A guest post this afternoon from Kieran Hurley to raise the tone somewhat. Thanks Kieran!
On Sunday the 10th May I was invited to give a short ‘provocation’ at a sort of conference discussion day thing called “Culture: What Next” at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. The day was about coming together to talk about Scottish culture and the arts – where we are and where we might be going – with particular acknowledgement of the experience of the referendum and where it leaves us.
This is what I had to offer. It’s pretty short. It is made up of five propositions that don’t sit easily with each other, that contradict each other quite knowingly and deliberately. It is intended, by its nature, to simply spark a conversation.
There were lots of other great speakers at the event, and lots of interesting conversations that followed. For anyone interested in reading more about it you can follow the Twitter account @For_Culture_ and the hashtag #ForCulture, or if you don’t do Twitter you can go to the website www.culturalactivism.scot. I believe they’re going to have a video of some of the day up soon.
Five Strategies For Artists Wondering What They Should Do About Scotland
1. Remember Scotland
There’s a lot that’s gone before us here that we’d do well not to forget. The questions facing us today might not be that different from the questions that were grappled with by those that went before. Writers and singers and musicians and poets from a generation ago, and one before that, and one before that, and one before that asking what is our place in the world, what are we guilty of, what blood do we have on our hands, what gifts to do we have to offer, and what do we mean when we say the word ‘us’? The most formidable artists are those who can engage with the conditions of the world around them with a deep understanding of their own roots. To know what’s gone before even if only to reject to it. To understand our place within a muckle sang.
2. Imagine Scotland
There is no Scotland of the past because Scotland does not yet exist. This is not about whether or not Scotland is a fully recognised nation state. Scotland does not yet exist because it exists only in the moment of our making. A lot has been said in Scotland about the importance of art and of artists in imaging a future we might collectively try to build. Well, if there’s any truth in that at all it surely doesn’t just apply to a time-limited political campaign. Art for art’s sake is a philosophy of the well-fed, and art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it. The job of work now and always is to imagine and build, conceive and create, work as if you live in the early days… ok enough inspirational quotes already…
3. Shut up about Scotland
Shut up about it, shut up about it, shut up. Stop going on about it. Forget it. Ignore it. It’s a distraction, it’s a waste of time. Carry on being artists and get on with the job of making art. Art that’s about all sorts of things. Art that tries to wrestle with and shed light on the complexities of being human and alive in a broken world. Not art that functions like content generated for an advertising agency given a brief for ‘visioning’ a new nation. How can we demonstrate to the world that Scotland is this, that, or something else? We don’t. It’s not our job. Which is probably just as well because, honestly, I’m not sure we’re very good at it. No more pictures of Mother Nation type women with long flowing hair clutching thistles, no more male heroic muscular topless avatars with steely warrior eyes and national flags emblazoned across their chests. No. No more. Enough. Shut up about Scotland. Shut up about it. Shut up.
4. Chronicle Scotland
There are two things we might mean when we talk about ‘Scottish culture.’ The first is the culture of officialdom; art that is formally recognised as such and given the label ‘culture’ to denote something of its important ‘cultural-ness.’ The second meaning refers to the movements and trends within a wider, bigger, people’s story. All too often when we talk about ‘Scottish culture’ we mean the first one when really we should be talking about the second. It is, now as ever, in the big people’s story of Scottish culture that something interesting is happening, not in the preoccupation of what in business-speak is sometimes termed the ‘cultural sector.’ We don’t need to try to lead Scottish culture and if we did we’d only find ourselves trampled on. Instead we need to ride it, follow it, go where it asks us. We’ll be the chroniclers, the bards, telling sad stories of the deaths of kings and writing bad jokes about the births of new ones; making sense of the shrapnel and debris as the real story unfolds before us.
5. Destroy Scotland
Aye. Tear it to the ground. Destroy Scotland even to the extent to which it means destroying ourselves, or at the very least the privileged position that this Scotland of ours has afforded us. Like any nation on the planet Scotland is just the name we give to a set of structures, institutions, and establishments within a defined geographical place. The only art of any value whatsoever is art which seeks to illuminate the dehumanising power relations within these structures with the express aim of ultimately dismantling them. Somewhere in amongst this moment of hoping and dreaming, of nostalgia and yearning, we’re in danger of losing this critical eye. Don’t ignore Scotland, no. Don’t forget about it. Fix it firmly in our sights with the intention of blowing it up. Start by recognising that the power relations that make up Scotland aren’t just something external to us, they act within and through us and we’re complicit in maintaining them for our own benefit. Be prepared to scrutinise ourselves and each other, let the scrutiny be uncompromising, and let it be, in truth, an act of care. As we set about destroying Scotland, let’s hold on tight to one another. Be prepared to stand amongst each other naked, and be prepared for it to hurt in order for it to heal. Ask ourselves who gets to be the chronicler and why? Who gets to speak? Look around and ask who is here and who is not here and ask why that is. I’m able to stand here making these so-called provocations as a direct consequence, in some ways, of the cultural privilege Scotland has afforded me as a white middle class male, and each time I speak it takes up space which could be occupied by someone else. I have no idea how to address this reality in the long term, but it’s probable that I’m not the one who has the answers to that question and the best thing I can do right now is clear some space by sitting down and belting up.