Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Creative Scotland?

This is an edited version of a talk I gave last week at a half day ‘thinktank’ exploring what vision the new body Creative Scotland (formed by a merger of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen) should have for ‘learning and skills.”

Building creative capacities

How is Creative Scotland going to make a distinctive contribution in a very crowded field of policy and practice? And what should its ‘vision’ be?

There is a tendency for people to talk about creativity as if it were one thing. In fact there are many different kinds of creativity and many different Scotlands. That’s a source of social strength and cultural richness, but although glib elisions of ‘learning, skills, creativity and Scotland’ alongside photographs of kids with video cameras, crowded auditoria and enthusiastic library users might conjure up images of national success, competitiveness and innovation, it will take a lot more than the rhetoric of a knowledge economy to produce a knowledgeable and talented society. Getting the headline narrative right is important but it will be no substitute for enabling people to make real changes.

We shouldn’t just assume that learning and skills can be boiled down to one thing either – in fact you can probably be trained in ‘basic skills’ without learning very much, or at least developing the capacity to learn for yourself. But perhaps creativity and knowledge are two sides of the same coin, and ‘skills’ all the different ways in which the coin can be flipped, and if Scotland is going to be a place which develops the skills of its whole population then creativity is going to be vitally important.

Knowledge isn’t raw information, it’s the capacity to interpret, process, analyse and create new ideas from existing materials. Skills aren’t just measurable competences that can be ticked off on learner profiles; to be genuinely skilled is to possess a kind of artistry which is the capacity to go beyond the routine and everyday, and mobilise tacit knowledge, intuition and a deep sense of purpose and possibility – in whatever field you happen to be working.

Of course Creative Scotland needs to promote the value of creative and cultural learning, but there are three important caveats:

1. Not all forms of culture are necessarily experienced by audiences or participants as 'creative'. A lot of cultural and educational institutions have a lot to learn about creativity, even though aspects of their work can teach us a lot about creativity too. Moreover, different communities find different value in different kinds of cultural activities – there can be no single arbiter of quality in a complex culturally diverse society.

2. Science, technology, management and accounting can all be creative too

3. The challenge is to articulate a vision that is inclusive and inspiring, but not vague

As a colleague from the US, Mat Schwartzman, who has a talent for one liners, puts it:

“creativity is a muscle”

which can be used in lots of different ways.

Creative and cultural policy?

In policy speak there tends to be elision of creativity and culture. The official line tends to stress the economic benefits of the creative economy – and have a strong rhetoric about capacity for innovation and supporting ‘excellence’ in cultural provision – but:

• creativity and cultural questions can be uncomfortable and challenging
• culture can give rise to knowledge that doesn’t fit easily into official versions of the knowledge economy,
• truly innovative and creative work challenges consensus - curators, commissioners and customers have to cross the lines between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the traditional and the avant-garde, all the time if you want work that is going to be challenging
• a lot of the reasons why people participate in art and culture aren’t primarily economic, but artists still have to eat...

If we agree that creative and cultural learning is important then Creative Scotland needs to be a champion of a country in which everyone can experience creative learning.

For me, creative learning is fundamentally about a sense of agency, of being able to make and remake, of being able to invent – in small or large ways. Not everyone will innovate (that is to say, embed their creativity systematically and change social or technological processes) but everyone is creative – and the notion of promoting creativity as a life skill is important – a skill not just for work (although that’s important too) but a muscle that can be exercised at all stages of life, in all situations. It’s welcome that this is clearly flagged in the public thinking around Creative Scotland to date.

Creative Scotland will need to address:

• training for arts and cultural, and media professions – building and advocating for the infrastructure in Scotland for this – and addressing issues of funding, pathways, and partnerships along with all the other agencies responsible for education and training

• professional development and professional learning for practitioners in the creative industries at all stages of their career, from entrance to exit

• learning about and valuing culture across all sectors/segments of learning

• lifelong learning and community learning, experiencing and learning through different media and the arts

• the contribution that artists, cultural institutions, and storytelling through media make to placemaking, well-being and quality of life.

• how culture creates a sense of distinctiveness and identity. It’s the quality of cultural expression that gives a place its distinctive characteristics – and this cultural expression appears in architecture, in design decisions about the built and social environment, in literature and storytelling, in fashion, media, cinema, radio, television, and everyday language. Culture is the conversation that a society has with itself on a daily basis. So learning and culture are totally intertwined.

I worry about Paisley, where I live, when the most visible monuments of its incredible cultural heritage, other than a lot of great 19th century architecture in fairly poor condition, are black and white photographs of Victorian mill workers on the walls of Morrisons supermarket. The everyday disconnect with the place’s incredible cultural heritage – and potential - is evident in the lack of ambition for the place, which often seems to be limited to more supermarkets, more retail sheds, more service centres, more motorways, more low grade jobs. That’s no recipe for a cultural or creative renaissance. Other towns and cities in Scotland with a similar history have fared rather better – perhaps a job for Creative Scotland is to champion the ways in which culture and creativity can contribute to place-making in its broadest sense.

And we know that although the arts, culture and media can make an important contribution to the economy, they are also there precisely because they speak about those things that can’t be accounted for or measured.

The arts are too important just to be left to the market.

Creativity and Scotland’s cultures

Creative and cultural learning isn’t just about more entertainment, beautification and aesthetic appreciation – bread, circuses, monuments, or classic texts - but also about engaging in dialogue and debate – isn’t that what effective learning is supposed to be about? Culture is a conversation – sometimes it’s a constructive dialogue, sometimes it’s loud, vocal, dissenting, difficult, sometimes obscure and hard to understand, sometimes direct and to the point.

Scotland has a fantastic heritage of critical dissent and activism which continues to be kept alive by new generations of artists through places like Citizens Theatre in the Gorbals, the Greater Easterhouse Arts Company, Craigmillar, and in communities in the Highlands and Islands that have sustained an incredibly rich cultural life on very limited resources.

Scotland has big questions to confront and I’d suggest that the arts, film and theatre do this rather better – you get more subtle and nuanced responses - than the politicians generally do.

There will be many Creative Scotlands - the commercial and the subsidised, the classical and the vernacular, the traditional and the popular – and lots of different types of work. In fact, especially in a small country, many workers move almost seamlessly between these worlds and perhaps its better not to get too hung up on the distinctions. On the other hand it’s important to understand some of the differences. Paying for the time of some musicians and some artists to undertake some artistic experiments in a cave and make an experimental film, like the one I worked on with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Durness last year, is a very different proposition to trying to produce a No 1. single or the next big movie made in Scotland.

But without the creative soil to grow the big moneymaking trees in, they will fall over and dry up for lack of nourishment from the grassroots (to over-extend an already over-used metaphor).

We need a vibrant commercial media/culture industry, we need a strong education/training sector and we also need not for profit organisations. We need to recognise the value of informal participation and the work of the voluntary and community sector, because culture and creativity is too important to be left to the marketplace. So a learning strategy needs to acknowledge all this and ensure it provides more than the minimum for all. This is a considerable challenge/balancing act because each of these sectors speaks different languages, has different antecedents, and different expectations. There’s a translating and negotiating job to be done. But value can be found in linking together the formal and the informal and developing conversations between different communities.

A second related issue, which it’s really important not to overlook, is what I call the informal creative economy – i.e. all the activity around and on the fringes of the officially recognised cultural sector. If we’re talking about the creative economy we need to pay attention to the shadow economy – the ways in which people find ways in – not just the official economy. That includes voluntary participation, informal clubs and associations, and the role of religious, ethnic and political affiliations in making meanings through cultural activity.

The simplest way to do this is to make time and space for people to do their own thing. When I think about my students working flat out in breaks between lessons in the studio to rehearse and record, I realise that those sort of informal learning places and spaces, because they are immersive and self-organised, are often more productive for musical learning than formal instruction. Room 13, which is developing offshoots all over the world, explores similar ideas using the visual arts and a radical commitment to learner autonomy, from Fort William. But because policy money usually has to be attached to measurement of outputs, for reasons of ‘value for taxpayers’ etc, there is often a squeeze on space for informal experiment. When public funding is attached to creativity, there will always be tension between ‘delivery’ (delivery of what?) and incubation (preparing for the unknown).

I suspect that the strategic potential of arts and media activity to support cultural cohesion and sustain community development, as well as the tourism, retail and media industries, are still not fully understood by government agencies and policymakers, who sometimes confuse the ends with the means. Culture does not exist to ‘deliver’ social policy objectives, but there is plenty of evidence that participation in cultural activity can lead to social gains. However, artists are artists precisely because they don’t want to tow the line and because they can offer a different perspective to established orthodoxies. Grit and challenge are important – part of a democratic culture.

A confident and vibrant society would be one in which there are creative opportunities – in which quality of life, health, and a sense of wellbeing, engagement, and citizenship are all present.


So, to conclude, here are four ideas for the dimensions of a possible vision to consider:

1. Infrastructure issues – the institutions and networks which provide the learning opportunities – how they work, how they are funded, how they are supported, how they can collaborate and build shared agendas. Because resources are scarce, collaboration tends to work better than competition but people in educational and cultural institutions need to learn how to make these work better...

2. Intelligence issues – helping practitioners and participants to access knowledge and skills – to advocate and publicise work, to access the learning resources that they need – given that a lot of artists and cultural practitioners have a pretty precarious existence it will be important that Creative Scotland is forward looking, strategic, helpful and a source of good information and intelligence...

3. Innovation issues – professional learning and development to make creativity sustainable, and systemic change in the cultural sector, in the education sector, in the public and private sector which embeds a vision of creative learning not just in the school curriculum but throughout all stages of life

4. Inclusion issues – how to maintain open and participatory institutions, remove barriers and obstacles to participation, enable dissent and difference and embed a sense of opportunity – I was really pleased to see the idea that formal/informal learning will be woven together in the new Curriculum for Excellence – that’s an essential ingredient of creative teaching and learning

To which perhaps we could add a fifth – internationalism – not just taking cultural products from Scotland and the UK to the global marketplace (although that’s important) but also to exchange learning – with europe, the US, the developing world, etc. and to understand that forging links and networks with like-minded people globally will be the way to build a sense of momentum and opportunity around this work.

In a difficult economic climate, advocacy and innovation will be crucial and it’s really important that we don’t just have retrenchment to the tried and tested given that public money will be tight – therein lies a failure of nerve and ultimately this will also lead to economic failure, as well as further social divisions.

Culture and creativity provide the tools to make sense of the world – to tell meaningful stories – to make sense of the present and to build and imagine possible futures.

So – let’s hope that Creative Scotland will be funding work which is catalytic, which moves the debate forward, which isn’t about duplication, and which builds capacity for that the all the different Scotlands can train, build and flex and their creative muscles in the years to come.