Opinion

“See my shortbread tower – and weep!”

by | 9 Apr 2024

The cringe I felt when I saw Angus Robertson's Tartan Week roadshow is just another symptom of a nation which does not take arts or artists seriously.

Did you see that wonderful sculpture of the Forth Road Bridge last week? The one made out of sausages assembled by the German tourist board? No, of course you didn’t, because it’s sitting in the pile of ‘ideas so cringey we don’t mention them’, along with the King Prawn Chow Mein Kelpies, the Scottish Parliament in Feta and the pizza-based reconstruction of the Scott Monument. China, Greece and Italy said no.

But then who sells themselves as a cliché of a cliché these days? Scotland does! Angus Robertson spent the early part of his New York jaunt assembling a mock-up of the Empire State Building in shortbread. The only part of that, sadly, which is a joke is the idea that Angus did it (which you can tell isn’t true because the shortbread tower didn’t fall down).

That’s what Scotland’s culture is, isn’t it? It’s a subset of the marketing department of a mostly foreign-owned whisky industry, happy to play to old stereotypes, right? It is a little embarrassing for the artists, but who is going to buy whisky if we don’t Brigadoon it up?

I mean, I know I never buy a bottle of vodka sans Cossak Dancer or French wine with insufficient ‘elderly man on a bicycle with a string of onions round his neck, a blue and white stripey t-shirt and a beret’. I mean, fuck them if they’re not putting the effort in…

What is the meaningful debate about Scotland’s culture? The ‘debate’ we have is dominated by three things. One is how many people come to our festivals. Another is how much money is dedicated to the arts. And the third is about how the arts can support Scotland’s governmental ambitions (tourism, inward investment, selling whisky).

Festivals? These days the big ones are more corporate events opportunities than cultural contributions, and there are only big ones left. You wouldn’t argue (on the whole) that they are adding to the development of Scotland’s own culture. These are foreign productions staged in Scotland for tourists, run by three big and nasty corporate events companies, all based in London, all extracting wealth. They make a fortune out of festivals, but the artists don’t.

None of this is about Scottish culture or Scotland as a nation. This is all just more grubby profiteering, more corporatising of anything good or beautiful, more contempt for creators over those who exploit them. Underbelly, Assembly and Gilded Balloon might look cuddly, but they’re just ‘event Sercos’, parasites on our indigenous culture.

The amount of money dedicated to the arts? Is this a good metric? Well, it’s not a bad metric – or it might not be if we had any interest in what is done with the funding. We don’t. Large amounts of it are hoovered up by private enterprise (the aforementioned Event Sercos), more by venues, more by administrators. Artists? They’re all broke.

The Scottish Government’s disinterest in arts can be measured in its terrible track record of supporting them, but those numbers tell you nothing about Scottish culture.

What we’re needing is some sort of national forcefield that can protect a small number of explorers to move beyond this dispiriting visionless era and search for something new

Because, in the end, what is culture in Scotland for? I mean, we sometimes get a government minister saying ‘for its own sake’ or, if you’re lucky, some variation of ‘to shape the soul of the nation and contribute to the world’. So show me how that follows through in terms of action, because all the action looks totally different.

Any time you see a government minister anywhere near the arts its for another purpose. They go to the Edinburgh Festival – to showcase themselves. They take artists to New York – to sell greenwashing carbon credits to dirty corporations. They purchase creative’s outputs – to promote tourism. Art for its own sake never occupies conversation time.

This is a cross-party problem, best illustrated by Jack McConnell’s ‘Culture Commission’. It was established to find a functional use for the arts and it was (I kid you not) a committee made up of business figures with one practicing artist on it. That tells you everything you need to know.

So where is the pushback on this? That’s the problem; the culture sector in Scotland has not been developed sufficiently that it creates secure employment without public subsidy, so the artists are all heavily reliant on Creative Scotland. And just like every other quango in Scotland, Creative Scotland has a disciplining role, acting to suppress criticism of itself given it holds the money.

If you think I’m overstating this, go and talk to someone in the arts. If they want an income, they have to keep their mouths shut. And if they want to get a project off the ground, they better persuade government it is functionally useful to them.

The arts is about wellbeing – because the Scottish Government seems hell-bent on demolishing high-quality care services. The arts is about community empowerment – because the Scottish Government maintains the most centralised state in Europe. The arts is about education – because our educational attainment is in decline.

Again and again successive governments appoint Culture Secretaries with no known interest in the arts. Labour was hellish for it, seeing the arts brief as the portfolio you gave to someone who was due a promotion but whom you didn’t trust to shoulder a proper role. The SNP has rather maintained the tradition.

Then again, how many politicians can you think of who have a genuine love and understanding of the arts? We have a short-sighted political culture with even that narrow horizon narrowed further by the failure to have a debate about what the day after tomorrow should look like.

Look at where we are. You have the SNP. To assemble their ‘vision’ you need to look past the day-to-day which they say is too restricted by Westminster to realise their vision. So you look towards their vision for what they would do if they had all the powers. And basically that amounts to ‘rejoin the EU and end the bedroom tax’. Which is to say 2007.

I guess that’s marginally better than Labour though which explicitly thinks the goal is to return to 1997. It’s hard to get any sense of what a society either of them could actually shape would look like. What we’re needing is some sort of national forcefield that can protect a small number of explorers to move beyond this dispiriting visionless era and search for something new.

Those people are design-innovation scientists and engineers, social thinkers and analysts, young people who don’t yet know ‘better’, and artists. The forcefield which protects them is public support. We had universities, research institutes and a vibrant arts sector (Scotland never had a lot of think tanks or other ‘thinking organisations’). Now we have corporate universities, spun-out research institutes and a self-satisfied army of untalented arts administrators who run their world as they wish.

We have no sense of who we are as a nation, no proper discussion of who we’ve been

We have no sense of who we are as a nation, no proper discussion of who we’ve been. We don’t discuss what our future might look like, or (perhaps more importantly), what it would feel like. We have no physical sensation of what the experience of future might be.

We are stranded in a moment, no past, no future. We are suspended in that moment to make us shop, part with our money compliantly. With no past and no future all we can do is spend. Lost in time, we despair. Morality, society, community, creativity, hope – these tell us nothing about the meaning in our life. Advertising does that for us.

We have no debate about the arts in Scotland because we have no real debate about Scotland. The Union of Great Britain and Ireland stopped being for anything a long time ago. It just is. It is there to continue. Scottish independence briefly meant something, until the SNP insisted that all meaning be drained from it. Independence just is. It is there to exist, no more, no less.

And no, arts isn’t that debate about our future. It should be no more a tool for social transformation than it should be a tool for selling whisky. Because the arts should never be a tool. It instead, a light that helps us to see our tools. That light has been dimmed.

Someone rid us of Angus Robertson. Someone rid us of Creative Scotland. Someone rid us of shit governments who cut arts funding so they can spend it on spin doctors. Burn it down. Hand arts back to artists. Let them explore for us, not from a map handed to them by government but without any map at all.

That is why arts exist. It is why, everywhere, we recreate them. It is why someone sitting among the rubble of Gaza is writing a poem – not because it will feed them, but because it might change us. Christ, this trapped, squeezed Scotland is suffocating. Someone needs to blow the roof off and let us breathe.

It clearly isn’t going to be this batch of politicians. So let us set the free people who might imagine bigger and wider than these minnows. They may do it with a test tube or they may do it with a paintbrush, but they will sure as hell not do it with a fucking shortbread model of the fucking Empire State Building.

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