Some thoughts on Artists and Injustice

A previously unpublished essay by James Kelman on the relationship between artists, the working class, and fighting injustice.

Regardless of class we are surrounded by injustice. This is reality. Allowances are not made for Artists. Nobody is exempted from the experience. It affects us directly and indirectly. It is how we deal with it that matters. We have a choice: if directly assaulted do we defend, or not? If the injustice is one we encounter indirectly (in other words it is happening to someone else), do we lend support, or not?

If we do choose to support we do so in a way we feel appropriate not only to the situation but in terms of our own capacity. We learn how to deal with these matters from a young age, and this too is regardless of class. We drop money into the cups of people begging, and come to learn that we cannot drop money into the cups of every beggar. Not because there are too many beggars but because we have insufficient funds. We learn to suppress our immediate emotional response, not to stop “doing good”; but to do it in a more meaningful way.

We decide whom to support; we distinguish between individual beggars. Some are in desperate need; others not so much – not that we can tell. But how do we tell a worthy beggar from an unworthy one? In some countries limbs are chopped off a child to increase their value and illustrate their authenticity. Would we feel more secure in our own judgment if street-beggars could prove to us that the reality of their plight matched their physical appearance?

Are we certain that certain street-beggars are not trying to deceive us? There are people whose plight is so desperate they are incapable of begging. Should we seek them out? Where do beggars stay? What does it mean to “live on the street”? We give somebody a quid then spot him enter a betting shop. Is he about to gamble “our” money? If we give money to a street-beggar should we decide how he spends it?

A down-and-out man lies a crumpled heap in a gutter: do we take his hands to pull him up onto his feet? Offer him a cup-a-soup, a packet of aspirins, a glass of whisky, or do we make him comfortable and send for an ambulance? Is it possible to make a wrong decision when we seek to support a beggar? If this is a voluntary act can we be wrong to go one way rather than the other? But if we try to move him we will do him an injury. What if we try to give him £10 but he manages to whisper, No thanks. I’ve stopped begging these days. I’m far worse off but I just don’t beg any more. What do we do? We know he is in dire need, but in dire need of what? We cannot trust our own judgment. Should we seek advice on the matter? Who from? Does a charity exist to support down-and-out people who do not beg? Perhaps this guy in the gutter refuses to beg or take any form of charity as a political act. What happens then? Do we express solidarity, wish him well, and walk on, leaving him in the gutter?

One thing we might do is look at the situation in a different way. There are charities for most every conceivable purpose related to human welfare. They compete for our attention. Each one requires our support, apparently. There is tacit agreement that charities are of equal value. Whether to donate or not is left us as a personal choice. All classes of people can become donors. We may support whichever one and as many as we wish. Even those of us in receipt of support and material resources from one charity, are not disqualified from donating to another. We may choose to support one charity alone. We drop coins into its collection boxes alone, buy our Christmas cards only from them and shop only at their retail outlets. We think of this charity as “ours” and try to represent it whenever possible. We take part in marathon runs on behalf of this charity, collecting money from close friends and family members whom we – and the charity – describe as “sponsors”.

Many donors prefer not to support the welfare of human beings. Their emotional depths are stirred by other species. They respect that animals, fish and birds are incapable of forming a charity on their own behalf, and unable to beg unless coached to do so. Human beings have to organise for them. Some charities do not exist to support any living being whatsoever. They deal with issues that affect each and every member of humankind regardless of race, creed and class. One I support personally is the Safe-Guarding Interesting Aspects of the Planet cause. I once played non-stop snooker for two days on behalf of it. What a chore, but well worth it.

If we have no personal connection to particular charities and wonder which to support, then we may check out their sponsors and backers. Those of us who favour royalty may wish to contribute to one of the very many not only associated with the House of Windsor but founded by individual family members who have been in at the foundation of a very great number of charities, not only here in the UK but the Wide World Over. If family members of the Royal Family are not listed in particular charities we may check to find of it contains the names of any celebrity members of the Higher Orders.

Charities are also employers. Some of their staff are volunteers but those at the higher end of management receive salaries. Generally a charity’s chief organiser is a paid employee. When they appear before the public to appeal for financial support they tend to look the same and say much the same: that their charity has been formed to combat existing tragedies or preempt future ones, and if you donate money to this charity then thank you very much, you have our heartfelt gratitude. Would you consider a monthly debit to our account to avoid unneccesary overheads?

These overheads can amount to as much as 80 pence in every £1, leaving only a little for the people or cause it was founded to support. This was identified as a problem a few years ago and a Cross-Party Committee of politicians was set up to resolve it. The end result was the formation of Charity Supreme. This was designed to centralise and dispense with administrative costs. It did not work. People objected to donating money into the centralised pot of Charity Supreme in the first instance when all along they wished only to support their own charity. Eventually the project was abandoned.

Many of us become disillusioned with donating money to charitable organisations. All we asked was the opportunity to help alleviate the suffering of people through no fault of their own. We believe we could do more good by putting an end to the need for charities at all. We continue to use charity shops for books, cds and vinyl albums but draw the line beyond that.

In a different type of society the plight of a vast number of people would be seen as the effect, not of individual “bad” choices but by factors outwith their control. Perhaps we could become involved in strategies designed to correct injustice and alleviate suffering. Whom should we approach? Is somebody responsible? Who makes decisions? Does anyone?

We now enter the labyrinth of mainstream politics. This one is controlled by permanent authorities: local, regional, national and international. The temporary authorities are the elected members who occupy a portion of their time persuading permanent authorities to bring about change in regard to this, that and the next thing. What we the public have to do is persuade these temporary authorities to do their best to persuade the permanent authorities.


At this stage we would prefer a return to the good old days when we went a walk and were confronted by a human being in dire need: here is a £1, and then we went back to work. Now here we are signing our names to petitions, joining political parties, participating in State-managed political events, including General Elections. People do all of that regardless of class. We might take it further and attend rallies and meetings; march on demonstrations and protests. We assist in campaign work; attach ourselves to campaigning groups, become voluntary workers.

Individual members of the ruling class, including the monarchy, give personal support to very many charities and foundations designed to support. They occasionally allow themselves to be identified by the UK public on mass media. One step to their rear, in various acts of prostration, follows a plethora of celebrity-artists, actor-celebrities, sportstars, comedians, politicians and other entertainers. Each month of November they all sport a red poppy. One day per year their children don a red nose. But only one cause matters: Secure the State.

Wading through the ethical mire of distributing alms to the needy, and coming to terms with everyday suffering and injustice, allows young people to let off steam while learning to suppress human empathy. Much of their working and leisure hours will be spent debating sophisticated variations of the above.

a] Can the destruction of one culture for the sake of another ever be justified?
b] Should we release the means by which another people might survive?
c] Are there ever grounds that one country might be destroyed for the benefit of all?
d] Is genocide ever an answer?

This has lasting application for those destined for careers in politics, education, organised religion, the military, the media and business. The rest of us content ourselves with kicking the cat during radio phone-in debates and television programmes like Question Time.

We learn to deal with injustice in our own individual ways but most of us learn to live with it. The ruling elite and leisured classes come not only to live with injustice they value it as the cost of their own survival which is contingent upon survival of the State itself.

Injustice affects the lower orders in a different way. I use the term “lower orders” very loosely here; referring to working class people, immigrant groups and diverse minority communities; racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and groups such as single parents, people with health issues, learning disabilities. The question of “choice” remains but the context shifts. Injustice is no longer indirect, but thrust upon us, it is happening to us or those closest to us. Each day is a minefield of exploitation and humiliation, not only for ourselves but for our families and friends. Allowances aren’t made for Artists. A working class artist is a working class person. In the United Kingdom the reality of class is thrust upon us.

When injustice hits close friends and family members we are driven even more than at the personal level, and scarred more deeply. How can we stand by when our partners, children and grandparents are humiliated by State authorities? People are driven mad through outrage and despair and become capable of the most desperate actions. But what do we do about it? Should we act, or should we endure? How do we help? We can offer solidariy but how do we translate this into action? Can we give meaningful support? If we cannot do that is there any sense in which we can offer a meaningful solidarity, one that extends into action of a form that allows us at least to believe that what we bring may effect change?

Here arises a classic issue in regard to art and political engagement. Is it enough to create art individually or should I involve myself in something away from my own desk, something that gets me engaged alongside other committed individuals? Many believe that it is enough to create art as best we can, that this in itself is an act of political engagement. Good art may offer a challenge to conventional social value.

The outcome of artists “doing their best” is challenging work. Any work is deemed “challenging” where focus is placed onto a negative aspect of society. Public attention is focused on the plight of individuals brought about through no fault of their own; people who are generally regarded as disposable. This raises such questions as: Can something be done?

This is construed as a political act not by the artist but by the State authorities. Bringing a matter to public attention is a political act. It suggests something significant about the suffering of one individual. Otherwise why would the artist give their time to “capturing” the somebody? Many artists do not intend challenging anybody at all, they just do their best, maybe taking photographs of people surviving on the street, begging and not-begging; making a song about one in particular, drawing somebody hobbling along the street. If the artist argues that there is nothing unique about this particular artist then this may be even more damaging in the eyes of authority. What do you mean, that this city is full of beggars! How dare you. This city is better than that. Why don’t you paint a picture of the Kelvingrove Art Galleries, the Lord Provost’s Chains of Office or write a song about wee lassies and boys playing at skipping ropes.

State propaganda and disinformation serve to propagate the myth that every outcome is the effect of free individual choice. Any artist who creates a work based on the existence of one solitary individual who appears to be suffering through no fault of their own will be viewed with suspicion by the authorities. Why did the artist choose such a subject? Is there a singularity about such a subject? What might it be?

The authorities will seek to establish that the artist is not “working from reality” otherwise why would their work suggest that those in desperate plight are so through no fault of their own, when everybody knows that the only unique attribute about such so-called “individuals” is that they should choose to beg, rather than not beg, should choose to suffer rather than not suffer.

Why do people Beg? Why do people choose not to eat? Cue further television documentaries. In support of State authority media programme-makers and political commentators, cross-party politicians and all the usual celebrity suspects will discuss why it is that people choose paths that appear perverse to the rest of us and that those are not unusual in contemporary society, let alone unique, and if we for example glance back through the annals of history we shall discover, lo and behold, that ancient peoples also made bad choices in regard to health and wellbeing. Some individuals will choose poverty, unemployment, homelessness, every time, ensuring that their children suffer the same. Isn’t Human Nature a wonderful thing! Always human, always mysterious!

This will lead to the assumption that a foundation exists in art which is essentially human and devoid of any political context. We could describe this as “pure art”; an art stripped of everything that takes to do with the world as we know it. “Pure art” concerns the expression of what it is to be human. We are composed of flesh, bones and a blood coloured red; particular sets of organs, muscles and body systems, and a distinctive brain. All these mixed together within their own specific relationships and systems produce an entity bound by a certain physical configuration and characterised by several fundamental properties, qualities and attributes.

This entity – a human being – will perceive, judge, create and cope in a manner that distinguishes the species from all others, and some of those operation are activities associated with what many prefer to call the “mind”. I don’t wish to be controversial in this matter. I am not allowing any mind-body distinction here, but neither am I disallowing it. A further element may enter this human-complex, which may or may not exist. This immaterial entity is defined in a variety of interesting and exciting ways that touch upon essential philosophical and theological concepts. This additional element, which may or may not exist, is typically described as “soul”.

The crucial factor is that all such properties, qualities and attributes are characteristic of the species. The majority of “establishment art” begins and ends there. We can make an art out of this that frees us from becoming enmeshed in smelly old politics. Instead we engage in “pure art”, uncontaminated by immediate reality, by existential experience. This may be nonsense but it is surprising how deeply rooted it is, and how rarely it is challenged.

Yet we move immediately from there into shared evaluations in regard to how we are to live together on the planet. Killing is wrong, stealing is wrong; so too is being smug, or proud, or greedy, gluttonous or lazy; having lustful thoughts, performing acts of impropriety, envying our neighbour, and many more of the same.

The education system and society in general advise and teach us that humanity can share emotional experience at a most basic level; joy, sadness and perhaps even something as sophisticated as irony. We all smile at the antics of babies, the glory of flowers and the vagaries of personal relationships. We all enjoy a song or a poem. It makes no difference that it was created by a billionaire monarch or a guy half dead in a gutter. Cut us and we bleed, chop off our heads and we are headless.

Such feelings, values and opinions are shared from top to bottom in society, and are “safe”. If we found a charity to support the victims of envious neighbours then we may hope for support from every section of UK society. Street-beggars might empty their cups and donate the lot to the Prince Alfred the Great-sponsored Charity on behalf of Hungry Horses.

Human experience passes “beyond” mundane everyday reality. And quite a few artists believe that art itself is beyond politics. This is unsurprising given the levels of propaganda and disinformation designed to that effect. State authorities and the establishment in general obscure how art operates. Art is pushed as a one-word description of “the finer things in life”. These “finer things” are associated with the decoration of reality, including inner states of mind. Anyway, what is “an inner state of mind” in reference to the Lower Orders? Even if it it does exist it is meaningless. Working-class people are barely human beings at all. A working-class person capable of enjoying Beethoven, Paul Cezanne and the works of Plato is a contradiction in terms of “working-classness”.

Traditionally many on the left have allowed that nonsense to escape the net. They are materialists and are content to consign art to the rich and powerful. The only world is the world of things and matter, the world out there. Beauty lies not in the creation, nor in the act of beholding the creation, it has to do with the acquisition of the creation. Art is the property of the ruling elite and upper classes. The owners of a painting are engaging in art when they acquire this painting rather than that one over there. A billionaire is engaging in sport when he buys a football club, or pays £2.5 million for a thoroughbred yearling. Art is an effete pursuit and concepts such as “inner states of mind” “expressions of spirituality” are best left to those in a position of economic luxury who have the leisure time to dwell upon matters of the spirit; the configuration of the stars, the size of a whale’s belly, the texture of a fly’s wings, the snore of a large male after a night on the booze.

This kind of nonsense has always annoyed me. My annoyance is the greater when those on the left accept it. All art is bourgesois decoration; all artists are bourgesois bastards. Never mind the writers, painters and musicians whose work I loved, who struggled and took a battering and fought through it all to create it.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, it wasn’t the Lives of the Saints that interested me as a young fellow, it was the lives of the artists. My heroes were Zola, Kafka, Camus, Dostoevski, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Modigliani and many more. So many artists have fought not only to survive as artists but to engage in art at all. They seek the freedom to create as best they can, at whichever level they choose, unrestrained by prescriptive ends-means arguments forced upon them by external authority whether left wing or right.

So-called working-class artists have had to contend with the additional and suffocating constraint, that the only valid art is an art that serves a purpose, that furthers the cause. Generally the cause is assumed to be the class struggle itself. But how is that defined? Who evaluates the art? Who makes the judgment on validity?

Individual artists struggle to throw off notions of representation, the idea that they create their art “representative” of a community. Many from within their community will expect their artists to champion the cause and be disappointed if their characters exhibit attributes they regard as negative. This is a crazy notion but unfortunately is taken seriously. No matter which community we belong – race, creed, gender/sexuality, family background – we have a duty imposed upon us to represent community interests. Our stories have to concern the failures and successes of individual members of our community. Immediately we encounter obvious problems for those of us who belongs to several communities. Our parents were immigrants; we are cross-gender vegan Gnostics who refuse to use any mode of transport bar the tandem bicycle. Which community should I represent? Which characters must I write about?

From beyond our communities the pressures are more severe. We are consigned to the ghetto. No matter the work we create we are never other than working class. Our work is evaluated as a function of how closely it reflects “working-class reality”, as perceived by the person reviewing the work.

Artists have to rid free themselves of the burden of “representation” altogether. We cannot help but work from within their communities. There is nothing we need do about this except get on with our work in as free and unrestrained a manner as possible. The best method of “representing” our community is engaging in art as a free individual, and doing the best we can.

Which authority will advise the artist on the success or failure of the finished art-work, the painting, story, play, or musical composition? Should artists be handed a set of guide lines on what constitutes “furthering the cause”? They can then appeal to the guidelines and produce a work of art that conforms to them, which reminds me of these Creative Writing Courses advertised in the Guardian newspaper, and at certain universities.

During the 1970s and into the 1980s I earned next to nothing from writing alone and registered unemployed. Two individuals who came to my support were the writer Trevor Royle then at the Scottish Arts Council [SAC] and the poet Stewart Conn who was also a producer at BBC Radio. In 1974 I was awarded a SAC bursary of £500 which allowed me and Marie, my partner, to put a deposit down on a flat. The building was demolished in 1977 by a compulsory purchase notice from Glasgow Council who took pity on us and allocated us a rented flat. That same year, through Stewart Conn I was given a commission by BBC Scotland to write a play which was broadcast on the opening day of BBC Radio Scotland [1978]. This play was based on the execution of the weavers Andrew Hardie and John Baird in 1820 for their part in the Scottish Insurrection.

I hoped other work in drama might have been offered following that but nothing did. In 1979 I managed to land a job for a year as a Writer-in-Residence at Renfrew District Libraries. By then early 1980s I had published three small collections of short stories and was working on a variety of writing projects. One I brought to a conclusion was my collection of stories, Not Not While the Giro for which I received an advance on royalties of £200. This the biggest sum I had ever earned for writing apart from the radio play. My source of survival as a writer was always Marie who worked full-time until the last few years. After my year as Writer-in-Residence I was back on the unemployed register. Around 1983 the Scottish Arts Council awarded me a £2000 bursary. This allowed me and Marie to consider laying down a deposit on a flat with space enough for me to work and a bedroom each for our daughters who had entered their teens.

I had been under the impression that SAC awards or bursaries were non-taxable sums to be treated as a kind of prize. Perhaps this would have applied had I been in a stronger economic position. But because we needed the money it did not apply. I was signing unemployed. The British State endeavoured to force me off the unemployed register. Someone at the Department of Health & Social Security [DHSS] heard about the bursary. They weren’t so much interested in taxing the sum but in finding a way to withdraw my unemployment benefit. They wanted me off the broo until the £2000 ran out. I was to make use of it on a weekly basis, in place of the welfare benefit.

I fought against this. I argued that the bursary should come to artists to be used however they wished regardless of their economic and social position. The way I saw it the only artists who were to gain by such bursaries were those already in a decent economic position. They already had the means to survive. The bursary thus came to them as a form of bonus that they might use in whichever way appealed to them. I was not opposed to that, I was demanding the same right. I wanted to use the money in whichever way I thought best. If I wanted to buy a car, a boat, a greyhound – or a new washing machine, a fridge, a couple of carpets, some clothes. It was up to the artist how s/he spent the money.

It was a difficult fight and took much time and energy. I tried to impress upon the SAC how crucial it was for artists generally but they were unable to offer anything but kind regards and a general silence that I suspect was embarassed. They appeared incapable of offering support. The reality of life in Britain for the vast majority of its citizens was beyond their ken. Like most public bodies and authorities the Arts Council capitulate as a matter of course when confronted by the Department of Lower Order Control. At that time it was the DHSS, before that the NAB, later the DSS and now the Department of Work and Pensions.

My first published novel, The Busconductor Hines, appeared in 1984. The novel was condemned by the Chairperson of that year’s Booker panel, withdrawn from Edinburgh bookshops and attacked in Parliament by a Tory MP who also condemned the Arts Council for providing financial assistance to my publishers, a branch of Edinburgh University Students’ Union. The novel was about a busconductor who was married with a child and suffering the usual struggles. Ten years on came my novel about a man who goes blind after receiving a battering from a couple of officers of the law. This too was narrated in the “voice” of a working-class Glasgow man. I had been developing my work in this way since 1972, and was not unused to hostile reactions. But I was ill-prepared for the level it reached subsequent to the award of the Booker Prize. Any pretence at literary evaluation was quickly discarded for an elitism so blatant that it amounted to racism. In Scotland the mainstream authorities were less elitist but generally hostile. There was a sense that I had shamed us all. The character at the heart of that novel was nothing more than a Glasgow Keelie and should have been brushed beneath the carpet.

The immediate result was more marginalisation of my work, and to some extent this continues. I am expected to justify the subject matter of my stories or the manner in which I use language. It is less common nowdays to find the burden of proof set so firmly against me that I have to establish that I am “a real writer” but this has happened in the last decade with critics and reviewers, including a couple employed by the Guardian.

There have been no in-depth features on my work on television or radio since 1994. When my last novel was published in 2012, based on a young mother who works as a croupier in London, I was given a slot in BBC Radio Scotland’s lunchtime arts programme. I was schedule for fifteen minutes out of the hour. In the event this was reduced to less than five minutes to allow plenty minutes for a chap from the Home Counties who may also have been a radio or television presenter, and had just published a book telling of his experiences as a teenage fan of punk musicians. I don’t have any real objections to this; it is simply to show how my work features on the scale of art. I don’t take it personally. There is an inferiorization of Scottish art here in Scotland where the authorites and establishment takes its lead from British concerns. Anything Scottish is pariochial by definition. If it does not assimilate to the values and mores of standard Bringlish Form then it cannot be serious.

From the earliest period I thought of myself as a writer but was early defined by other people as a working-class writer. This coloured the critical response to my work. To quite a significant extent that remains the case with the British literary establishment. I was young married, lived in a tenement and drove buses. But the main reason I think concerned the subject-matter of my stories and the finish of the stories, as a result of the techniques I was learning to employ. I was forced to see the potential of art as a political weapon. I didn’t begin with that. My earliest stories provoked outrage from members of a writers’ group I attended. A couple of years later a printer in York refused to print a story of mine and would not print the magazine unless the story was withdrawn. These and other negative reactions to my stories helped me become keenly aware of the political value of art, the hypocritical humbug that masquerades as “art appreciation”, and the “place” of my culture within the British establishment.

Without going further into the matter it should be clear that any challenge to mainstream or conventional value is a political act or may be construed as such. This is basic. I find it very difficult with people on the left who either cannot grasp this, or who can and seek to deny it in spite of the evidence. No artist who concentrates exclusively on his or her own work will ever be criticised by me for any lack of engagement.

Over the years I have got myself involved in political stuff. Maybe this has to do with personality and personal experience. From the age of fifteen to thirty I worked at various jobs and became used to workfloor struggles. In 1973, the same year as my first collection of stories was published in USA, I was driving buses in Partick and involved in a strike.

Campaigns are full of chores. Writers and other artists have useful skills and some of these can be employed elsewhere. Through practice writers learn to write more skillfully, to construct arguments, to value consistency; they can write letters, create posters, press-releases, explanatory essays and articles; and, crucially, record moments of struggle. The written record of struggle is full of gaps and gaping holes. Activists rarely have time to record experiences and situations. They are too engaged in the struggle. The goal is not so much to document an important moment for the historical record but to commit to paper the internal workings of these moments, so that people involved may learn lessons for future moments.

I should add that I managed to win the campaign against the DHSS and let the Arts Council know that this was a useful precedent. All of my documentation was available for use by other artists who found themelves in similar situations. That is the last I heard. I don’t know whether others have been attacked by the State Department of Lower Order Control in the same manner. The majority of artists find themselves in a similar economic position to working class people, engaged in a constant struggle to make ends meet. Those who do not come from a working class background will find life very difficult. The rest of us are used to it.


Photo credit: “I love Bremen” by Per Gorsche. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.