There are two stories in today’s media coverage which show how absurd things can get on the opposite extremes of the arts funding continuum. If you’re a fervent free-marketeer, then your ideology requires you to live with the hideous 120ft “gold” statue of Mao Zedong which has just been erected in China’s Henan province. If you want the state to pay for everything, then the conceptual artist Ellie Harrison’s highly aggravating “The Glasgow Effect” must lie within your pain threshold. Yes, this will be a song of ice and fire.
A news website in Henan province sent its journalists to a village in Tongxu county to photograph Mao’s monstrous, Godzilla-style return. The journalists found that the statue’s price of “nearly 300 million yuan” (about £312,000) had been donated by “several entrepreneurs, including some people in the village.”
The villagers evidently wanted something which looked impressive, but not so impressive that it would dwarf their village. They also seem to have wanted it to be near but not so near that they would see it every day. Mao consequently looks as if he has been sent far out of the village to sit on the naughty chair. He is planted rather meekly on a hard chair, surrounded by a landscape of an almost dystopian featurelessness. He looks like an inept scarecrow – too big to convincingly resemble a living creature, too peaceful to scare the birds away, and painted bright gold so that low-flying crop dusters won’t crash into him. There is not even a proper road leading up to the statue – just a dirt track. Perhaps this represents a symbolic hell for Mao: he is forced to eternally sit and muse over the kind of battered landscape which his own ism had once wrought.
Mao has been put here by private financiers, the very class which he had dedicated his life, and the lives of many of his people, to annihilating. His statue has now inspired some rather testy commentary throughout China on the responsibilities of this social class. What else could they have spent their surpluses on? Something similar is presently occurring in Glasgow, but it is far less democratically adequate.
Here, the unelected quango Creative Scotland, which is only indirectly accountable to us through “arm’s length” government supervision, has donated £15,000 of taxpayers’ money and lottery grants to a conceptual artist to maintain a blog about living in Glasgow for a year. In any other country, Ellie Harrison would turn out to be the daughter of some important government official. This is the UK, of course, and so exactly the same appearance of corruption has been inadvertently created by foolish people who are trying to do the right thing.
Grimly, you read Harrison’s blurb for “the Glasgow Effect” and you see the right boxes for government funding being dutifully ticked. Yes, this project “will cut her carbon footprint.” Naturally, she will “seek out and create ‘local opportunities’.” You can almost picture the impact assessor at Creative Scotland beaming over the work of such a good pupil. “She’s on message about the carbon footprint and the localism – this one goes straight to the top of the pile.”
What will the Glasgow Effect actually produce? Alas, the blurb for the project is such a tissue of corporate statements that no room remains for any description of it. Some people sound genuinely angry. Loki the Scottish Rapper rages that, “This money could be used to employ three part time staff at a project which already exists where people already know the effects of living in Glasgow because they LIVE IN GLASGOW.” The tabloids and Twitter detected middle-class snobbery in the Glasgow Effect and they reacted with merciless mockery and contempt. The Effect’s title echoes a term which is used by sociologists to refer to Glasgow’s high mortality rate; the accompanying banner is a display of soggy chips, as if Glasgow’s cuisine has not moved on from the days of the string vest.
There was a backlash and then a backlash against the backlash. The composer Matthew Whiteside warned that the public anger “feels like a lynch mob.” For years, we’ve disappointed the world of conceptual art by persistently refusing to engage with their immersive experiences. Now, when we do so, we’re a lynch mob!
Still, it’s rather a bodge to criticise Harrison’s project for being both too politically correct and culturally offensive. So which one do I prefer? It is, in fact, far better that no politics comes into this from any angle. When Alan Bissett pleads for us to wait until “the project is completed” before judging it, this is ordinarily a fair point and it will no doubt prevail once wisdom has finally settled over the debate. But if I can locate quite what is so genuinely perverted about the Glasgow Effect, then it lies in the funding. All of the timeless glamour of exploring a city, the atmosphere of the labyrinth from the novels of Dickens and Joyce, is surely lost when the process is being funded by the state like a college course.
Can one imagine Glasgow’s entrepreneurs and citizens all donating to fund the Glasgow Effect? The question is an easy one because £15,000 isn’t very much money in the arts world. That Chinese village raised over £300,000 for their golden statue, but China is on a different scale and one of their villages is probably the size of Glasgow. If all public subsidies were axed then conceptual art would still survive, even despite its almost universal unpopularity. Its continuing unnatural life has been sustained by private capital, most influentially from Charles Saatchi.
Harrison herself subscribes to something called the Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund, which wants to use the revenue earned by a wind turbine to establish a grant scheme for community artists. This virtuous turbine is obviously not reliable enough yet for Harrison to forego the arts dole. Her application to Creative Scotland, which she has since published on her website, involves the artistic equivalent of seeking planning permission. You sometimes read about these things, but you never realise how bleak they are until you read them in person:
I have a successful track record of managing large budgets dating back to 2004, when I first received funding from Arts Council England to develop the Day-to-Day Data exhibition. As a conscientious self-employed person, I keep meticulous records of all income and expenditure, which will enable a detailed report accounting for funds at the end of the year.
Horribly, it gets even worse. There’s a “risk assessment,” but I think I might make myself upset if I start to write about that. The people on the receiving end of this application are bored career bureaucrats who will have networked their way into the next job by the time that the project is underway. They won’t be held to account if the project flops – these people never are. With Harrison’s application, they don’t want to be charmed by a powerful artistic personality or inspired by an ambitious vision. They want to prescribe sensible, socially relevant art to service users in communities. They would veto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel if the risk assessment was below a certain word count.
What is so alienating about the Glasgow Effect is that a controlling bureaucratic imagination has appointed itself as an intermediary between the artist and the community. This is intrinsically disempowering and so it is no surprise when people feel that they are not the consumers of public art, but the victims of it. In China, people without any money played no part, as far as we can tell, in deciding to erect Mao’s statue. In the UK, art is unleashed upon poor communities like social work and the recipients find it baffling or even insulting.
You might think that I am leaning towards the law of the jungle, for the natural rigour of the free market to produce art which is altogether fitter than the current sickly output. There might be a more democratic way than the free market to fund art, but Creative Scotland so far isn’t it.