Art of Independence
Posted on January 6, 2012
Two articles in the press this week have tipped the scales for me: like so many other natural complacents, I find myself persuaded finally to move to the edge of my academic comfort zone to commit something via this developing blog that directly addresses Scottish politics, nationalism, and independence: albeit, still, chiefly, from the perspective of the visual arts. It is to state the obvious that something has changed of late, and conspicuously so since May 2011, about the ways in which Scotland and Scottishness have become talking points within the worlds of the arts in this country, and not just as near-to-hand exemplars of contemporary art’s transnational common-or-garden identity politics but as vital and even winnable concepts to be verily vehicled in Scotland by art of all forms, supported in the process, strategically and potentially it seems, by well briefed national agencies and organisations.
The first of the two articles is Jennifer Dempsie’s, ‘Art of creating an independent point of view’ (The Scotsman, ‘Scottish Perspective Extra’, Thursday 5th January). The second, Tavish Scott’s, ‘If you’re looking for reform at Holyrood, don’t hold your breath’ (The Scotsman, ‘Lifestyle Artsblog’, lifestyle.scotsman.com, Thursday 5th January). Taken on its own, Dempsie’s piece resembles many others which think about the role that culture has to play (stress the ‘has’ in that phrase to suit your own taste) in speaking about and transmitting an instantiation of Scottishness, one which would stand up and bear up when we ask in unison what it is that we seek independence for. There is added fiscal pragmatism in Dempsie’s commentary as examples are given of sectors within Scotland’s cultural communities likely to benefit commercially from independence. Scott’s is a concise complaint piece, one which finds fault with the use of party political power in Holyrood: the political force required to ringmaster a zeitgeist towards independence, Scott’s logic implies, is of an order which can (must?) exert unwelcome influence within parliament: ‘the Nationalists have a majority on every parliamentary committee and the chairmanship of most’, we are informed.
These articles tipped the scales for me because they added terminal weight, respectively, to two highly topical ideas: 1) that culture has the power and possibly also the responsibility to raise a quintessential standard for a nation as it comes again to know itself and to express its confidence internationally, and 2) that the political leadership required to realise the degree of self-determination implied by the first project will inevitably meet the need – and demonstrate the capacity – to suppress difference and dissent in the name of nationalist picture-making and policy-making. I want to end up with some bloggy observations about the first idea here by reflecting bloggily on the second.
American bigmind, Michael Walzer has written some brilliant stuff on political theory, and one characteristically lucid summary of his is relevant to Scott’s beef. Concerned with inevitable political behaviour, in ‘Thinking Politically’ (New Haven: YUP, 2007) Walzer writes:
Politicians are also thought to be worse than the rest of us because they rule over us, and the pleasures of ruling are much greater than the pleasures of being ruled. The successful politician becomes the visible architect of our restraint. He taxes us, licenses us, forbids and permits us, directs us to this or that distant goal – all for our greater good. Moreover, he takes chances for our greater good that put us, or some of us, in danger. But we are a little frightened of the man who seeks ordinarily and every day, the power to do so. And the fear is reasonable enough. The politician has, or pretends to have, a kind of confidence in his own judgement that the rest of us know to be presumptuous in any man.
As you can tell, Walzer has in mind a good few of his own favourite US presidential politicians (and the specific danger of military campaigns) but Scott’s outlook accords with the characterisation. However, as the candid comments which follow Scott’s article indicate, his grumble is a tacit acknowledgement of, to use Walzer’s vocabulary, ‘being ruled’ in the domain of power by the Nationalists, by a political expertise which Walzer might wish to adopt as a paragon. Whether Walzer would recognise in the First Minister and the Nationalists his political theory is, I guess, a moot point. The actual and dismal point for the Liberal Democrats is that the ‘greater good’ dimension instrumental to the successful exercising of the political will Walzer identifies is indeed being confidently managed by the Nationalists, perhaps spiced with presumption, but confidently and effectively all the same. And a political party which is no good at effectively speaking to the particular greater good which it represents is, well, no good.
Then again, the degree of political and party political success which is inherent in the present arrangement at Holyrood as described by Scott could well be understood by the opposition parties as proof enough of anti-Scottishness: the practical grip of process and policy which accompanies successful Walzerian politicking might be regarded as a stain, say, on the unblemished canvas of democratic Scottish, left-leaning, enlightedness…and maybe that is not entirely a bad argument, but I think Walzer moves us past it with pragmatism, for politicians can:
do no good themselves unless they win the struggle, which they are unlikely to do unless they are willing and able to use the necessary means. So we are suspicious even of the best winners. It is not sign of our perversity if we think them only more clever than the rest. They have not won, after all, because they were good, or not only because of that, but also because they were not good. No one succeeds in politics without getting his hands dirty. […] Sometimes it is right to try to succeed, and then it must also be right to get one’s hands dirty. But one’s hands get dirty from doing what is wrong to do. And how can it be wrong to do what is right? Or, how can we get our hands dirty by doing what we ought to do?
Leaving the jurisprudence to one side, we might say with Walzer’s help that Scott is not wrong in drawing our attention to some of the making of dirty hands, but in doing so he is merely telling us by way of rather spurious dudgeon that successful political work is not separate from such inclination to control, and inasmuch as that is what his contribution means, he is beefing not about the actuality of it all, but about his separateness from the actuality of it all. If that point does indeed lurk at the heart of Scott’s complaint, then we might have an equivalent in words of the duplicitous dirty work that is perhaps detectable in the buttoning-up of Holyrood committee-scape.
Now, to doubt Scott’s strategy of attack is not to remove the problem of assessing the ‘right’ of the driver behind the Walzerian leader who would presume on our behalf a greater good and who would institute the processes to bring it about, and here is where Dempsie can return.
The bigger picture; the greater good; the common good; the thing that forms from Donald Dewar’s famously evocative ‘echoes from our past’; is something Dempsie asserts that our artists can and should play a leading role in defining, within the context of independence, granted:
Being able to visualise what an independent Scotland would look like is perhaps something that our artist friends are better equipped to do, painting a picture of Scotland which is independent with their creativity and inhibition.
The rewards for doing so, her article offers, go beyond the bringing into being of the co-created picture: as mentioned, Dempsie sees practical ways for creative communities to gain from an independent Scotland. But what’s interesting to me about Dempsie’s piece is its representativeness of the Nationalists’ confident devolving of picture-making to the Scottish imagination. This is a tremendously effective tactic in reducing the extent to which we fear the Walzerian leader who ordinarily and every day seeks the power and the means to realise the significance of the picture. For if the big driver resides with our collective imaginary, less of the motivation for political change can be seen to reside in the personal domain of the political leader – ever more important to the electorate as the party power and parliamentary power of the leader increases.
Dempsie throws down the gauntlet to creatives in this way:
Looking forward to the referendum campaign, I just wonder what Scotland’s creative legacy will be from this period? Will our poets, musicians and gamers reflect on the challenges and possibilities of independence, in search of perfect progress to take Scotland forward? If so, what impact will that have on the political discourse and the people of Scotland?
But many of Scotland’s creatives baulk at the purposiveness of art’s attachment to a political project, and dudgeon is expressed for that reason in volumes large enough and overt enough to embarrass even Scott. Dempsie, however, has got it right on this one. She cites Annie Lennox from 2008 as an artist who can rise to the Nationalists’ challenge: ‘Scotland could have [Lennox said] “some kind of new, ethical, visionary stance and it could take on some fresh ideas. That could be amazing, really amazing”.’ And that sentiment is not distant from Dewar’s similarly creative 1st July 1999 invocation of a Scottish imaginary, one which the Parliament was then determined to detail: ‘This is about more than our politics and our laws.’ Dewar poeticised, ‘This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves’. These are ideas ethical and not outwith art’s purview.
I might come back to the ‘should’ of art’s involvement in nationalist picture-making but for now I want to blog the indubitable capacity of art and artists to produce such pictures. That is a given, and it does not entail necessarily Socialist Realist aberrations. But beyond that: beyond the picture being imagined; beyond it being made; beyond it giving direction to a referendum; and beyond it forming a greater good as shared ground for independence, the point of distinction internationally for Scotland will not be that our cultural communities were harnessed and steered (by one hand clean and one hand not, Walzer cautions) in an instrumental political project.
The point of distinction should we reach Dempsie’s independent horizon will be the way in which the successful political party finds ways to make ordinary and every day the collective imagination and creative life of Scotland within the very business of governing an independent country. In achieving that in innovative ways for the world to see, the Walzerian politico whose ‘success brings him power and glory’ would be repaying some of the debt owed to the picture-makers, and, who knows, Walzer might even pay a visit himself to update his book.