6 January 2016
The Guardian

Ellie Harrison’s grant for her work the Glasgow Effect has attracted ire from fellow artists – but they should focus on the budget butchers cutting arts funding.

For many who live or work in the city, the phrase the “Glasgow miracle”, used to describe the remarkable body of contemporary art produced there, can easily get the hackles up. It’s not that the people of Glasgow aren’t proud of the city’s contribution to contemporary art, more that there’s really nothing miraculous about it.

Many of those who made big contributions to the art scene had attended Glasgow School of Art at a time of maintenance grants and free tuition, both of which helped the students turn their city into an enduring European cultural centre.

The “Glasgow miracle” provokes rancour among many Glaswegians as it suggests that their cultural output must somehow be the result of divine grace rather than a combination of good education, imagination, a supportive community and hard work on the part of the practitioners. A post-industrial city consistently producing impressive art is not the equivalent of turning water into tonic wine.

There is another phrase that haunts the city and that’s the “Glasgow effect”. This term refers to data showing that people who live in the city are more likely to suffer poor health and premature death than residents of cities with similar socioeconomic profiles – Liverpool and Manchester for example.

Recently it has taken on a duality of meaning. It has become a byword for the pampered indulgence of creative practitioners sucking funds from the state in a time of brutal hardship for many Glaswegians. The artist Ellie Harrison has won funding – £15,000 – for an “action research project/durational performance” in which she will not leave the greater Glasgow area for the duration of 2016. Predictably, the good folks of Facebook and Twitter are outraged. Part of the criticism has been that the project is artistically hollow, that it’s patronising and self-indulgent. That may or may not be true. Certainly the cover image chosen for the Facebook event, a closeup of some chips, seems ill-judged and suggests a lack of understanding as to what the Glasgow effect really is.

But underneath that there are more interesting threads of criticism. The first is that spending money on any art project at a time when people are relying on food banks is reprehensible. But this one’s a non-starter. The money has largely come from Creative Scotland and as such would have been designated for arts funding. Whether Harrison had claimed it or not, it wasn’t going anywhere near a food bank.

Then there were the comments from other artists living and working within the city. “I know literally hundreds of people (including me) who’ve been creating art of all descriptions in Glasgow for years and funding it from our day jobs or from hosting fundraisers,” writes one infuriated Glaswegian. Another seethes: “I am actually so angry at the fact this artist will be getting funding (thousands) for a project where all she has to do is stay in the city [where] she already lives! I am now working two jobs possibly a third working 60-70hrs a week just so I can do my project, [working] with a small town in Iceland bringing contemporary art to a very remote region.”

In the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence one would have been forgiven for assuming that the arts community here was a homogenous mass, so unanimous did they seem to be in their support for a Yes vote.

Indeed, Ellie Harrison herself was the artist behind a piece called After the Revolution, Who Will Clean Up the Mess?

There is scant evidence of that sense of unity now. The reaction from other artists seems to be overwhelmingly one of resentment. Resentment that a fellow artist could be given money for a project that some see as totally worthless. Resentment that while they work long hours to fund their work, Harrison has had it handed to her on a plate. This mentality is the same one that leads people to scoff at striking public sector workers. “It’s all right for some,” they say. “How dare they strike when they have it better than me?” is the cry. It is a race to the bottom and the death of solidarity.

The fact that so many artists find little to no financial remuneration for their work is not the fault of the few who have benefited from public funding. Regardless of one’s views on this particular work, it is not Harrison’s fault that the pot of money available to artists is so small. Why not turn your anger to those who have, over many years, shrunk the pot? To those who have forced artistic endeavour into the marketplace, which in turn has given rise to crowdfunding, where artists seek the help of anonymous “backers” in order to be able to put their ideas into practice. It is patronage masquerading as democracy.

That’s not to say that the crowdfunding and self-funding, something many of those so appalled by Harrison’s latest piece rely on, is without its uses. But the idea that art is only justifiable or worthwhile if it has been paid for by oneself or put out to tender is insidious, especially when it’s being espoused by the artists themselves.

It would be a great victory for the budget butchers who have systematically cut away at public money for art for decades if its practitioners started to see their work as merely a product. On the basis of this controversy, they come closer to that victory.

Liam Hainey