8 January 2016

I really wanted to avoid this one when I first became aware of the tale on Social Media. I got the jist of it, an artist got £15 grand worth of funding for remaining in Glasgow for a year. I just didn’t care. Even if I was to find out that all she intended to do with the money was use it as a procurement and delivery method for cocaine, I would barely bat an eyelid. After the banking bailout and some recent political wage increases, I have a high threshold when it comes to getting angry about public money being wasted on the wrong people. In fact I have a high anger threshold about everything nowadays. I have become slowly desensitised over the years with the drip, drip, drip of countless terrors that used to get me apoplectic. Malnourished black babies with bluebottles crawling over their bulbous bellies, limbless Muslim children being carried away from the remains of a freshly bombed kindergarten, burning corpses falling from the creaking remnants of the Twin Towers, the melted, contorted faces of Pakistani housewives who have embarrassed their tribe so badly that a battery acid facial was the only honourable solution.

After beholding so many monstrosities, I am constantly amazed at the ability of people to get upset about anything nowadays. In that respect Ellie Harrison is no different from many of her detractors.

Forming a reasonable opinion on any matter one is not already familiar with takes time and effort and this story seemed too trivial to merit that investment – a barrier to participation that didn’t hold back half of Glasgow.

It became a thing. And to be fair some people have made a reasonable attempt to explain this anger. In a characteristically articulate polemic, Loki, who is such an edgy voice of the oppressed masses he requires his own personal desalination plant, bestowed the truth on the predominantly pretend lowborn readership of Bella. The furore was all about Class. He might have a point, as the son of a striking miner who keeps a sourdough starter next to his four pack of Tennents, class is something I’m often confused about. Although having read and enjoyed many of his other works, I suspect Loki would blame a bad bout of gastroenteritis on the bourgeoisie infiltrating his Vimto or whatever ginger the proles are imbibing nowadays.

Others within the arts have legitimately pointed to the technical issues regarding the awarding of the funds.

But the most repeated refrain that has some degree of logic to it is that the picture of the chips and the changing of the name of the project to “The Glasgow Effect” is in some way offensive. She should have known that this was going to cause offence. Maybe she should, maybe she did. She should/did know it was going to cause offence in the same way that Buzzfeed knows that a picture of a wryly smiling walrus is going to break the internet. It works because there are enough people out there reactive enough to let it work.

The point is a picture of chips and the award of £15 grand should not cause vast offence to any rational person in light of other things happening all around us. The only response chips should initiate is salivation.

But while I sat there drooling the vast majority of respondents were taking markedly different approaches. The most popular of which was to have no qualms about publicly expressing an ignorant opinion in exchange for a few sordid up-votes from mutually unashamed acolytes. The second was having no qualms at publicly directing insulting misogynist rage fuelled abuse at a stranger on the internet.

Although I was sceptical, I decided to give the hoards of angry folk the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this Ellie Harrison was the devil incarnate, maybe she was as people were saying, a privileged lesbian leaching off the toil of hard working families? Maybe you could fry chips in that hair she uses to hide her ugly gap-toothed face. Maybe she should take her Mick Jagger, boy from the eighties napper and fuck off to Edinburgh to get a wash.

So I stopped staring at the chips and I decided to do what next to nobody who had publicly commented on this matter had done. I decided to do some research. It wasn’t hard, she has websites showing her portfolio and the funding application has been published.

That said, it is really spectacularly stupid to judge the merits of a one year art project a few days in. However, we can try to understand why this person in particular may have been given the money in the first place. And it doesn’t take too much effort to find out that if we accept art funding is a thing we should cherish, and if we want to see art funding spent wisely in order to benefit local communities, then Ellie Harrison is a pretty safe person to give the funding to.

She has a long track record of producing accessible community art. She has a long track record of political activism in support of causes that are designed to highlight the plight of and help the exact people that Loki thinks are being disenfranchised by art funding decisions. And what I find more ironic, Ellie Harrison is clearly someone who, unlike most of the people criticising her, unlike me who has become desensitised, gets angry about and tries to do something about things we should be fuming about.

She has created art that highlights austerity, she has created art that engages politicians with members of the public, she runs a massive campaign to renationalise the railways, not a big fan of the way arts are funded herself, she has started a project to support artists via the generation of renewable energy.

Almost everything I have read suggests she is good at what she does, that she will spend the money cost effectively, that she cares deeply about the great issues facing us like austerity, inequality and climate change.

In my three hours of research on Ellie Harrison the main thing I felt was shame. Shame that I have not achieved a quarter of what she has achieved. Shame that there are so many reactionary bigots still floating about the new supposedly progressive Scotland.

If there is one thing I have learned recently, it is that you achieve nothing in life by solely venting rage. Whether that be raging at Westminster for everything that is wrong in Scotland, raging at media bias for deigning to criticise the Scottish Government or raging at a public artist for having the audacity to apply and receive, wait for it… public art funding.

Yes-Scotland taught me that you begin to change things by directing your anger in the form of focused positive action, which is the most prominent thing that has defined Ellie Harrison’s life.

It’s sad to see so many people shitting on a person who is actually trying, maybe wrong-headedly, to improve things. If a fraction of the misplaced outrage in the world was directed at the issues that Ellie is trying to tackle then there is no doubt things would improve for all of us. Part of what devalues her efforts is the fact that only she believes they will be effective. The rest of us angrily write her off, most of us are willing to do so with no knowledge of who or what she stands for.

And while the cyber jury vent, there are companies destroying the environment, bankers stealing public money while awarding themselves massive bonuses, politicians selling arms to despots, bombing foreign peasants, flogging our public assets to their chums and spying on our communications. All of them want you to be raging at Ellie Harrison. Or the refugees, or the Muslims, or the scroungers, or Katie Hopkins or whatever the next big cyber lynching is about.

I know, I know, my apathy has caused me to miss the point. It’s a class thing.

It’s the fucking chips. Bitch.

Robert J Hainey