Dear Creative Scotland: Ellie Harrison is a Class Act
6th January 2016
In 2014 Glasgow City Council provoked uproar by proposing the demolition of the infamous Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. It was a truly defining moment for Scotland’s largest local authority and met with what seemed like universal derision.
But be honest. How many people from more affluent back grounds actually thought it was quite a good idea until the wider population signalled how deeply offended they were? Come on tell the truth.
The notion of watching those unsightly high-rises crumbling at free-fall speed filled much of Glasgow’s middle class population with excitement. The towers’ enduring memory would now stand as a symbol of social renewal following a nightmarish period of de-industrialisation that left many pockets of Scottish life better off while entire communities lay idle, drug-addicted, on the economic scrap-heap.
No longer would families live like battery hens, caged in sky-scraping fire-traps (academically celebrated, award-winning fire-traps in their day), shuttling up and down urine scented elevators with second-hand prams or braving barely-lit stairwells that reeked of wet dogs and damp cigarette butts – couples arguing through the paper walls.
Finally these ungodly eyesores and the social deprivation they symbolised would be ripped from the Glasgow skyline like rotten teeth in a television extravaganza beamed around the globe for the sport of all the world’s citizens.
The idea this may have been upsetting – heart-breaking even – to the people who used to live on Red Road was barely an afterthought.
Welcome to Scotland where this sort of thing goes on all the time yet somehow people have the gall to wonder why so many are pissed off about Ellie Harrison’s year-long fact-finding mission. A journey into the bohemian odyssey that is the very specific daily plight of a celebrated, internationally known, distinctly educated, professional contemporary artist cursed to live off the humiliating crumbs of regular commissions.
Shake yourselves awake man. This was never about attacking one unfortunately titled project.
If only influential sections of Scotland’s established arts community were as insightful and articulate as they seems to think they are. If only they could grasp the fact people are not actually annoyed at Ellie or even conceptual art – infuriating as it is at times. If only they could grapple with the thorny reality that people are actually annoyed at the big floppy-haired elephant in the green room: they are annoyed at rising social inequality and how this expresses itself culturally.
We have to get honest with ourselves about where scepticism of certain forms of art and culture comes from. It comes from the fact we are now living in two different worlds.
In working class communities symbols of culture and identity are ripped out, renamed, sold off, mysteriously burned down, gentrified and/or demolished routinely in the name of progress. This progress usually comes in the form of a road which connects affluent towns and suburbs to shopping destinations in cities.
Then there’s the constant back drop in which schools are closed regardless of what locals think, common land is handed to private developers, regardless of what locals think and public spaces are locked up at weekends due to funding cuts while suburban Scotland frequents the swanky shopping village now perched on the periphery of these criminally under-resourced communities.
These shopping districts, super-imposed on the receding cultural landscape, are hailed as the solution to poverty and are always given new names which subtly disown the heritage, history and people of the local area – who now work there for peanuts.
So when Creative Scotland decides to bankroll one person’s investigation into how being stuck in Glasgow with no road out affects your social life, career and mental health then you better fucking believe some Glaswegians are going to be fuming about it.
There isn’t much difference between this issue and the Red Road issue save except the level of anger over the Glasgow Effect hasn’t quite scared educated opinion into a humbled and wise retreat – yet.
Yes it has been heated – sometimes abusive – but luckily there is always someone with a degree on hand to tell everyone to calm down.
Let me be the one to call this out for what I think it really is:
The Scottish arts establishment does not know how to communicate with the country’s working class population anymore. This is because it’s dominated by people from middle class back grounds who get offended when someone further down the food-chain questions their expertise and intentions.
But instead of showing some contrition about this, the only response seems to be an instinctive dismissal of people for getting legitimately annoyed about what they understandably feel will likely be another socially irrelevant, artistically indulgent and thoroughly middle class fact-finding mission.
A fact-finding mission that will add only to an exclusive bank of middle-class knowledge most people will never be able to alter or interact with.
Another torrent of torturous terminology that exists solely to be recycled at shit dinner parties and multi-million pound Third Sector jollies as evidence that Scotland is going to be okay because you guys administer everything.
But it’s not going to be okay and that’s why so many people are pissed off.
Not because they aren’t smart enough to understand what the project is about. Not because they are prejudiced against art or rushing to conclusions without knowing the full facts.
(Christ, when has the absence of fact ever prevented any of you from wading in? Why is mass outrage only legitimate when it serves the cause of a large enough section of the country’s middle class but gets dismissed as uneducated rabble when it doesn’t?)
People are angry because The Glasgow Effect re-opens a wound that exposes Scotland’s structural inequality.
Just look at the project’s title: The Glasgow Effect. For a comfortable minority this term is purely mechanical; describing how industrial-scale poverty finds expression through the population’s infamously poor health.
But for most people in Glasgow, the city’s effect plays out on the creaky stages of unnaturally short lives, punctuated by incidents of violence, social exclusion and the all-consuming dread of life-long economic insecurity – while their entire existences are caricatured, vilified and misrepresented in every form of art, media and culture you can think of.
The grotesque structural inequality Scotland’s cultural intelligentsia seem incapable of perceiving, acknowledging or articulating, has spawned two societies each with their own divergent language and cultural tradition, living side by side, fighting to re-enforce their own legitimacy.
But only one is fairly represented culturally and this manifests as a nagging anger in the tired hearts of those living under the spikey cosh of permanent austerity. They look out at their culture and see only shadows of themselves chasing faint echoes of who they really are.
People are not sceptical of ‘culture’ because they are daft they are sceptical because culture is too often a conversation from which they feel locked out and alienated.
They are sceptical because whenever they try to take any cultural capital into their own hands mystical bureaucratic road-blocks protrude from the Earth making them want to give up almost instantly. They are sceptical because they never hear about what funding is available because they are not part of ‘creative scenes’. They are sceptical because the forms of culture they enjoy are dismissed by the subsidised arts community as vulgar. They are sceptical because those same progressive voices that dominate cultural discourse are always policing them about how to talk and what to think while demonstrating little insight into what working class humour and sophistication looks sounds and feels like.
But most of all, they are sceptical because they live in communities where arts organisations parachute people in every year who unintentionally usurp the natural order of things by installing their own temporary hierarchies; failing to consult or collaborate with the individuals and agencies who already live and work there.
The very people who already know the answers other folk are being funded to find out.
Then these organisations send word to Holyrood of the amazing ‘transformational’ impact they are having. No surprise great care is taken to leave out the part about the seeds of resentment and scepticism they have sown on the way to cultivating the cultural enlightenment. Seeds which have sprung in the last 48 hours.
So stop kidding yourself on that this is all a storm in a tea cake, down to people misunderstanding the issue. I think most people understand it just fine.
The only thing they don’t understand is why £15,000 is never available when someone where they live needs it.
PS – I wonder if you would consider funding this project
Arts & Culture