We are relaunching The Wee Review today at a difficult time for the arts in general and arts journalism in particular.
Our feature interview with Fringe boss Shona McCarthy encapsulates that. Rather than a jolly natter about the excitement ahead in August, conversation turned, as it often does in cultural circles, to the problems that plague the arts – inequality, lack of access, others getting rich off the work of hard-up artists.
The scope of our conversation was the Fringe, but we could have been talking more broadly. “It kind of reflects the wider system of the arts,” she said of the access and affordability problems she knows affect the Fringe. And it’s true, everywhere you look in the wider system of the arts, people speak of their inability to create, to participate, to build and sustain careers in the cultural sector. It has become (or remains) unfeasible, unaffordable and existentially frustrating. “What is the point?” might be the way to sum up many people’s feelings. “Why am I putting myself through this?” (I confess to feeling that myself, sometimes, as I sit at 1am answering the fiftieth Fringe press release from an artist I don’t have the time or the resources to help.)
To illustrate with just a handful of examples that come to mind from recent weeks:
- David Leddy called time on theatre company Fire Exit after the loss of Creative Scotland funding (and there’ve been comments from many more who struggle on without funding)
- Annie Marrs of Dundee’s Sweet Venues revealed that their Fringe accommodation costs have risen 11% in a year, putting their viability at risk.
- Gig venue Leith Depot vowed to fight on against the property development that would see them shut down.
- Music magazine fRoots pulled up stumps. Website The 405 did likewise, following Drowned In Sound a couple of months earlier.
- The Evening Standard axed two theatre critics. Other papers cut back on their Fringe reviewing budgets. Long-standing Herald arts correspondent Phil Miller left for a job in Scottish Government.
These incidents are not all connected. They don’t all relate to Scotland. They all have their own particular context. But considered together, they build a picture. It’s not healthy, is it? I’m not sure any of those things would be happening if the arts were truly thriving in modern Britain.
I don’t believe it needs to be this way. I think it’s incumbent on all of us in modern Scotland to make sure it isn’t this way.
We are about to enter a new decade – the 20s. In the equivalent decade a hundred years ago, nations were using cultural dynamism to banish the horrors of the First World War. It was the Jazz Age, it was Art Deco, it was Bauhaus, it was the Charleston. Women finally had the vote. Society was becoming, relatively, more liberal. The good times were rolling.
However horrible you might think they are, Brexit and Trump are not equivalent to the First World War. But a similar cultural dynamism is badly needed right now to shake the country from its malaise and usher in a new era.
At some point in the next decade, Scotland may become independent. It will need a vibrant, confident cultural sector in order to stake its place in the world, to announce its arrival, to draw people to it.
Or it may not become independent. In which case it will need a strong, distinctive cultural sector to retain its identity within the UK, to maintain its standing, to fight its corner.
Now is not the time for Scotland’s culture to be withering on the vine, for us to be fretting about the future of the Fringe, for established venues and artists and writers to be vacating the scene, for the nation’s main funding body to be a constant source of resentment. Yes, the Scottish Government have a Culture Strategy in the pipeline, but what is that? No artistic renaissance ever came about by public consultation and dry strategy. Government can’t create, it can only enable, or, at the very least, not hinder.
No, instead, if we are to create a New Roaring 20s in Scotland, we all need to be more savvy about how we operate. We need to get sharper at winning the respect of the public and wherewithal from business and commerce. We need to quit the introspection and lose the comfort blanket of liberal group-think. (The future is not won by huddling together reassuring ourselves that we’re the goodies.) We need to assemble networks that strengthen us – networks of practical assistance, not just fora for more talking. We need to document and boast about our successes and our progress. Above all, we need to drop the worthiness and stop pleading the case about the social benefits of the arts as if that’s the only way to justify them. Yes, the arts do wonderful things to a person, but you can’t build something incredible on wholesomeness alone. Think of your favourite cultural time and place – be it 20s Berlin, 60s San Francisco, 80s Manchester. They all changed people, but they were first of all exciting, not self-improving. No-one ought to go to the theatre purely because they think it will make them a better person.
A cultural moment needs a wild and diverse cast of mavericks, entrepreneurs, benefactors, forward-thinking institutions, creative geniuses and cultural commentators. They all need to be firing on all cylinders and the tensions between them need to be constructive and competitive, not fearful or resentful as so much of arts debate is right now. We do have it in us to create this. 20s Scotland could be the place we look back on and say “I was there”. But only with the right chemistry and the right people stepping forward to take the bull by the horns.
I say it now – we are throwing our hat in the ring as the last of these roles – cultural commentators. We’ve grown from a student blog site to what I now consider a fabulous cultural asset for Scotland on nothing more than passion and bloody-mindedness alone. We’re yet to make it pay but we are in this game for the long-term. And we want to help build the culture of the 2020s with you.
So our opinion pages are open to anyone to share their ideas, to debate the future, to make connections. You can vent your fury here too, as long as once you’ve got things off your chest, you have something constructive to offer. Go wild. Boast or provoke. Cogitate or agitate. Stir things up. Nail things down. But make use of us as a way to make things happen. Contact our editor if there’s an opinion piece you want to put out there. We want to be championing Scotland.
We want to chronicle a thrilling new era. When the historians are writing the cultural history of the 21st century, we’d like to be the footnote citation to a Golden Age of Scottish culture.
We all know culture is one of Scotland’s prime exports. Our bands, comedians, actors, artists and writers have always punched above their weight. I refuse to believe that we do not have the ingenuity between us to construct a cultural scene that everyone can connect to and be proud of, however dreary the outlook currently looks. Let’s make this the final doldrums before a New Roaring 20s.