The Internet Effect

What could you do with £15,000?

You could, according to the Creative Scotland funding list, hold a weekend film festival. You could host an Independent Radical Book Fair. You could translate The Gruffalo into a variety of Scots dialects. You could tour a play or produce a dance performance. You could develop and produce half of a new body of work to be shown at major exhibitions in the UK and abroad. You could complete 2.8% of the GFT’s extension and reconfiguration work. You could, if you wanted, buy 0.3% of the kelpies.

Or you could enrage the internet.

Ellie Harrison’s year-long art project was granted £15,000 of Creative Scotland funding not under its current moniker, The Glasgow Effect, but under the less contentious working title of “Think Global, Act Local!” On the 4th day of its 366, it became Glasgow’s most talked-about art in recent memory – or at least, the Facebook event did. Like most things that happen on the internet, opinion is divided on what exactly happened: healthy vigorous debate or vicious witch-hunt? People voicing suppressed opinions and attacking the status quo, or groupthink and misdirected rage? But as in most spaces on the internet, certain recurring motifs began to dominate that Facebook page; certain ideas propagated themselves and stories began to take shape; certain overarching themes could be identified in the teeming outpouring of opinion.

The thing itself, of course, was almost non-existent, a couple of hundred words of vague almost-plans and half-thoughts. The best internet outrage is built on the backs of things that barely exist. The first task, then, is to supplement what’s there, make it seem more solid and tangible. The most tangible thing anyone could grasp, in this case, was the fact of £15,000. So that monetary fact became the core of the idea that, as rapper Loki put it on his own Facebook page, “Some artist is getting £15,000 to live in a scheme for a year to investigate what it’s like to be poor,” which quickly became common wisdom, his phrase “poverty safari” picked up for the Daily Record headline. The event description, of course, mentioned nothing about either investigating or experiencing poverty. Arguably, the idea might be inferred by the branding of the project, the name and that picture of chips that everyone was particularly incensed by, and by what seemed to be the central point of the project, the not-leaving-Glasgow, which it was rightly pointed out is an unavoidable reality for huge numbers of the city’s inhabitants. But if anything, the event description is conspicuously not about poverty. It’s about artists and academics and the environment and middle-class professional mobility and globalism and localism. With a name like The Glasgow Effect, it might be argued that it should be about poverty; that for it not to be about poverty is at best a blinkered and at worst an offensive gesture. But the idea that the project was a middle-class artist pretending to be poor or researching poverty was, it turned out, made up.

Still, though; she might not be pretending to be poor, but she’s definitely pretending to be Glaswegian. The phrase “parachuted in” started showing up, calling to mind that infamous Alasdair Gray essay about cultural imperialism and English professionals using the Scottish arts as a career stepping stone. And Ellie Harrison is English; she might be posh or she might not, but we don’t really need to investigate her socioeconomic background when we can say all that needs to be said with the phrase “from London”. The story became not just a middle-class artist on a poverty safari, but specifically an English artist on a Scots safari. Some have framed the anger as an outpouring of working-class rage at a disconnected cultural elite, which clearly tells part of the story; but given that Facebook doesn’t have socioeconomic class or annual salary as drop-down profile options, the only thing we can say with certainty about the rage is that it was Glaswegian rage. Only born-and-bred Glaswegians, the ones who really never have left the city (whether through poverty or through their own passionate, abiding, absolute weegie-ness) are allowed to make art about Glasgow or jokes about chips. Ellie Harrison, it turned out, has lived in Glasgow for over seven years, and clearly intends to stay for the foreseeable future. There are all kinds of arguments to be had about who owns culture, about where its centres of power lie, about the fact that the arts establishment and its gatekeepers most definitely are posh, and about how Scottish culture might be compromised by British centralisation. But the unremarkable event of somebody from London – who has lived and worked in Scotland for an amount of time that, for an EEA citizen, would count as permanent residency – applying for open Scottish arts funds does not strike me as a particularly relevant part of that debate.

But it’s not just about who she is or what she is or isn’t doing, not really. It’s about £15,000. Some of the angry commenters think that £15,000 should go to a food bank or a homeless person; presumably those people think all arts funding is an irredeemable waste of money. Lots of the other angry commenters, though, think arts funding is great; it’s just that this particular project is a waste of arts funding, or that Creative Scotland is bad at allocating its arts funds, or that arts funds are going to the wrong places. Lots of those people have good points. But there was another recurring theme, another narrative thread that was not about funding structures and processes and criteria and budgets, but about work and laziness and entitlement and about the questionable status of artistic labour. Glasgow, this narrative said, is chock full of  hardworking artists who do not, unlike Ellie Harrison the Londoner, have the audacity to apply for public money. The ones who slave at full-time jobs and still find time to make music or theatre or film, and who expect nothing in return. The people struggling by on less than £15,000 a year who don’t have the brass-necked cheek to ask for government handouts to support their creative pursuits. It’s not just that people think this particular project should have been passed over for something worthier; there’s a strong sense, instead, that the very act of applying for such funding is an insult to hardworking taxpayers, and that Ellie should get a proper fucking job and stop scrounging. Is this starting to sound familiar?

The targeted outrage at this one particular person and her one particular £15,000, at its wastefulness or its pointlessness or its unfairness, is underpinned by a logic of austerity that isn’t good for artists or workers. It’s founded on the kind of moralising, work-ethic-obsessed, I-the-taxpayer rhetoric that feeds off the resentment generated by capitalist exploitation. If I have to be an overworked, underpaid wage slave, it says, then anybody who finds a way to get out of it – artists leeching on public money, long-term benefits claimants with their tellys and their booze, asylum seekers in nice houses – is my enemy. Those might seem like incendiary comparisons; I’m not suggesting Ellie’s plight resembles that of the unemployed or refugees, nor that the majority of people on that Facebook page share sentiments with the Daily Mail commenteriat. But the structure of the outrage is strikingly similar. It takes the anger generated by exploitation and alienation, and redirects it into anger at the undeserving, the frauds. But rarely the ones with the real power and the serious money; just the ones who we think have managed to play the system.

Ellie Harrison’s work might turn out to be terrible. But lots of people are terrible at their jobs, or have jobs that are by their nature terrible, and get paid a lot more than £15,000 for them. Many are paid vast sums every year – by the government and by profit-making companies that sustain themselves on government subsidy – to do things that are every bit as pointless and often much more harmful than making some art with a questionable title. People climb all sorts of unsavoury ladders in the quest to make a living out of the career they’ve decided they deserve; they make far more questionable choices than applying for a relatively small amount of publicly available funding. The yearly pay of Creative Scotland’s chief exec could pay for Ellie Harrison to stay in Glasgow for seven years. Each of its other senior staff could fund her for at least four. The question of public sector salaries is a different conversation, but it puts into perspective the anger that was emphatically not just about the project but about the amount of money; it puts into perspective the question of who gets scrutinised, and why.

The difference between those jobs and being an artist, of course, is that art by its nature invites public debate, critique, and yes, attack. It turns out that the internet effect, as well as mass shouting and weegie irreverence, can also mean a sudden wealth of conversations about art and labour, about austerity and funding, about class and representation and cultural privilege. And it’s hard not to argue that people are entitled to their anger and frustration and alienation with the art establishment. It’s true, beyond a doubt, that middle and upper-class kids have more audacity in feeling able and entitled to apply for arts funds, for education funds, for internships and well-paid jobs and all the other ways they are taught the world is supposed to provide for them. Economic privilege is inextricably bound up with cultural and social capital, and the professionalised arts – like so many other professions – is inherently elitist. But instead of getting angry at one person getting paid to do the thing she’s decided to make a career of, or getting angry at Creative Scotland as if this is all about one bad funding decision, let’s talk more about how people are systemically excluded from creative pursuits. Let’s work towards funding models and creative communities that would empower a wider range of people to make art; that would make financial support more accessible, less confined to the language and the social circles of already privileged communities; that wouldn’t get angry about artists’ audacity, but would instead tell working-class and otherwise marginalised artists that they’re entitled too, that they can and should be audacious and demand recognition and recompense for their creative labour. And not only in the form of “community outreach”, where art is a means to an end, a form of social therapy, a salve on the wounds of broken Glasgow. We should be insisting, loudly and audaciously, that art from the margins deserves to exist for its own sake, that it doesn’t need a political rationalisation and a measurable social impact. That there are so many barriers to this recognition is something we should be angry about; getting angry about an undeserving art project on the grounds that it’s pointless is not going to help bring those barriers down.

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