Reducing the case of funding in Scotland for the arts, as Catriona Black does in her article ‘State In the Art’ MAP Issue 1, down to community arts vs professional arts, may be an obvious journalistic framework on which to build an argument, but it doesn’t illuminate the debate on culture in Scotland. It may allow Black to state the usual defensive position about the life-changing wonders of avant-gardism (freeing butterflies in a courtroom being her preferred model of conceptual catharsis), but such romantic arguments can never come close to grasping the nettle of cultural politics, just as the butterflies would not change a guilty verdict.
Posing community arts in opposition to professional arts might be an easy story, but it is far too superficial and ultimately divisive, to simply revisit old arguments and reiterate old prejudices. The issue whether ‘process’ or ‘product’ is more important is age-old. The author agonises over who should control the agenda within community arts practice — should it be in the hands of the government (as is the case of social inclusion projects) or the artists? Grounded community arts practice will tell you neither — it should be in the hands of the participants themselves. However this takes time, support and resources — for example, invest enough in the process and inevitably the ‘product’ will be of good quality — not according to some esoteric benchmark of formal quality, but as a piece that communicates and gains audiences.
The fact is that community arts in Scotland are under-funded; something which we don’t need another consultation and review to tell us. In the absence of real support, government policies aimed at community arts have produced endless pilot projects, a glut of under-resourced capital projects, and usually only weak participation in its target areas. This is partly because the arts have effectively been sanitised by top-down policies geared towards adapting people to the existing status quo.
Revenue funding is inadequate, resulting in organisations constantly chasing short-term project funds and being forced to accept all the strings attached. The small resources available mean that professional artistic practice is pitched against community arts practice, with decisions being made in terms of ‘quality’. As a result, the organisations with the dedicated fundraisers get the money, and this stymies small community organisations who have neither the time nor the expertise to read, decipher and repeat back the lates government reports. This has the effect of both controlling amd centralising ‘culture’, and is in practice anti-democratic.
Community arts only get the money when they are engaged in delivering culture, on the premise that it is ‘useful’ and somehow improving things. As any first year cultural history student will tell you form their reading of Raymond Williams, ‘culture is ordinary’, it is all around us, it doesn’t need to be delivered to us, it needs to be given suitable avenues, and spaces, for representation.
On Saturday 16th April, 2005, 200 people gathered in Edinburgh’s city centre on Calton Hill to watch an art event which consisted of blowing up grenades and watching the resultant smoke plumes drift across the hill. The next day in a peripheral council housing estate, 2,000 gathered to watch the tower block be blown up as part of the council’s scheme to prepare the way to transfer all of the city’s housing stock out of public ownersip. The resultant plumes of smoke were beamed out live across the world on satellite TV. One event got public arts funding and the other didn’t; yet they are both cultural events. People are very capable of deciding for themselves what to see, according to what they value within their own lives. Arguing over who gets the money in the context of either/or, as Black does, only reaffirms the cultural status quo. And it hinders considering the real democratic question to what extent is the government meeting its responsibility to fund public services adequately and equitably from public sources: whether that be the arts, or indeed housing.