The Glasgow Effect is a term given by epidemiologists and sociologists to describe the disproportionate levels of ill health and early death in Scotland’s second city. Disproportionate, because even when the usual factors of poverty are accounted for, Glasgow exceeds expectation. People in Glasgow have the lowest life expectancy in Scotland but even the wretched figures given for the city as a whole mask appalling local discrepancies.
In 2008, a study for the Centre for Social Justice found that a white male in the Calton area of the city could expect to live until the age of 54, some twenty seven years less than his Bearsden counterpart. You have to scroll a long way down the list of global life expectancy, past Libya and the Congo, past the West Bank, Iraq and Burundi, before you find countries where a man will probably be dead by 54. In fact, there are, as of 2015, only 12 countries in the world with a lower life expectancy than that of the white male in Calton.
The reasons for this astonishing and disgraceful situation are complex in origin and difficult to address. Unemployment has been devastating in an area that has seen the loss of at least 65 per cent of industrial jobs since 1991. Men who, had they been born a generation earlier, would have been building ships now rely on benefits (at least one in four families by some estimates) or work in soft industries. These distinctions matter, contributing to a sense of emasculation and frustration. Consequences include above average levels of damaging behaviour – smoking, drinking, drug use, poor diet – and all the attendant effects on mental and physical health. A continuing circle of damage and deprivation perhaps, but when you have nothing and see no prospects ahead, you take your highs where you can.
All of which means that when a conceptual artist comes along with a new project entitled The Glasgow Effect, it is likely to attract some attention. When it turns out that the project involves apparently nothing more than the artist vowing to remain within Greater Glasgow for the duration of the year, it is unsurprising that it should provoke mockery. When it is revealed that the artist is receiving £15,000 of public funding for this project, nobody should be astonished to see the mockery turn to anger.
Ellie Harrison’s project is backed by Creative Scotland, the quango charged with distributing Scottish Government and Lottery money to the arts. We can follow The Glasgow Effect project on Harrison’s Tumblr blog where the header photo is of a chip supper and the strapline asks, ‘How would your career, social life, family ties, carbon footprint & mental health be affected if you could not leave the city where you live?’
Well, how indeed? Why not ask the thousands of people who never leave Glasgow because poverty and lack of opportunity means they cannot do so, not because they choose to stay put in exchange for £15,000. This sum, by the way, exceeds by 50 per cent the average earnings for an artist in Britain. The project is also supported by Duncan of Jordanstone art college in Dundee. It is perhaps safe to say that the first part of Harrison’s question has been answered already.
People who are more familiar with Harrison’s work than me say she is a talented and thoughtful artist. That may well be the case and it is easy to see that something interesting can be drawn from any project based around enforced geographical parameters. There is nothing new in this, although it is more common for artists to seclude themselves somewhere remote. The question surrounding this project is not so much the art, which may or may not be worth a dime, but the funding, which, undoubtedly, is worth many.
Consider how else £15,000 might be spent. The musician and writer Darren McGarvey, one of the most thoughtful and articulate voices coming out of Glasgow these days, wrote a searing response to the project. When he talks of the projects he knows and values in the areas associated with the real Glasgow Effect, it’s worth listening. He’s an artist from those streets, who actually knows and cares about those people and, I suspect, would be thrilled to see even a fraction of this funding directed towards a community radio station or local arts facility.
Public funding of the arts will always be uneven and contentious but that doesn’t mean a free ride should be given to any project under the name of art. Sometimes, an artist needs to question why they, personally, need money that could be spent on something else, something bigger, something more worthwhile. How Harrison, who has lived in Glasgow since 2008, could not earn her own keep during this year is beyond me. Perhaps if she was obliged to take on a real job, it would give her some rather more interesting and realistic answers to her questions.