Funding the arts, and begging for money

Yesterday I sent off my application to the Scottish Book Trust (the rejigged name for the literature arm of the former Scottish Arts Council) for one of their New Writers Awards; the closing date is tomorrow, and I should hear if I’ve been successful by November. Eight unpublished writers will each get a sum of money (enough so that I can work part-time for a few months while concentrating on writing), as well as introductions to agents and publishers, and will be paired up with a published author who will act as a “mentor” and give professional advice on your work. I was more than fortunate that my former tutor Dr Tony Pollard (archaeologist, writer, adventurer) agreed to write a reference for me, so hopefully this will swing things in my favour when the decision is made. The piece of work I included in the application is taken from the middle section of my novel “In Borderlands”, which I’ve been working on for almost two years. (I was going to include a link to it, but I’m not sure of the etiquette when I’ve just submitted it, and I’m massively paranoid about prejudicing my application.) It’s definitely the best work I’m capable of at this stage, and I’m supremely confident in it as an example of my writing. Whether that writing is what a publicly-funded arts body is looking for is another matter though, and the wait to find out if I’ve been successful is going to be horrendous. I foolishly feel that I’ve staked quite a lot on it. 2010 is the year where I actually seem to have made some progress in my writing, even if it’s mostly been with the non-fiction side. One of these awards would cap the year beautifully. Failure doesn’t feel like an option …

On a related note, in this time of brutal, fiscal austerity, when almost every public service has been earmarked for cuts of one sort or another, can spending on the arts be justified? Taxpayers’ money is being thinly-enough spread as it is, and I’m sure the average citizen would be less than pleased to learn that his/her hard-earned cash was being used to subsidise someone like me so he could work on his novel undisturbed for a few months. The publishing industry (for the moment) works on the same market principles as any other business, and if your books don’t make money then why should the state step in to keep you afloat? This is a contentious issue at the best of times, but feels particularly urgent now. I don’t have an answer either. My opinion is hopelessly biased in that I’m applying for public money to help create the conditions in which I can comfortably write – at the end of the process, hopefully, there will be a published novel and a (avid, eager!) readership. I would say that if you have even the smallest concern for culture then surely any contribution to that culture is beneficial, no matter how it’s been funded, and public money should be spent on at least some level because it’s the wider public who will benefit. However, I suppose it depends on what is being funded and by how much. Naturally, I think small sums (in the grand scheme of things) to help unpublished writers who show promise onto the oleaginous ladder of literature is a Good Thing; vast sums (by any definition) going to opera or ballet perhaps seems less justifiable.

This leads us again though into the nasty, ill-lit cul-de-sac where art and utility are mistakenly seen as interchangeable. Because opera and ballet traditionally appeal to an elite, presumed to be wealthy or at least financially comfortable, the argument goes that they don’t deserve public money because their patrons can afford any mark-up in ticket prices necessary to cover a short-fall if public money is taken away. Literature, at least theoretically more democratic (as something that will last you the rest of your life, books are surprisingly cheap; and until all the libraries are done away with, you can still borrow them for free), and with far smaller operating costs on the part of its practitioners, can argue more effectively for subsidy. More people benefit from books. Books are less “elitist”. Books do furnish a room.

These are both valid arguments, but my concern is that an environment where all areas of the arts have to prove some kind of tangible economic value for their services will lead to an ugly kind of bidding war. If all sides are trying to justify their use-value to a sceptical exchequer, then it can only act to the detriment of all. In political discourse, where you could be forgiven for thinking that the populace would rather the entire country was turned into one vast, School/Hospital hybrid, it’s often the case that any money spent on the arts is seen as money wasted. Arts funding rarely produces quantifiable results – the only results that politicians and media commentators are interested in. When you deal with art, necessarily you’re dealing with the intangible. You can argue for a wider social benefit, peddling the well-worn maxim that good art makes good citizens, but this is both unprovable and faintly sinister. You can’t really measure the benefits of funding; it’s either an inherently good thing, or it’s not.

All this brings us no closer to a conclusion, but please comment if you have any opinions or violent, ill-thought prejudices you’d like to share on the subject. I think we can all agree though that me winning one of these awards would be the best result all round …

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