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Showing posts with label Joyce McMillan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joyce McMillan. Show all posts

Monday, 16 July 2012

Creative Scotland, Art and the Arts

Wikipaedia excerpt

Creative Scotland (Alba Chruthachail) is a development body for arts and cultural industries in Scotland.

It inherited the functions of Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council on 1 July 2010, and has an additional remit for the Creative Industries. The Scottish Government brought it into being in 2010, and an interim company, Creative Scotland 2009, was set up to assist the transition from the existing organisations.


I had some thoughts on art and the arts some time ago – perhaps some of them are relevant to the discussion and criticisms in the video clip.

But is it Art?

Anyone with any interest in the arts will recognise that recurring situation, a sort of Groundhog Day moment, when one is cornered by someone who, with wide-eyed innocence, says “But don’t you think all art is just a matter of opinion – of personal taste? And what about modern art? Do you really think …?”

And you know that you are headed for an utterly sterile discussion, one in which the innocent will gradually reveal himself to be deeply hostile to the idea of art, and will unburden himself (it usually is a ‘him’) of opinions formed from Daily Mail headlines, a primitive world view that effortlessly encompasses homophobia, racism, sexism, paranoia about young people, crime,  a desire for the restoration of capital punishment and a denial of man’s contribution to global warming, or perhaps even a denial of global warming itself.

But inexorably I get drawn in, in the almost invariably mistaken belief that this person may just be a truth seeker, wanting to understand …

My knowledge of the arts may best be described as limited and partially informed. Certain art forms are virtually a closed book to me – ballet, some musical forms and some aspects of literature. I do appreciate literature and music, but my experience and preferences tend towards what is sometimes called popular culture – cinema, popular music and jazz – but with a limited knowledge and appreciation of orchestral and chamber music and literature.

I do also have a very definite bias towards form and structure in the arts, and a respect and admiration for technique in art. This question is like asking What is Jazz? – one that prompts an Ellingtonian response along the lines of “That kind of talk stinks up the room …” But the question will continue to be posed, because art is a multi-billion dollar business and art is always political, not least in the area of arts funding and education.

I would venture to to say that most artists, like most jazz musicians, never ask themselves this question – they are driven by an imperative to create, not by definitions and labels. But once they want money, want to sell their art, or want a job in the arts, the question will arise in one way or another.

Walter Pater’s dictum that all art aspires towards the condition of music may be a useful point to start, although it is one of the most over-worked clichés about art, trotted out by every arts critic and blogger at every opportunity.

A musical anecdote -

In the mid-1970s I took up a new appointment in the Newcastle Breweries in the Personnel Department. A colleague, Derek English was a passionate lover of classical music, and quickly assessing my limited knowledge in this area, set out to educate me by generously offering to loan me items from his treasured LP collection.

“I’ll start with Beethoven,” said Derek. I then crassly replied that I didn’t like Beethoven. I got a long speculative look, then the observation that was a kind of Damascean moment for me.

“It’s OK not to like Beethoven, Peter, so long as you realise that the problem lies with you, not with Beethoven …”

So - what is Art?

I reach for my New Oxford dictionary, realising that I have never read a dictionary definition of art, and the content surprises me.

art noun 1 (mass noun) The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power … works produced by such skill and imagination – creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings or sculpture.

No mention of music, literature,  or drama  - they come under the arts.

This takes me full circle, because this is what I understood as art as a child and as a young man, and it is perhaps what most people understand as art – painting, drawing and sculpture. The arts, a concept I came to later, embraces music, and drama. And of course, Goldsmith’s offers much more than painting, drawing and sculpture – it teaches music, literature, drama, design and more besides. The art college is simply part of the Visual Arts department. Much art - including my son’s art - includes text, music and dramatic elements as well as painting, drawing and sculpture.

So I must offer my thoughts on the question What is Art? in the wider definition of the arts.

Let me start with jazz, now generally accepted as an art form.

Immediately, we run into the definitions problem – what is jazz? – and the firm assertion of many ‘jazz’ musicians that they play music, not jazz, and are not prepared to be restricted in their creativity by a label.

What is jazz? Well, I know it when I hear it, but my judgement perhaps  reflects my age and my generation, although I believe that I could establish a consensus with most jazz musicians and committed listeners on what is and what is not jazz.

Most Edinburgh  aficionados of ‘jazz’ over about sixty five years of age would,  in my experience define it as so-called traditional jazz to mainstream jazz. as performed by a legion of small groups of musicians and vocalists of a similar age and era. I suspect that most Glaswegians would define it as mainstream or bebop, and most younger people would recognise  it as bebop - or later dialects of the bebop language - or as smooth jazz, although they might not recognise the terms – hard bop, fusion, etc. Some in both camps would reject utterly one or other of the forms as being jazz, echoing the narrow-minded divisions of the 1940s triggered by the emergence of bebop. Asked to define the music, they would tend to fall back on concepts of improvised or not improvised and instrumentation, none of which define jazz, and few would think of it in terms of art.

Yet jazz, almost uniquely, has the capacity to crystallise in a moment - for me at any rate – the answer to the question What is Art?

That moment has been repeated a thousand time since then, often with musicians simply warming up before a performance, but always with that instant recognition of the art of jazz – not a matter of technique or study, but an innate artistic and musical sensibility and something called at its lowest level talent and at its highest, genius.

But here I must make a fundamental distinction. It is possible to play so-called traditional jazz (a very British term) with very basic instrumental technique and little or no theoretical knowledge but huge emotional intensity, but without a relatively high level of technical skill, and a sound understanding of harmony allied to a good ear, you won’t play bebop, or as it used to be called, modern jazz, a term now inappropriate for a musical form that is about seventy years old.

Another question therefore presents itself – Is art enhanced or inhibited by technique – by technical proficiency?


Goldsmith’s College of Art and Design, for example, has never emphasised technique, concentrating instead on helping the artist to define his or her objectives and artistic concept, and it can certainly point to a glittering record of success of its alumni, a record of both prestigious art prizes and commercial success. The names are a kind of litany of British art – Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Lucian Freud, Mary Quant, to name but a few – and many Turner prize winners are in this number.

Goldsmith’s, for better or worse, is also associated with the art collector Charles Saatchi … So the tutorial regime and policy seem to work, insofar as one accepts the art world’s definitions of success.

(My son Michael has a first in Fine Arts from Goldsmith’s and is a working artist based in London.)

Does technical facility in itself deliver artistic validity? Does a well-made painting, drawing or sculpture equate to art?

The New Oxford definition again - the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power … works produced by such skill and imagination – creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings or sculpture.

Not a word about technique, unless you regard it as being implied in creative skill – and note that “beauty or emotional power” which seems to imply that a work of art can have emotional power without necessarily having beauty. If that was the intention, the converse could not have been intended, since (I would argue) a work of art cannot have beauty without also having the power to stir the emotions. There also nothing about the intellect or intellectual power, but then the mathematician would argue that a fundamental mathematical proposition can have intellectual and emotional power and beauty …

Let’s take for the purposes of analysis technically skilled ‘artists’ who produce work for corporate clients, ‘artworks’ that will be placed in public places, in the foyers of public buildings, that will stand or hang in boardrooms. I place the words artist and artworks in parentheses so as not to beg the question.

(As an aside, the phrase begging the question, currently widely misused as meaning requesting or demanding that the question be asked, in fact means presenting a proposition that demands proof without actually presenting proof. In other words it means avoiding a necessary justification.)

There can be little doubt that much of this kind of ‘art’, however technically impressive, requiring considerable technical skill, is not art in any real sense of the word. If a work of art results from this process, it is either serendipitous, or the patron has found a true artist, not just a skilled technician. For example, the music, painting, sculpture, drama and film produced during the Third Reich was in the main competent and well-executed, but was not usually art. But the propaganda documentary film of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg, Triumph of the Will, was high art and an enduring masterpiece of cinema, because the Nazis chose a highly gifted artist to make it.

(The film incidentally showed many examples of execrable Nazi art, something that Riefenstahl must have been aware of, whatever her personal allegiances.)

Of course another position may be taken on artworks – that they are all art, but some are bad and some are good. The only criterion is – did the artist intend them to be art? But then we are back to the question – can a work of art be produced inadvertently by someone who had no such intention? A photograph that was  perhaps simply intended to be an accurate record of a scene or events, may turn out to be art, and utilitarian objects and buildings may likewise be judged by an experienced and expert eye to be art.

Other perennial questions arise, among them -

Can art result from unintentional or random effort?

Are beautiful patterns in the sand on a beach or ice crystals on a window art? They may certainly be beautiful – beauty does not necessarily require intent or creativity, unless one invokes a Creator – a Supreme Being – or a Gaia principle, but they are not art. From the Lascaux Palaeolithic cave paintings through to Damien Hirst, art requires a human creator and an artistic intent – a vision.

Must an artist also have a motivation to communicate with an audience?

Most certainly do, but I have known artists who, for all or part of their creative lives, seemed to wish to communicate only with themselves. Some indeed appeared to be satisfied with the process of producing the artwork, and destroyed it after completion. And historically there have been artists who wished only to communicate with their God.

My son reminds me that Samuel Pepys had no apparent intention to communicate with anyone during or after his lifetime, yet undoubtedly produced a great literary work of art. That other great essayist, Michel de Montanus – Montaigne – initially had no thought of producing art or literature, but he achieved both, and did publish in his lifetime, but with no intention of achieving a wide circulation. Since I cannot conceive of life without either of of them, I can only be grateful that their intentions were frustrated by posterity.

Must a work of art communicate with and be appreciated and enjoyed by a large number of people before it can be considered as art?

I would answer a pretty definite no to the question, indeed some artists only achieved success posthumously, but the works were clearly art even before the judgement of posterity. And some great works of art have only ever been appreciated by a comparatively small number of people, but a small group that could tell shit from Shinola – people who have devoted their lives and their energies to art, and who know what they are talking about.  An elitist argument I know, but although as a citizen I am a democrat and believe in the voice of the majority of the people, in matters of taste I am unashamedly elitist.

To the argument that it’s all a matter of taste, I reply, yes – good taste and bad taste. The problem lies with you, mate, not with Beethoven, or Van Gogh  or Leonardo Da Vinci or Goethe.


The production of a work of art demands -

An artistic concept, idea or vision

A wish to realise that concept tangibly and to communicate it to an audience, however small, and perhaps consisting only of the artist

Sufficient technical capacity to realise the concept or vision, however imperfectly

The verdict on the artwork by art experts, leaving aside entirely commercial judgements will usually include seeing the work in the context of its intentions, its impact on the observer, the artist’s other work (few artists achieve a reputation solely on the basis of one work, although its does happen) and to some degree its technical competence.

When a work of art has been consistently highly regarded by experienced art critics and collectors over an extended period of time – decades, perhaps centuries – then it may well be styled a masterpiece. Some art is very much of its time; it is in vogue then it becomes part of art history, but perhaps no more than that.

Bear in mind that all of the above represent the thoughts of someone who is not an artist, has a rather narrow range of artistic understanding, but to whom art has always been a vital part of life. In that sense, I perhaps understand the ordinary man’s perception of art better than the art expert, and I may have an insight into the thinking of the art Philistines, whilst rejecting their negativism.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Press, the FM and Murdoch

A few weeks ago I thought I detected a new dawn of balanced comment and objectivity in the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. I dismissed the sceptics on the nationalist side who questioned the durability of such a shift as ungenerous. If there are words to be eaten, I’m eating them over the last week in the press.

The panting eagerness with which the Scottish unionist print media – that is to say, all of them - seized upon what they saw as an opportunity to attack the man they fear will deliver Scotland’s independence was something to behold. A crumb of information from the Leveson Enquiry table was enough to set them scrabbling on the floor, ignoring the feast above them being consumed by the UK press and media – a scandal that struck at the very heart of the Cameron Coalition.

Kate Higgins has made trenchant comments on this, and her blog says it all -

Burdzeyeview - Scottish Labour grubbing ...

I expected the unionist press pack and Johann Lamont to seize on this. What I did not expect was that respected, normally objective and in some cases independence-supporting commentators would also join the pack, in an attempt to take a  high moral tone over the devil incarnate, Murdoch, while ignoring completely the realities of the present economic situation, the Scottish unemployment rate, the despair of the young unemployed, and the pragmatism required of senior politicians when faced with this most fundamental of problems.

Civic Scotland has gone to sleep

Salmond, Murdoch and crony capitalism

Iain Macwhirter loses cool on BBC

In fairness, Gerry Hassan did address big economic questions the following day Beginnings of an alternative Scotland and Gerry is a big thinker and paints on a broad canvas.

But to make the big changes tomorrow, a country has to survive today, and Scotland is fortunate in having a First Minister who combines pragmatism on the demands of quotidian survival with a big vision for Scotland.

A look across the Atlantic shows that an intellectual like Obama, with the first real vision for America in a long time, had to come to terms with the realities of power, influence and the survival of the US economy.


I had planned a larger blog on ‘Scotland Rebuilt’, but it will have to wait till tomorrow – or later.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Popping the question: the space between words - the Referendum question - or questions?

I have had this little 48 second clip up since the 15th of January, but kept it private on YouTube because I still don’t know what to make of it. 


Let’s examine the exchange verbatim - questions put, questions answered. Or are they?

Isabel Fraser: So. Are the politicians letting us down this week? Is party politics taking too much of a role when they should be looking at the wider interests of Scotland, do you think?

Question type and the formulation of questions - meat and drink to a negotiator like me - are all the rage this week, so let’s analyse this one, or rather these ones, since Isabel Fraser poses three questions in her statement, albeit within a single theme -

Are politicians letting us down this week?

Is party politics taking to much of a role?


they should be looking at the wider interests of Scotland?

The first is a closed question demanding a YES/NO answer, as is the second, and the third is technically a statement of fact that assumes a YES to the first two and offer an value judgment of what politicians should be doing, or invites a NO to the first two which implies a YES to the third proposition, which is in fact also a question.

Before I analyse further, here’s how I would have answered Isabel’s deceptively simple, but in fact complex bundle of questions. Bear with me in a lengthy digression - I have never been know to use a short word when a long one will do, or choose brevity over a prolix mode, except under duress on Twitter …

PC:No, they are not letting us down, because it is impossible to separate party politics from the wider interests of Scotland. We live in a democracy, the interests of the people in that democracy are served by elected politicians who operate mainly within a frame of party, and it is the primary role of politicians in that democracy, whether in government or in opposition, to attempt to serve the interests of all of the people within the context of their party policies and beliefs.

There is no objective body that stands apart from party politics that has a greater right to speak or decide. Churches, civic leaders, business and commercial leaders are not apolitical - they act within a frame of belief and self-interest, and are also in the main, politically aligned as well.

Bodies such as Civic Scotland are political groupings - they have a viewpoint, they are comprised of people who in the main have party political views and who voted according to them in democratic elections. Their voice can therefore only be advisory - it cannot be democratic, and they have no right to compel political decision.

There is of course, the Law, which in theory stands outside of, and above party politics. A brief look at the composition of either the Westminster Parliament or Holyrood immediately demonstrates that, while the concept of the rule of law and the processes of the law should be free of influence, the lawyers themselves are not - they are in fact highly politicised.

The Advocate General of Scotland, Lord Wallace demonstrated this in the BBC debate this week. He is a former politician, now an unelected Lord: he is a political appointee representing the Crown: he therefore technically represented the Queen, but in reality the Tory/LibDem Coalition, and was in practice in the debate aligned with the Labour/Tory/LibDem coalition formed to fight against the independence of Scotland and to secure a NO vote in the referendum.”

(If you doubt that the law is politicised, consider this - Tommy Sheridan is being released from prison this week after serving a year of his sentence. Sheridan, one of the most charismatic campaigning politicians Scotland has ever seen, will not be allowed to speak in public after his release. He is, of course, a committed advocate of Scotland’s independence, and an opponent of the nuclear deterrent. Many, including me, saw his prosecution for perjury as a political prosecution, and many will see the ban on him engaging in political activity at this crucial point in his country’s history as a gagging stratagem. A legal justification for the gag has of course been presented and can be defended under the law.)

Isabel may be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief that she didn’t have me on the programme instead of the admirable Joyce McMillan. But here we have the essence of the problem - television, limited by format and by timescale, can rarely do justice to such questions and concepts, even assuming their panellists understand them in the first place. Brevity, concise exchanges and ten minute exchange slots are what television is about, except in rare instances.

Of course, in reality, I would have given a briefer answer -

No they’re not letting us down. This is about party politics and the electorate want the politicians to fight the corners they elected them to fight. Other individuals and bodies can advise, but that’s all - if they want to do more than advise, let them stand for election and run for office.”


Joyce McMillan: Well, I think - just to put it bluntly - I think no one who really cares about the future of Scotland could want to keep the devolution max or the devolution plus option off the ballot paper.

Oh, really, Joyce. So anybody who doesn’t agree with you doesn’t care about Scotland? There are many who do care deeply about Scotland who seem to want to do just that. I’m not one of them - I want a single question because I think the devolution max question is a trap for nationalists, but as a democrat, I agree with you, with great reluctance, and I have offered a ballot paper which covers all reasonable bases, an analysis to support it, to which no one has paid a blind bit of notice. Anyway

Joyce McMillan: It’s quite clear that that’s the kind of option that most Scottish voters would feel, or the largest minority of Scottish voters, would feel most comfortable with - at the moment.

Isabel Fraser: Should it be a direct independence versus devo max question?

Joyce McMillan: No - absolutely not.

Now that answer is crystal clear - it should not be a direct independence versus devo max question. Or is it?

Joyce McMillan: It should be a question which allows people who want to opt for independence to opt for independence - and then, for those who have not opted for independence to say - well, what short of independence, would you like to open negotiations for devo max.

Joyce McMillan has just confirmed a YES to Isabel Fraser’s question, in spite saying absolutely not to it initially. Since a YES answer to any referendum question is a mandate to the Scottish Government to open negotiations for that choice, what Joyce has just said is that there should be two question, and if you say NO to independence, you also - or is it then - get a devo max choice, in which case it is “a direct independence versus devo max question”.

The confusion arise because not enough consideration is being given to the sequence and structure of the ballot paper and whether there should be conditionality between questions. I have addressed this at length, and doubtless tediously for those who don’t want to come to grips with the complexity that lies beneath apparent simplicity of any ballot paper. I have offered a ballot paper recently that I think covers all the reasonable bases, except the atavistic Tam Dalyell/Michael Forsyth option of reverting to a pre-devolution Scotland.

I am rather giving up hope than anyone will read or listen until the merde hits the fan, which it is already beginning to . If a 48 second exchange requires this kind of analysis, God Save Scotland - or Somebody Save Scotland …

MY BALLOT PAPER as posted earlier in the week


Answer only one question - tick only one box.

If you answer more than one question, your ballot paper will be null and void. CHOOSE ONLY ONE OPTION - GIVE ONLY ONE ANSWER

I want a fully independent, sovereign Scotland.

I want Scotland to remain in the UK with no increased in current devolved powers to Scotland.

I want Scotland to remain in the UK with some additional powers devolved to Scotland.

I want Scotland to remain in the UK with all powers devolved to Scotland except defence and foreign policy.

N.B. If you have answered more than one question, i.e. ticked more than one box, your ballot paper will be null and void.



A minority, presumably led by Lord Forsyth, may call for a fifth question - a reversion to pre-devolution status. I believe there is no evidence for other than a tiny Tory minority asking for such an option, and that it therefore should not be offered. (A caller on Call Kaye this morning asked for just that!)

Some nationalists - how many  I do not know - might want devo max as a fifth fall-back question if independence fails. I do not believe such an option should be offered, because it would require a transferable vote option.

Is it too complex? I do not believe it is. There are no gradations of independence - independence delivers devo max and negates the other options. The last three questions are all the reasonable options for those who do not want independence.

Some might argue for a YES/NO on independence, but that again would require a conditionality clause, and answering more than one question, e.g

If you say YES to independence, do not answer any other questions. If you say NO to independence, choose one, and only one of the following two options

I want Scotland to remain in the UK with some additional powers devolved to Scotland.

I want Scotland to remain in the UK with all powers devolved to Scotland except defence and foreign policy.

This is too complex and confusing, in my view, especially since the first question, the independence question would be a YES/NO, but the other two would be box tick answers.

Doubtless, some will argue over the sequencing of questions, i.e. the order they are set out on the ballot paper. Since it is a referendum with the overarching theme of independence, I believe the order I have set out is reasonable.