Jim Monaghan: Why the response to Ellie Harrison's #GlasgowEffect is dangerous for the arts

Poet and arts coordinator at Govanhill Baths Jim Monaghan says the outrage on social media at Ellie Harrison's #GlasgowEffect art project could have unintended consequences

LAST YEAR, like many other artists of the left, I attended events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jenny Lee's White Paper, 'A policy for the arts - first steps' - to date the only white paper ever published about the arts.

A year later, the Scottish socialist politician launched an education white paper that led to the foundation of the Open University. The principle of free access to education is under attack and most here in Scotland disagree with it.

Yet, Lee's principles of placing art at the heart of communities and societies, of access to participation and enjoyment for all, are, going by the social media reaction, not to so popular here in Scotland.

As to the merits of the project, or any art that might result from it, I don't really have an opinion, and that is sort of the point. All art is subjective, and measuring the results of art isn't always possible.

The futurists used to use a slogan "Fiat ars - pereat mundus" ("Let art be created, though the world perish"). It's perhaps ironic to think that an artist who is proposing to step away from the advances in technology - the cars, trains and planes that the futurists revered, is now the one defending this concept.

Ellie Harrison plans to limit her work to the confines of her home city for a whole calendar year. She would normally work across the country and beyond, her 'day job' is in Dundee. She has received Creative Scotland funding to carry out the year-long research into whether it's sustainable (career-wise) for artists to immerse themselves in one community and still practice.

As to the merits of the project, or any art that might result from it, I don't really have an opinion, and that is sort of the point. All art is subjective, and measuring the results of art isn't always possible.

We can all tick boxes that said X amount of people attended, or produce evaluation sheets stating that people "enjoyed it" and "got something" from it. But we can't measure the after effects, the line in a song that inspired a thought, a thought that became a process, a process that led to an action that made a difference, either personally, artistically or politically.

Sadly, much of the response has been reactionary, and an argument has emerged that accepts the austerity myth, that during 'hard times' arts funding should go to foodbanks.

Much of the reaction to Ellie's project has been, like my own, a certain horror at the use of the 'Glasgow Effect' term and the image of chips. Criticism of her art, or her proposal, is as valid as the art itself. But, sadly, much of the response has been reactionary, and an argument has emerged that accepts the austerity myth that during 'hard times' arts funding should go to foodbanks.

Worse still, another old argument has come to the fore during this debate, one that says that art is for the middle classes. You see, stripping the arts of funding doesn't affect those with trust funds, high incomes, rich parents or a fat pension.

It's those who can't afford to participate that we need support, they are the ones who will lose out. Funding for the arts is patchy at best, sometimes poorly focussed and often benefits the privileged most.

But Creative Scotland's Open Fund is one of the shining lights in the mist. It allows individual artists to take on things that work commitments or income prohibit them from doing. It could be a few hundred pounds to fund a research trip, or fully funding large exhibitions, but either way it mostly allows artists, communities and arts organisations to launch projects that they could not otherwise have taken on.

Some of these will seem, to some, a waste of money, others will inspire hundreds. But it's not the concept of arts funding that is the problem. Is it true that art school graduates are from the middle classes? If yes, then perhaps we should ask whether that is true throughout society.

Without public funding, arts are left to the market. If you are skint you need your art to be popular so that you can pay the rent, only the rich can afford to be subversive or make 'art for arts sake'.

If the children of middle class parents are also more likely to graduate in general, if they are more likely to be in work, or own a home, then it's the class system and society that's the problem, not any individual artist.

Without public funding, arts are left to the market. If you are skint you need your art to be popular so that you can pay the rent, only the rich can afford to be subversive or make 'art for arts sake'.

If we turn on public funding of the arts then we might end up with "all the power in the hands of the people rich enough to buy it".

That, by the way, is a line from a Clash song, written by one of my favourite artists, Joe Strummer, who is as middle class as it gets: a boarding-school boy who's dad was a British diplomat. See?

Picture courtesy of Tumblr