Why does the Scottish independence movement produce such bad art?
As we mark the centenary of the Great War this year, the words of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and their fellow war poets haunt us afresh. These men captured the grotesqueries of that barbaric conflict – ‘His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin’ – more exactly than any film or book has ever managed. Perhaps only poetry was up to it.
The most profound and affecting art often emerges from such periods – the big talents rise to the big occasions. The artistic spirit seems to be invigorated in the confrontation of violence and oppression, and by the drive towards freedom. Acts of rebellion in the form of music, literature and painting illuminate the landscape of the past, bright-burning torches of uncowed human will.
The grinding misery and bestial nature of Soviet-era communism led, among much else, to the novels of Solzhenitsyn, the poetry of Anna Akhmatova and the symphonies of Shostakovich. Picasso’s Guernica was a response to the bombing of the Basque village of that name by fascist warplanes. The Jewish titans who dominated literature in the second half of the 20th century, such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, explored the physical and psychological consequences of the Holocaust.
These artists and their works demand to be taken seriously. They do what great art should – confront us with truth and ask us to think. They take something so large as to be almost beyond imagining and present it in digestible size. In the process, the worst of which our species is capable is contrasted with the most transcendent – the creation of beauty.
This, surely, is the purpose of all art when allied to a larger cause. There may be nothing more to a pretty Chopin prelude than a melody that lodges in your head, and that’s fine. But when an artist aspires to tackle the human condition, assumes the right to speak on behalf of others – perhaps even for a nation — he carries a burden: he swaggers into a hall of giants and asks us to accept he deserves a place.
The battle for Scottish independence – not an ignoble thing — was never going to produce an Owen or a Solzhenitsyn. But we might have expected a Vaclav Havel, a mind capable of defining the movement’s romantic and philosophical core with moral seriousness and real artistic merit.
After all, we’re good at this stuff. Scotland has orchestras and musicians of global repute and, in James MacMillan, one of the world’s finest living composers. Our best novelists sell in a hundred translations and our actors conquer Hollywood and Broadway; our popular musicians are icons of international cool and influence, and deservedly so.
The separatists have, of course, tried to exploit this cultural reputation. There is even an organisation, National Collective, for pro-independence artists, which says of itself: ‘We support independence because of the opportunity that comes with the ultimate creative act – creating a new nation.’
It doesn’t puzzle me that these people fancy the idea of secession – it’s of a piece with the half-informed, fantastical notions that drive the rest of their politics. What surprises is how uniformly turgid and immature the actual art has been.
Czechoslovakia had its playwright-revolutionary in Havel. The Yes campaign puts forward for our consideration one Alan Bissett. Bissett, who is in his late 30s and from Falkirk, has been anointed by the SNP as its cultural figurehead. Delegates awaiting Alex Salmond’s speech at the party’s recent conference were treated to an excerpt from his new play, The Pure, The Dead and The Brilliant. The author’s’s intention, he immodestly says, is to produce ‘one of the best Scottish plays of all time’.
Sadly, one reviewer found The Pure… to be ‘playing to a sense of grievance and infused with chippiness’, targeting ‘Britishness, the Great War commemoration, the Royal Family, the London Olympics and the accents of BBC announcers’. It nevertheless received a standing ovation from a Nationalist audience that Alex Salmond promises will remain ‘culturally British’ in the event of independence.
Bissett’s eminence within the Yes campaign is intriguing. He is clearly not one of those separatists who feels ‘culturally British’. Indeed, his poem, ‘Vote British’, which he describes as ‘my contribution to the debate on Scottish independence’, displays aggressive loathing: ‘Vote, Jock. Vote, Sweaty Sock. Talk properly./ Vote for the Highland Clearances./ Vote Empire. Vote tradition./Vote for our proud shared history of enslavingothernationsandstealingtheirnaturalresources’.
He writes of Britain having been ’on the right side just once and that’s only because it was against yer actual f***ing Hitler’
Let’s set aside his apparent contempt for those who died for our country in conflicts outwith the Second World War – in this year of all years — and also his inability to appreciate a state that allows him to express his hatred for it so robustly and to pass unmolested.
What I find most fascinating is his sudden elevation on the basis of an output that never rises above the clichéd and the mediocre. For the purposes of this column, I spent a little time going through his novels. His prose style is of the type that had run its course by the midpoint of Irvine Welsh’s third book. There is little by way of insight or revelation. If his is the voice of a generation – and he at least seems to believe this – then something’s gone badly wrong.
Perhaps the insipid nature of the creative efforts around the independence movement is significant. There is no great art because there is, truthfully, nothing to rebel against, no injustice to be righted, no oppression to be fought, no torch to be lit. The anger that exists is either synthetic or unintelligent. The suspicion arises that those who shout loudest, such as Bissett and the oddball 80s pop singer Pat Kane (who recently proposed an independent Scotland should have a four-day working week), are merely exploiting a pivotal national moment for the purposes of self-promotion.
When the lights go up, the reality of all this is exposed: a tiny cult of luvvies who mindlessly applaud each other’s work, attend each other’s events, who talk excitedly into the wee hours about the ‘new Scotland’ they are ‘creating’ and the ‘new politics’ they are ‘shaping’.
I’ve no doubt many of them are lovely people, and I’m sure they’re having a terrific time at the moment. But there’s a big, grown-up decision to be made in September that will have real consequences for people who live in Scotland and far beyond its shores. By all means, knock out your cheesy poetry, your bad novels and your unintentionally funny plays. But, for goodness’ sake, don’t expect to be taken seriously.
(This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on April 21, 2014)