Variant issue15    back to issue list

Variant, The SAC and New Labour's Utility Function (Or, an open letter to the arts establishment)
Jason Walsh

Readers of this magazine will no doubt be all too aware of the continuing debacle involving the Scottish Arts Council. In a decision to refuse funding to Variant, the SAC described the magazine as unintelligible and caricatured it as a politically motivated publication The SAC continue to cite their refusing financial support as based on, rather unclear, artistic criteria.

Back in issue 14 I shared my musings with readers on governmental intervention in the arts. Given the subsequent unfolding of events I would like to pursue the matter further, this time specifically referencing Variant. (As for politically motivated, well, I like to think that not only does my whinging have a higher purpose, but that it's also a cut above the outpourings of the Socialist Worker, or Daily Mail for that matter).

In his book, River out of Eden, the biologist Richard Dawkins asserts that it is possible to reverse engineer the behaviour of a government and thus determine its utility 'function'. Given that the New Labour aligned think-tank, Demos, seems to have become quite upset at the scribblings in Variant of late, it seems a fair proposition to apply a little reverse engineering to the SAC situation.

A recent editorial in Variant bemoaned the appointment of Jimmy Boyle to the SAC, questioning his suitability for the job. Indeed, across the board the criteria for high profile appointments in cultural institutions seems to have more to do with social engineering than the possession of any specialist skills or knowledge on the part of the appointee.

The utility function of the New Labour administration would thus seem to be - the continuation of a Labour government. Not much of an ideology, but then again, it is for the lofty purpose of delivering social cohesion in an increasingly fragmented and individuated society (within the rather narrow constraints of a market economy).

Anyone with an interest in politics, if indeed such people still exist in these dreary days, will be aware of the fact that New Labour are particularly thin-skinned -- our great leaders will brook no criticism. It is hardly surprising that such an administration, and their delegates in the state cultural machinery should confuse critical dialogue and political diatribe. This seems to be the key problem when it comes to Variant -- a dissenting voice is seen as a counter revolutionary.

Furthermore, no-one seems to really care about well conceived ideas. The art of shock and flash has been documented so many times before I see little reason to go into it here, save to say that despite the often politically delicate subject matter of 'Our-Offical-Artist-Heroes' in Hirst, Emin, Harvey and so on, their absolute lack of any rigourous consideration is in tune with an administration with a hole at its centre.

New Labour and the Scottish Arts Council are far from being the only people who think that criticism is an irrelevance. A recent posting to the website for the glossy, and might I add well funded, Irish art magazine Circa argued that Variant was indulging in 'criticism for criticism's' sake. Whatever that is.

"Don't know about Variant - but I think CIRCA's great. At least we have a magazine that keeps on going (time to mention issue 100?). Never mind "biting the hand that feeds" and criticism-for-criticism's-sake, at some stage you want an art magazine that can compare to any other in the world..."

The tone of the posting indicates that the anonymous author is in some way involved in the publication of the magazine. Such sentiments are hardly unexpected from a publication which has increasingly narrowed the framework for debate to the point where it seems to be espousing little more than a narrow ideology of art for art's sake. What is surprising however, is that in this day and age, after we've swallowed the PC art-speak terminology, we as practitioners and theorists, are all supposed to be in 'conversation' with one another, yet free-speech is frowned upon.

It would seem that conversations are fine, but debates are right out.

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