Culture in Scotland in the midst of storms: A Call for Dangerous Cultures

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, March 16th 2018

Culture in Scotland is in difficult times: public spending cuts, the lost decade of stagnant living standards for the vast majority of people, limits to the Scottish Government’s largesse and devolution powers, controversy over Creative Scotland’s decision making and funding priorities resulting in the debate over the future of the Scottish Youth Theatre – and much more (with some questioning the continued existence of Creative Scotland).

If you think these are dangerous waters you ain’t seen nothing yet. While some yearn for the headwinds of populism, revolt and voter dissatisfaction to blow themselves out and ‘normal’ politics to resume, others recognise that what was normal was part of the problem and one of the reasons we got into the current mess. Restoration politics and culture which is what some dream of isn’t aiming very high.

Instead, we inhabit an age of broken mainstream politics, a discredited economic model, big questions about accountability, ethics and responsibility in both public life and in what is called private life, but is increasingly a contested arena. That’s without mentioning Brexit, Trump, the ineptitudes of the Theresa May UK Government, and that nearly everywhere in the developed world those notionally in control have lost their confidence, while continuing to pretend otherwise.

What better time then to start discussing and asking some difficult questions about culture, its shape, role and purpose, in modern day Scotland? Under the auspices of Scotland’s Festival of Ideas that is what we were about to do – starting a week on Saturday.

This is only the beginning. We don’t expect definitive answers, but never before have we needed to dig deeper and question received wisdom about culture. Some think culture in Scotland gives us a story that we are unique, special and blessed – and that somehow we can rise above the difficult questions and choices people face elsewhere. Others, equally certain, claim that we are nothing but mediocre, insular and increasingly irrelevant. This stand-off of siren voices, like too much of our political discourse, is part of the pathologising of divided Scotland and isn’t helpful or healthy. Any starting point of debate about culture would recognise that Scotland has something distinctive to contribute, while reflecting that we are part of a wider and universal tapestry about what it means to be human.

What part culture plays in the face of austerity, groupthink, conformity and the fear and anxiety it reinforces has to be brought into the open. We know that the old models of the great and good which defined bodies such as the Scottish Arts Council didn’t work. But nor do the bright shiny models and endless procedures of ‘new public management’ which inform the likes of Creative Scotland.

Scotland, like elsewhere in the West, has seen its public institutions hollowed out by a language and practice which demeans the idea of the public, the collective and our common heritages, while we take succour from the fact that things aren’t as bad and broken as in England.

Then there is the generational conservatism, which has strengthened a cultural gridlock and even sense of pessimism, whereby attention, time, imaginations and monies are shaped around the past – from the continual re-examination of the 1960s and 1970s, to at a British level, the obsession with an elite past of the Royals and upper classes, and in more popular versions, World War Two and the defeat of the Nazis.

This raises numerous questions about the artistic and cultural imagination. How is it possible beyond the insider class to make a decent living in the arts and cultural world? Is it possible to engage with this world, with its jargon, language and attitudes, and retain integrity? Where does that leave younger, emerging voices and perspectives? Can they expect for anything more than a life of short-term contracts, casualisation and living in the precariat, beyond the few privileged with the right contacts? Do people have no choice than to pretend that the ‘bullshit bingo’ culture of talking up flexibility, adaptability and upskilling, is anything other than cover for the new Dickensianism?

How do we deal with the limits of cosmopolitan liberalism which promised so much in the long boom of the early years of the 21st century? We are now a decade on from the last vestiges of its economic tail, and yet mainstream economic, social and cultural assumptions in government and public policy – here in Scotland and elsewhere – are still based on these discredited notions which fly in the face of the evidence.

There are many optimistic voices in this version of liberalism, but it has become a self-congratulatory, complacent, global class celebration of success, excess and consumption. And it has validated and aided the zombie capitalism and corporate vandalism we see all around us. It might be good to still hear the pluses of living in a multi-cultural, multi-identity world, but only if it deals with the barbarians at the door, and sees those who have gained so much, acknowledge their partial, privileged views. I thought of this when I read Zadie Smith’s recent set of essays, ‘Feel Free’ – a clarion call of the joys of being part of the NYLON (New York-London) elite. Or when I heard Will Self on BBC Radio 4 take his condescending tone around the UK on bus. Both good, well-intentioned people, but really we need a lot more when you have such status and influence.

How do we encourage dissent, heresy and imagination which doesn’t just validate existing orthodoxies, but at the same time doesn’t fall into the old left miserablist bunker of cynicism and opposition to everything? Challenging official culture comes with the need to name, understand and critique the official story of the country, public institutions and cultures – including the SNP and cause of independence. Our official story held to across mainstream political opinion is that incremental, cautious conservatism whoever it is advanced by makes us a more humane and decent place than down south, and is slowly aiding us becoming a better, fairer, more egalitarian Scotland.

The Myth of Individual Genius

That official, comforting story needs to be scrutinised. So too does the idea of the creativity myth – the notion that ideas and imagination are the product of isolated individuals having a light bulb moment. The thinker and musician Brian Eno in a cathartic, freewheeling BBC ‘Hard Talk’ a couple of years ago dispensed with the idea of individual genius and drew on his experience to examine the point.

Eno took the idea of the David Bowie trilogy of Berlin albums produced between 1977-79 (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger) and how they were acclaimed as Bowie’s creative rebirth and proof of his musical genius. Eno’s argument was that even the most generous outlook on this febrile period was to bring it down to the individual. Didn’t Bowie want a change after the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Thin White Duke’ periods? Wasn’t Tony Visconti an inspiring producer? And then there was the role of Eno himself as co-creator of Bowie’s new sound and attitude.

What this experience showed Eno, looking back decades later, was something of a revelation – individual genius, he contended, doesn’t exist, or not in the way it is commonly understood. Instead, these albums were creations of the three aforementioned forces, many others including the other musicians, and the context of Berlin, 1977, the Wall, the Cold War, the beginnings of punk and more.

The insight Eno took from this is that rather than concentrate on genius – we should think in terms of what he called scenius – the collective, connections and social landscape and context which enables such creations of wonder and inventiveness. Eno has called this in WIRED ‘communal genius’ which ‘stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene.’

The New Dissent and Need for a Culture of Jaytalking

Sometimes even critics have something. It is something we should all ponder. Sometimes those voices which annoy or cajole us the most are saying something which we don’t want to hear yet might be on to something. We could even dare to ask what is there that is intrinsically radical about Scottish independence if it becomes the new certainty in certain circles, including much of arts and culture?

Maybe our new dissidents won’t conform to the world as it has been seen by the class of 2014? Or those who grew up as Thatcher’s children? Or the Baby Boomer generation who lament the loss of post-war Britain and Scotland? Maybe they will find a different set of generational stories. Maybe younger voices in their twenties and thirties will worry more about straightforward economic and social concerns facing themselves; maybe that will translate into a wider political radicalism which will question the assumptions of recent decades, including the belief in Scotland in constitutional politics as the answer to these big questions?

Any cultural discussion – as well as any political ones – require platforms, public spaces and a healthy, dynamic public sphere. This brings us to such realities as the lack of pluralism in our public sphere and the decline of traditional print media (explored this week in Bella by Michael Gray). This latter point is celebrated by some independence supporters, but politically and culturally it leaves a chasm in public life.

The mainstream press were never very good at holding power and elites to account in Scotland (think the recent Rangers FC implosion or Catholic Church numerous scandals), but without a vibrant press we have even more of a problem. It also leaves a gap whereby cultural dissemination and sharing becomes more problematic. Take just one example. The retreat of The Scotsman and The Herald theatre pages and reviews leaves us with less of a living knowledge of theatre and makes it even more the preserve of an older, affluent audience. Where do younger audiences find their theatre and their lived experiences on the stage?

These and other subjects will be the focus of the Festival of Ideas series on culture in constraining times organised by myself and Andy Summers. The first event takes place in Dundee on Saturday March 24th looking at who is missing from culture in contemporary Scotland. Speakers include the writers James Robertson and Kapka Kassabova, Madeleine Bunting and the architect Ambrose Gillick. Future events will look at challenges to public space and the public sphere – with journalist and ‘The Ferret’ co-founder Peter Geoghegan and architect and campaigner Jude Barber; while the final event looks at the specifics of culture in difficult times with writer Neal Ascherson and playwright David Grieg (full details of the latter two will be announced shortly).

A dissenting tradition of culture requires some ground rules. Creating an open culture which allows for new voices, and in which emergent skilled and talented people can aspire to make a living has to be a pre-requisite. We need a tolerance of difference; an awareness of the need for pluralism and diversity; a challenge to monoculture wherever or however it expresses itself. Critical to this is an awareness of who and what is missing from our public conversations – the people, voices, identities, communities and geographies who don’t get heard or engaged with in official discussions and even some of the unofficial ones. Some people still don’t see that not only does space matter here in Scotland, so too does relational space – who is in and who is out of the conversation and how we act, interact, respect and honour one another.

Perhaps one suggestion to conclude with is that our conversations should recognise that there should never be a single story about anything – Scotland, arts and culture, independence – and that recognising this is a kind of liberation and freedom. This insight is vital if we want to engage with each other on a different level and in a different way. It aids strengthening dissent, weakens the official story, and reinforces diversity and pluralism. I would describe where this could take us as a culture of jaytalking – drawing from the idea of jaywalking – to mean the act of dangerous talking and exchange.

Some will tell us that the multiple crises we are living through are a time to batten down the hatches and not question what we believe in too much. That is the approach after all of some in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, and some senior figures in the SNP and independence camp. This perspective runs along the lines that things are so bad out there and so stormy people want a bit of certainty and to be told that if only they keep the faith things will work out. If only things were that simple.

Nearly all of us know that the turbulent times we are living in require something more – politically, culturally, intellectually. Having doubts, fears, anxieties and uncertainties in the face of the storms and challenges we face here in Scotland and globally is a profoundly rational response.

We can’t come up with all the answers but we can choose not to cling to the old assumptions which got us into this mess. We can choose not to embrace those saying they have all the answers. Instead, we can dare to be honest about who we are, where we are, and what we need to do to begin a different way of doing things. We can ask more of our public institutions, reflect on the values which inform them and make them the ones we want them to have, and contribute to a public culture where we can bring these things into the open. None of these are optional extras or luxuries but are central to the big questions Scotland faces in these turbulent times. We have to talk and act on difficult stuff.