Culture Wars: The creation of Cool Caledonia
The Scottish Executive consultation document, Celebrating Scotland: a national cultural strategy, is prefaced with the statement: 'We believe that arts and culture have a central role in shaping a sense of community and civic pride in the New Scotland.' The document has been drawn up as part of the initial stage in the formation of a cultural policy, and signals an intent to harness the aesthetic activity of artists in Scotland to the political task of forging a communal pride in the devolved institutions of the government of Scotland.
Celebrating Scotland opens by saying that 'Scotland has a distinct and valuable cultural identity'. But if we make the statement as a question, 'what is distinctive about Scottish culture?', then the answers tend to be petty. There is little beyond tartanry, haggis, shortbread, whiskey and Irn Bru which can be definitively claimed as distinctly Scottish (and even the distinctiveness of some of these is open to question). The universal appeal of Scottish works of art is that they appeal to our common humanity.
The section ends by stating that 'Scotland, through the promotion of her culture, can generate self-respect, win the respect of others and contribute to civilised living'. It certainly can and it should, but that is an aspiration rather than something that can be prescribed by policy. It will be to the detriment of Scottish culture if the cultural strategy insists that artists must generate self-respect. Artists cannot generate self-respect in their audience: they can only present a product which may help an edifying process to take place. Great works of art can make us feel small, feeble, inarticulate, humble and ignoble. If the audience feels good about a piece of art it is often because it doesn't move us. The self-respect we gain from works of art is a consequence of grappling with the insights that it provides into the human condition, warts and all.
It has been widely acknowledged that Scottish artists, particularly writers, played a significant role in fostering devolution for Scotland. It would be ironic if this band of political 'dissidents' was to become the legitimiser of a Scottish parliament. It is Scottish politicians who should generate 'a sense of community and civic pride in [the institutions of] the New Scotland'. Artists should continue to play an important role as dissidents, and if this means questioning the sense of community, the civic pride or the parliament, then it should be welcomed as a contribution to the cultural richness of Scotland, not derided as a failure to promote social inclusion.
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999