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Provocateur's blog

For the three days of Scotland : Creative Nation, Gerry Hassan acted as provocateur, following the debates and challenging views and here, in Provocateur's blog, Gerry gives his personal views on issues arising from Scotland: Creative Nation.

Monday 5 March
Wednesday 27 February
Tuesday 26 February
Monday 25 February
Friday 22 February

Monday 5 March

After Creative Nation:
The Search for Heroes, Song and Stories for a Northern Land

Gerry Hassan

What was ‘Creative Nation’? Has it started, is it over, or just begun? What would a ‘Creative Nation’ look like? Do we already live in one? What happens after all of this?

Three days of discussion, presentation, listening, stimulation, disappointment, tension, conflict, and movement – with nearly every human emotion under the sun represented. Yes, there was even a bit of love and empathy present.

So many questions, issues and debates and some things not talked about: the role of the BBC, STV and what can we do about Radio Scotland? I am going to talk about three areas: one of which directly touches on ‘Creative Nation’ and two which point towards the future.

The first is organisation. This is a critical point in how we understand, describe and live in organisations in Scotland and the UK. We know the ‘old’ public ways of paternalist authority no longer work, but the New Public Management and consultant class worldview has turned out to be a disaster. We have tried it for thirty years and we really need to ask who gains from this beyond the consultant classes and managers who want to ‘out-source’ decisions they would have taken anyway?

What is required is a new language, philosophy, culture and type of leadership in the public sector – one not shaped by ‘modernisation’ or ‘producer capture’. Here the arts and cultural communities have lots to teach the wider world. Instead of embracing the new orthodoxies of the last thirty years – people have the opportunity to develop new avenues which celebrate and nurture people and tell stories.

The second is about heroes. I want to describe some of my heroes – in the wider world and Scotland – and say why this is important. In the non-Scottish camp I am going to look at about two contemporary US artists: the Drive-By Truckers and Michael Franti.

What I find unique about the Drive-By Truckers is that they are a contemporary American voice that have dared to consistently address the raw wounds of class and race. Their magnum opus ‘Southern Rock Opera’ (US release 2001; UK 2002) examines growing up as a teenage boy obsessed with music and girls, challenges the mythologies of the deep South (and in particular the power of the Governor George Wallace legacy), and does so while also subverting the idea of the ‘rock opera’ (a very 1970s concept which is the period this album is about).

Michael Franti has been on a two-decade mission exploring political and emotional literacy through music. In his ‘Stay Human’ album (2001) he tells the fictionalised story of how the death penalty was used and abused to swing a particularly charged election.

Where Franti looks at how race is used in politics, he focuses on the power of misinformation, how we can set up new information flows, the importance of people taking power into their own hands (like setting up their own media), and the centrality of hope even in the midst of despair.

The work of these two could not sound more different, but there are important similarities. The Drive-By Truckers have a hard rock sound influenced by blues and soul, aided by front man Patterson Hood’s deep immmersion in soul music (his father was part of the Muscle Shoals house band). Franti’s music in recent years with his band Spearhead has tackled difficult issues with a joyful soul/funk beat filled with a sense of exhilaration that makes your heart beat a bit faster and your feet start to move! The similarities include their desire to tackle ‘difficult’ areas in a non-didactic manner, and their genius as storytellers to weave new stories.

The creative imagination on display in these works points to some of the missing stories of present day Scotland. While we have brilliant storytellers in the field of music: Michael Marra, Jock Scott, Julie Fowlis and Eddi Reader to name a few  – who address what it means to be Scottish and live and grow up and grow old in our country – we have not yet told some of the most important stories.

The post-war tales of Scotland have not yet found adequate voice. Have we heard the songs, theatre and films which tell the accounts of the working class hopes of post-45 (that’s 1945, not 1745!)? Scotland, changed, morphed and reconfigured? The tales of hope, liberation, loss and disappointment, of triumph and betrayal?

Some of this can be found in places. The Proclaimers ‘Letter from America’ in one song elucidates a view of the collective experience of the Scots across the 19th and 20th centuries. And Scottish fiction has found space for a number of voices – although the work of McIllvanney and Kelman has lost of some of its power with its over-emphasis on a certain, narrow, wounded masculinity, inability to see men and women live differently, and struggle to see positive paths of resolution for working people.

Perhaps the worst culprit at this is Andrew O’Hagan who seems to take great delight in painting post-war smalltown Ayrshire as a Stalinist gulag! The problems of ‘the Smalltown Boy’ as Jimmy Somerville once said! O’Hagan never talks of the uplifting, generous hand of labourism to many working class families in the immediate post-war era.

Then there are stories we don’t address. The areas which are just too easily ‘silently silenced’. These include stories which interweave class and race, tackle the deep wounds these have left, what has happened to working class communities after deindustrialisation and the ‘old’ jobs went, and what it means to be and who exactly is ‘Scottish?

I have numerous heroes in present-day Scotland. They include people such as Jean Urquhart, who runs The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool, Nigel Smith, who set up ‘Scotland Forward’, the cross-party campaign in the 1997 devolution referendum, and writer and academic, Tom Nairn.

What these have in common is that they are all a generation older than myself, I know and respect them as individuals and for their work, and have collaborated with them on numerous projects. Some people advise that you should never meet your ‘heroes’, but I believe the opposite. Heroes are ordinary human beings with all the frailties and contradictions that go with being human, who do extraordinary things!

To return to the work of the Drive-By Truckers and Michael Franti – one of the challenges of Creative Scotland will be to look out for the voices and work which addresses the issues and groups which until now have been ignored, neglected or ‘silently silenced’ and nurture the new, emergent and sometime discordant voices.

This should entail shaking up the kaleidoscope that is Scotland and seeing what happens and what new forms take shape. That seems an appropriate mission post-Creative Nation: opening up new spaces and places, letting go and enabling new voices and storytellers.

Wednesday 27 February

Gardening for Beginners:
What Does all This Talk about an ‘Ecology of the Arts’ Mean?

Gerry Hassan

A recurring theme of the last three days has been exploring the meaning of the ‘ecology of the arts’ with numerous horticultural references flowing from it. Thus, we have had talk of ‘gardening’, ‘flower beds’, and ‘planting seeds and crops’.

This is a fascinating set of metaphors which takes us somewhere deeply relevant to how we imagine the arts, culture and society. The word ‘culture’ and ‘cultivation’ – deriving from its original Latin roots – was used well into the 17th century to talk about ‘growing’, ‘gardening’ and how we shape and interact with ‘nature’. It had all sorts of association with an organic view of the world, and how we husband and are responsible for planting, growth, feeding and nurturing.

In the last couple of decades as rationalism and modernism have been increasingly challenged, the garden has become a recurring metaphor. James Scott in his breathtaking analysis of the modernist condition writes that, ‘The Garden is one of man’s attempts to impose his own principles of order, utility and beauty on nature.’ It has similarities to schemes of social engineering and trying to build a more perfect social order.

The human race has had different approaches to nature through history and different civilisations. In the pre-modern world the gamekeeper saw their aim as to defend from human interference the land in their wardenship. Their general view was that things were best when they were not tinkered with and that the world has some natural or divine balance to it.

Then came the age of the gardener which is a metaphor for the modernist age. They assumed that there would be no order in the world without their attention. Gardeners think they know best what kind of plants should and should not be grown and what arrangements work best as they force their pre-conceived designs upon the land.

Today the age of the gardener with its hopes, idealism and arrogance has given to the hunter. Unlike the gamekeeper or gardener they do not care about the overall balance of things – whether ‘natural’ or ‘planned’. The sole task of the hunter is another ‘kill’ and filling their game bags. When they go from forest to forest bagging their trophies they know in some distant future the planet will run out of forests filled with animals, but it is not their concern now or in the future.

‘We are all hunters now’ according to the legendary sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman. The potent pull of the hunt and hunting has become for many everything; the only alternative left in the mainstream is that of ‘escape’ and ‘escapism’.

Therefore, for all means let the talk and imagery of the ‘ecology of the arts’and gardening begin, and people use such metaphors to find new meaning and purpose. Let us also look up and reflect what the state of our ecology is and where and for what the gardening is being used.

We have passed from the age of innocence of the gardener, and we need to see the threat, pull and allure of the hunter and the hunt. This is truly ‘the night of the hunter’. We are still living in an era and social system where some people still think that to be a gardener is enough, and that the conventional ways of rationalism and modernism are enough. Others have embraced the anti-vision of the hunter with its determinism and dogmatism to promoting, championing and advancing acquisitive, corrosive individualism and a profoundly negative view of human nature.

The age of the hunter is sweeping the globe under the guise of ‘globalisation’ and increasingly across the West change makers and people looking for deeper kinds of conversation, experience and meaning, are saying that this anti-vision does not represent the values they want to live by.


Lets start by beginning the conversation on what kind of gardening and horticulture we would like and how do we challenge the hunters and the pull of the hunt …

Tuesday 26 February

Rage Against the Machine …

Gerry Hassan

  1. Society cannot be arranged for the benefits of artists.
  2. Without artists civilisation perishes.

I have never yet seen this dilemma solved.
George Orwell

Day Two of what now seems like an endless, never-ending set of conversations, discussions and experiences.

That does feel like the start of the Captain’s Log on the Starship Enterprise on its journey to the Creative Nation ….

What is all this blether, energy and interest in creativity about? Where did it come from and what is it about? What is this ‘creative sector’ we all hear about, and is it a good thing to nurture and take care of? Could we not end up in the position where either it is the exclusive preserve of the ‘in-crowd’? Or a maximalist constituency including everyone in the way ‘knowledge economy’ apologists say everyone is a ‘knowledge worker’ even if they are just making a latte?

The cult of creativity addresses something powerful and compelling in us as human beings. We are all capable of being creative as human beings, have dreams, aspirations, hopes and desires. Is it not intrinsic to the human condition to be creative, to dream and imagine new possibilities and futures?

Some of this creativity has a sense of loss in it – loss of the dreaming, scheming and even detailed planning of collective creativities and the potential for new collectives and solidarities. Surely we have not reached a point where the highest point of creativity is either aligning various government creative policy documents, or the primacy of the individual career path, recognition and success?

Key issues which have emerged over day one and two include the issue of ‘public’. What does it mean as a political, historical and social construct? Once upon a time – if we summarise thousands of years of human history into two sentences – under the rule of kings and queens – we lived in an age of the ‘pre-public’. From the 19th into the 20th century the age of mass democracy, movements and ‘the public’ as an historical agent arose. Now we see the rise of what some commentators call ‘post-democracy’ whereby political, economic and social power is increasingly concentrated in a few elites. This could move us from the age of ‘the public’ to ‘publics’ (ala post-modernism) to ‘post-public’.

Then there is the issue of ‘voice’ – meaning plurality of voices, movement, dance, body and voting with your feet. The concept of ‘voice’ here comes from Alfred Hirschman’s classic ‘Exit, Voice, Loyalty’ looking at how people respond to organisations and institutions. Hirschman’s argument was that the traditional right concentrated on ‘exit’, taking your trade elsewhere – the power of consumer sovereignty. ‘Loyalty’ was the left’s song – all about solidarity and collectives – trade unions and the power of organised labour. What both ignored, and still ignore is ‘voice’.

Voice’ is pivotal to everything – to whose voices are privileged, whose are listened to, and whose are ignored or dismissed. We don’t have equal, open, balanced conversations in our societies; they are mediated and shaped by power, income and status.

Finally, the language we use about organisations and institutions matter. Put simply in the last thirty years we have rethought or been reprogrammed in how we speak of ‘public goods’ and the ‘public realm’ in Britain and the US. It has not been an attractive, positive set of developments, or one that most people have felt they have owned or are confident in. People as we all know feel ‘done to’ in this.

This model is one shaped by New Public Management in the 1980s and management speak, jargon and buzzwords. This has been taken to the point of ridicule under the Blairite modernisation mantras which have embraced an agenda of change shaped by corporate logic.

Some see the best future for the arts being embracing this agenda and arts and culture playing the tunes ‘the system’ wants to hear. Some people think this is the safest route, others think it might offer new ways of imagining the arts, while others still are engaged in a bit of a ‘groupthink’ about the orthodoxies of the age.

Increasingly, many people in ‘the system’ at the highest reaches of government see the limits, pitfalls and damage caused by management speak and modernisation. They look to the worlds of art and culture, of imaginers, storytellers and artists, for inspiration, hope and encouragement.

There is an exciting possibility of a new set of alliances and collaborations here – of reimagining the public realm, making new connections, and beginning a real kind of change which lets us honestly discuss and face some of the big challenges the human race faces. We won’t find the answers in the machine; it is time for a very different approach, the seeds of which are just being planted.

Monday 25 February

Journey from the Centre…

Gerry Hassan

"Administrative man recognises that the world he perceives is a drastically simplified model of the buzzing, blooming confusion that constitutes the real world. He is content with the gross simplification because he believes that the real world is mostly empty – that most of the facts of the real world have no great relevance to any particular situation he is facing and that most significant chains of causes and consequences are short and simple."
Herbert Simon

Across the length and breadth of this country there are activities and resources of hope and imagination whereby people are coming together in groups and campaigns to do something in their area, bring about change or think of how things might be different.

This points to something which needs to be made explicit: the philosophical and practical failure of the centre, with its ‘command and control’ and ‘overload’ of responsibilities. Increasingly, both Scottish and UK Government have extended the range and reach of their powers and at the same time become more ineffective in how they deliver services, cater for rising expectations and deal with anxiety about the present and future.

While incrementally taking more and more powers they have increasingly failed to do the basic things or attain a level of competence (i.e.: losing the details of 25 million citizens in the post), while responding to this by seeing the solution as taking more powers.

This matters to all of us and matters to the arts and culture because increasingly government demands and expects of ‘civil society’ partnership, commitment and delivering various government policies, while at the same time its very actions undermine and erode the autonomous nature and capacity of the same ‘civil society’.

This is not an anti-government rant, it is about organisational culture and thinking and the credo of modernism –as found in ‘modernisation’ and all that. Such a mindset infects most of our institutional life, from the public to private and voluntary sectors.

There needs to be a very different kind of centre – one which turns itself ‘inside out’ – and is more strategic, confident and able to let go. In our country this would see political and cultural self-determination as not just a national project (which it is), but alongside and complimenting it, a local and community one too.

How we get there from here will be difficult, but we know that ‘command and control’ and the ’overload ‘ centre do not work, although this truth does not seem to have percolated into large elements of the Westminster class.

Instead, we need to create the time, places and spaces for reflection, listening and learning, for having different kinds of conversation and exchange, and for celebrating disparate, often contradictory voices. And being comfortable and at ease in the richness of contradictions and different voices. That is surely something which artists and imagineers up and down this country can play a pivotal part in.

Friday 22 February

Living in An Age of Paradoxes

Gerry Hassan

In many respects it has never been a better time to be a ‘Scot’ or live in Scotland: the arts and culture taking a new place in the new Scotland, a fresh, confidence blowing away the cobwebs of parts of our public life and attitudes, a nation awakening and finding its new role and voice aided by the election of last May.

Or maybe I should say – there has never been a better time to be a fully paid up ‘professional Scot’ – earning your living talking up ‘Scotland plc’.

This is a global age of great paradoxes and contradictions. Of good times for some and bad times for many. Of unprecedented, obscene, unaccountable wealth sitting side-by-side with shaming, silent, inhumane poverty. Of disgraceful inequalities and neglect in the richest economies in the world.

We have lots to celebrate and lots to be anxious about, often at the same time. Many of us have never had more choice, opportunity or array of different experiences, and yet in our hearts and souls, maybe only in the quiet of night, we have a sense of loss, anxiety and foreboding about the meaning of life and the loss of a non-material dimension.

If one takes a ‘Ladybird Book’ guide to the history of the last century of Scotland – once we had a certainty of story, meaning and purpose, whereas now we are now not so sure. For a long while we believed the story of religion and the authority of the church. Then came the allure of socialism, followed by free market capitalism. These have all bitten the dust leaving the story of contemporary nationalism. Is this the story we want to inhabit Scottish public life, institutions and identity?

How do we answer the constant chatter of ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ and their debasement by apologists of ‘the knowledge economy’? You know the types. People who go on about this being a time of constant change, complexity and the status quo not being an option. This seems an age where to some there is a historical amnesia that change has always been with us, speed has always been used as a metaphor, and those with power and influence have always since the days of the king’s court had people to tell them theirs was a wise kingdom.

We live in a strange twilight world of parallel universes. One exists and thrives in what Larry Elliott of The Guardian calls ‘Bullshit Britain’. This is a ‘fantasy island’ dreamland filled with management consultant jargon, PowerPoint presentations and phrases such as ‘inviting you to do the step change’.

At the same time another world exists celebrating, reclaiming and reinventing Scottish words and culture. Robert Crawford notes the way Scottish poets have conspicuously reclaimed the wonderful, descriptive word ‘smirr’; Bill Duncan has explored the nuances and subtleties of Calvinism in the North East with a subtlety which leave some thinking it is a celebration, others a critique.

The languages and mindsets we have tell a lot about how we see the modern world, and the values we have. The solution is clearly not to have management consultants who use the occasional Scottish word, but instead to embrace a philosophy which is about an organic and very different concept of change than the people with the flow charts.

This affects how we think of the arts and how we quantify such questions as ‘impact’. How do we expand participation in the arts in a society riven by profound economic and social inequalities and dislocations? Participation in what, and for what? Cultural entitlement to what - and by and for whom?

When politics at a UK level (and in a Scottish context if you leave the constitution out of the equation) has foreclosed debate on the big issues – ‘we are all globalisers now’ – this leaves a whole host of questions unexplored which it is germane to the human condition to explore and have a curiosity about.

This gives room for artists and imagineers to ask difficult questions, to make a nuisance of themselves and to pose inconvenient truths.

However, if artists are left to become the new revolutionary vanguard, isn’t that just putting yourself above the parapet to be shot down? Why should artists be the ones left to pose the uncomfortable questions about ‘Scotland plc’?

In an age where economic neo-liberalism and a narrow determinism about economic growth have obsessed government, policy-makers and the media, how can we expect artists to be the ones who pose the penetrating questions? Don’t artists have to live in ‘the real world’ and befriend public agencies, cultural bureaucracies and benefactors, and conform to the social mores of the age?

The other day I was reading the American cultural site popmatters (www.popmatters.com) - recommended as a thoughtful, reflective site on art, books, film, music and much more - and one writer was talking about the corrosive effect of ‘emotional neo-liberalism’ on all of us. He meant a society whereby increasingly people define the quality and success of their relationships and life by a whole host of criterion including increasingly a sense of financial calculus.

Don’t most of us in some way feel suffocated by a society that defines the idea of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ by financial wherewithal, house prices, status and fame? In such a society how can artists and imagineers stand and ask uncomfortable questions?

There are lots more questions I would like to ask over the three days of ‘Creative Nation’ and hear participants’ perspectives. How do we have a genuine ‘national conversation’ rather than just a website? How can that conversation involve arts and culture? And how can we develop the institutions and infrastructure to support our artistic and cultural imagination and let our ‘spirits’ flow and fly in new and unpredictable directions?

Gerry Hassan

External Links
* Pop matters
* Brian Taylor's Blog
* Drive by Truckers
* Spear Head Vibrations
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