(Scots Law) A common; a piece of land in which two or more persons have a common right.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Art Creates Debate Shocker...2

The Dumfries and Galloway Standard continues to be the place for the contemporary cultural debate about identity, representation and democracy in contemporary (and a future) Scotland. Happy days all around! Below is a transcription of the latest letter on the subject (a thread initially sparked by the show 'We Can Be Heroes' - but which has now progressed into a more general debate) - The Commonty is publishing it in this way because 1) it feels important 2) DG Standard Letter are not all available online 3) the letter was published in a long thin column - so a scan would not suit this blog.

All the earlier letters etc can be found in our earlier post - Art Causes Debate Shocker

DG Standard - 10.05.2013

Sir - I welcome Hugh McMillan's response to my letter on the Big Burns Supper production 'We Can Be Heroes'.

Those responsible for the production should be rightly satisfied that it has prompted this exchange.
Its a shame, however, that Mr McMillan has chosen not to engage with the particular arguments I made describing my letter as 'ridiculous' without offering any specific evidence as to why.

Its unfortunate, too, that he questions my choice to remain anonymous - we all have this right and I have personal and professional reasons for doing so.

Comedian Susan Calman and St Andrew's University academic Dr Gavin Bowd have both recently received abusive and venemous threats for a piece of benign comedy about Independence and for writing an academic account of the history of fascism in Scotland respectively.

Perhaps these individuals also have the right to free speech that we fought for 60 years ago?

Artist Johnny Gailey's 'proposed new scottish flag' - presented as part of his submission to the reecent Creative Scotland Open Sessions
Mr McMillan's concern about the issue of censorship is naive on two levels.

First, the notion that artistes have a limitless right to say and do anything they want is a fallacy. Unless we absolve artists from all social rules, they inevitably have to negotiate the boundaries of how sensitive topics are addressed.

I absolutely agree that art must address these issues. However, good artists will always bear a responsibility to do so sensitively and not stray into areas where their work can be considered as racist. This applies to everyone, irrespective of nationality or political perspective.

Second, Mr McMillan does not acknowledge the political nature of arts commissioning.

Charlotte Higgins' recent research shows that work commissioned by Creartive Scotland has rarely been critical of the Scottish Government or the SNP (ironic given the radical potential that Hugh McMillan implicitly attributes to the arts) resulting in narrowing cultural perspective and a form of self-congratulatory patronage.

Higgins ultimately expresses the fear the Scottish culture is being 'harnessed as a semi-political tool in the branding of Team Scotland'.

Mr McMillan's lazy allusion to '500 years of history' is also dangerous.

In an era where progressive political systems across the world are dealing with past troubles with models of 'understanding and reconciliation' it's sad that he dredges up flimsy constructions of 'Scots' and 'English'.

It is scurrilous to encourage these redundant misrepresentations to leach into contemporary political debate.

Psychologist Gordon Allport has meticulously shown how these 'innocent' and 'natural' social stories can often be the first step towards prejudice, scapegoating and discrimination.

name and address supplied (to the Standard)


  1. Well said ‘rightfully anonymous’!
    – this stands in refreshing counterpoint to what many felt to be a disappointing ‘Who Runs Scottish Culture – and What is it Anyway?’ debate at the Tron Theatre last week. Much of that discussion is reported as dredging up old grievances (many shown to be based on false information) – rather than looking forward.

    The mention of the unavoidable political context of publically funded arts – is crucial here. It is equally important to make the point that many people, who are interested in the potential of independence, are looking towards the future rather than the past. I am minded to vote for independence, but a simplistic vision of the past used as a rallying cry for ‘freedom’ is the Scotland I want to turn away from rather than move towards. I’d like to see the arts exploring our complex present reality and looking forward with vision and insight. I’d like to see a Scottish Government/national arts body that is so confident in its own foundations that it feels able to nurture genuinely questioning arts practice.

    In September 2014 - I will be voting for the future - NOT to settle some old scores.

  2. Quite right too, why would that not be the case? Where in the current artistic scene are these 'simplistic visions of the past' that you anonymous folk so eagerly allude to? The anonymous correspondents in the Standard stand not just against the concept of an independent Scotland but of a literature which reflects or examines the ways the past has contributed to its current identity. They are arguing for censorship, pure and simple.

  3. The Original AnonymousMay 14, 2013 at 7:42 PM

    Hi Shug (Hugh?) - as for 'simplistic visions of the past' lets just deal with the most currently topical....'Settlers and Colonists'- Alasdair Gray, 'Vote Britain' - Alan Bissett ('sentimental and misspelled doggerel'- Hugh McMillan)....and it would be good to get your assessment of the production that started this chat - 'We Can Be Heroes'?

  4. I always presumed 'Vote Britain' was something scribbled on the back of a fag packet rather than art. It's just a highly subjective rant and nobody would have heard anything about it if it hadn't been unearthed by people desperate to be offended by it. Its a single poem/monologue by some bloke from Falkirk for God's sake, not the Declaration of Arbroath.

    As for big Al, I think the criticism of his essay betrays the strident agenda of others rather than showing 'anti-englishness'. In fact he quite correctly states that "English settlers are as much a part of Scotland as Asian restaurateurs and shopkeepers or the Italians who brought us fish and chips." There's an excellent and sobre commentary on the essay in the Observer by Kevin Mackenna:

    I'm not 'assessing' anybody's work, merely defending their right to produce it.

    1. The Original AnonymousMay 15, 2013 at 5:59 PM

      Are you saying that racism is impossible in art - because artists have an unquestionable right to do and say whatever they like, irrespective of who might be offended by their work?

    2. Alan Bissett was nominated for the Creative Scotland Literature Award 2012 - by a jury that included the internationally renowned poet Tom Pow.
      Dismissing 'Vote Britain' as a single poem by 'some bloke from Falkirk' that only came to light because it was 'unearthed by people desperate to be offended by it' seems less than generous from someone who's opening gambit in this discussion was protecting the rights of artists?

  5. There are clearly defined laws against racism and penalties for expressing racism in the written and spoken word and quite right too. Your problem is, I suspect, that you think legitimate commentary on Scotland's relationship within the Union historically and in a contemporary sense, is racist simply because it can be critical of England's role.

    1. Hi Hugh - this is a very important and interesting wee chat. Probably best if we don't suspect what each others problems are though and just deal with what is being said?

      I believe the key point at issue is the separation of nationality from nationalism from nationhood? When you speak of 'England's role' what do you actually mean? What is England, and what are we criticising when we criticise 'it'?

      I am committed to an idea of an strong Scotland that is is control of its own destiny - but my vision is of a nation based on citizenship rather than ethnicity...what I mean is that I'd like to see a Scotland that offers citizenship to all who wish to be a part of a collective future as a nation - ethnicity would not be one of the criteria for citizenship.

      I identify a great risk in any ethnic dimension to the Independence debate - I think we all need to define our terms with great care. The individual PEOPLE who make up the nation defined as England can surely bear very little responsibility for the what has happened to Scotland while in a political Union with England?

      For me the point at issue is one of democratic representation - the people eligible vote in Scotland make up only 9% of the total electorate of the UK. Yet everyone seems agreed that Scotland has the means to succeed as an independent state. I believe for the nation of Scotland to succeed it needs to be an inclusive, diverse and outward looking democracy founded on equality, creativity and community - such a nation cannot be built on a discourse of vengeance and blame.....particularly when such discourse plays into the hands of the fear-mongering national media. The media take a special pleasure in whipping up anxiety about Alec Salmond declaring himself King and us all having to watch Braveheart every night...this is the 'Little Scotland' that (virtually) no one wants.

      By not confronting the lazy (and often unintentional) racism caused by conflating the UK Government with the people who live in England (or speak with English accents) we all risk losing this beautiful and precious opportunity for genuine change. Unless we are all mindful about genuinely welcoming, including and listening to ALL in the momentum for a new nation then we will lose the chance and also sow the seeds of further division for generations to come?

      Yours for Scotland

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  7. Are you accusing someone of being racist here? Big accusation - Hope it can be backed up????

    1. Certainly not me! I was (shamelessly) using this comment thread to plug the anti SDL march on Saturday. Saw earlier comments with Hugh condemning racism and thought he might like to join us AGAINST racism on Saturday. Apologies if this was misinterpreted!!!

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  9. Good speech, Matt, am I supposed to disagree with it? Of course everyone with a brain wants an independent Scotland to be diverse and forward looking and inclusive. I see very little evidence of the Yes campaign being based in any sense at all on 'vengeance and blame'. Yet which country in the world does not see its past as a key element in the creation of its cultural and political identity? Where are all these inclusive countries which don't talk about their history or don't refer to it in art and music for fear of offending some anonymous types?

    This whole hoo-hah began, if you remember, with an assault on a play that happened to recall a particular period of Scottish History. This was seen as anti-English by an anonymous bloke who widened the argument to say Arts Commissioning supported a particular biased viewpoint. Then another anonymous bloke from an apparently small army of anonymous blokes who seem energised by this topic, began to use the word racist in relation to art or literature in Scotland today. My viewpoint is that is a load of old tosh and that it is not racist to recall factually Scotland's past in art, or comment on the contemporary relationship between Scotland and England in the Union with Britain.

    I think its hard not to conflate the UK Government with 'the people who live in England'. After all, as you quite correctly point out, only 9% of the electorate is Scottish. I think Ludovik Kennedy when he described the relationship between Scotland and England since 1707 as "being in bed with an elephant' has always made the point much better than anyone.

    Interestingly, in the British Government's advice published recently on the ramifications of Scotland leaving the Union they make that point themselves, arguing that there is a strong case to say that although the Scottish Parliament dissolved in 1707, the English Parliament's laws, embassies and usages remained legally in operation and that therefore, effectively, the UK Parliament is and always has been the English Parliament.

    Anyway, I'm all for a progressive, inclusive social democratic, sexy wee country that isn't saddled with nuclear subs and imperialist pretentions and can do some actual good in the world. Not one that forgets its past though. As Orwell said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their understanding of their history.”

    1. Who you crying a 'bloke' Hugh? Don't fash - not gonna start on a genderism thread!

  10. As a keen student of Scottish history Hugh, I agree 100% with you about the importance of understanding the past in order to be fully in the present and be able to make a future.
    Where I maybe differ is in the need to see that history in a fully rounded form - I do appreciate the value of re-telling the stories of injustices that perpetrators have tried to obscure. But I think that if this becomes the dominant narrative then we (as a nation) risk stunting our potential by seeing ourselves only as victims. There are many, many positive stories in Scottish history that could become equally formative and inspiring.
    As artists, lets try and sow inspiration and confidence in equal measure to reconciliation with some of the injustices of the past?

  11. I don't see Scottish history as a series of injustices, did I say I did? As a History Teacher I think its a shame that most people see Scottish history as only consisting of the Wars of Independence against England. Partly that is a result of a history curriculum that till recently ignored our own past Partly it's because our history has been subsumed, ignored and overwhelmed by the study of English history and the popularity of English historical themes in books, 'national' TV and so on, another consequence of 'being in bed with the elephant.' I think it'll be great once we're independent to reassess our history in the terms of say Alastair Moffat's great book 'The Sea Kingdoms' and realise that our rich culture and history encompassed many artistic and cultural achievements and many different affiliations.

    1. I'll drink to that - cheers!

  12. Ha Ha! We're nearly the dominant narrative in Pringleton, and the invasion of Main Street will start soon!

  13. This is a serious debate, its not for yappie dugs