placed on artists' spaces through the
public funding mechanisms to 'professionalise' their 'casual'
labour structures has been their recent embracing of New Deal work experience
placements. Surrounding such 'training opportunities' is the
illusion of successful trainees gaining a toe-hold in the labour market.
Needless to say such work experience programmes do not actually create
any jobs. Rather, in re-articulating a surplus of subsidised labour they - ironically - act
to arrest any such occasion, providing the foundation for a high turn
over of labour generally within the field, exacerbating competitiveness
for existing jobs. So, while New Deal is opportunistically seen by arts
organisations as another funding stream their actions are complicit in
adding to the broader illusion of progression in the labour market. The
same thing will happen on a wider scale to organisations.
It has been argued that artists' self-determination and individual
agency was in part a critical project in its own right - exposing and
circumventing unequal power relations; questioning assumptions of disabilitating
models of what constitutes 'the centre' and 'the periphery';
challenging the values associated to legitimate modes and courses of dissemination;
entering into and propelling alternate fields of discourse...
Much of what passes as artist-run is being made to fixate on success and
value as adjudicated via a pseudo-economic relation of profit making ability.
This is defined by a weak and experimental formulation of market integration:
in reality government deception towards individualising political problems.
Increasingly self-censoring in adherence to these funding priorities,
has resulted in an arresting of the imagination of what can constitute
the politics of independent practice. This generalised submission to government/market
jurisdiction (where perhaps there was a self-consciousness; an idealism
of alteriety; or at least a more self-aware, critical relationship before)
has been a recuperation of a model of independent artist-led activity
(personal responsibility) into a government propaganda model that exculpates
flexible yet weak and insecure conceptions of employer and government
It is hard to believe that historically this alignment was the aim of
artist-run spaces, that subservience and not independence was the goal.
There is need to position this debate within the context of the larger
neo-conservative political agenda, but there is also need to investigate
the social and ideological positions taken up by artists and arts administrators
so as not to absolve them - us - of responsibility for the situations
we find ourselves in.