This post started as a response to the call for money from Bella Caledonia. It has grown as I’ve become aware of cultural activism Scotland and now presents itself as my own ‘provocation’ (if that’s the buzzword of the moment) regarding Scottish culture. Or to be more precise the part of wee voices within the future of Scottish ‘Culture.
And forgive me that it's grown like Topsy. If I start polishing and cutting down now it'll not get out there till we are an Independent Country. It's a blog opinion piece for heaven's sake. Get yerself a cup of coffee (or beverage of your choice) and read on. If you dare.
The commodification of culture worries me on every level and monetising Bella seems to offer the potential of nothing more than to make it yet another cog in the wheel of middle class imposed culture. Those who have been loyal supporters and contributors thus far will get their £90 per article, but how many new faces will be commissioned?
I may be in the ridiculous position of a turkey voting for Christmas, and it’s been a personal battle I’ve fought over the last two decades, but I have a strong conviction now that there are serious problems with paying an elite to produce culture. I’ve been in the elite, I’ve walked away from the elite and I certainly don’t want to be re-appropriated into the elite – but I do still have a voice. My ‘journey’ (another current buzzword) has been from aspirational intellectual artistic elitist (largely failed) to wee voice (successful) able to represent my culture through my creative expression. I stand proudly outside of the ‘fold’ and I don’t expect to be listened to, taken seriously or included. But I do have as much of a right to my voice as anyone. And so I speak.
When I criticise ‘professionalism’ (and I have been a professional) I’m not saying that cultural expression is easy or that writing/painting etc aren’t skills that have to be learned. I’m just questioning why it is that we have to submit to the established order which says that only some are privileged to profit from cultural expression, especially when it comes at the expense of the many. (See Kirsty Eccles for more on this topic).
Until now I haven’t really engaged with Bella. I saw it very much in the same light as the now defunct National Collective , now being reborn as cultural activism Scotland? a way for the middle class cultural elite to convince themselves they’re not elitist at all. Leaving those of us who are truly wee voices out in the wilderness (where we belong?)
But with a call out to buy Mike Small a job, I’ve spent some time looking around the Bella site. The whole concept of monetising it makes me uneasy. And I raised a bit of an eyebrow when I saw Arts and Culture and Scottish Culture as distinct categories on the website. And then noted that while ‘Arts and Culture’ is a vibrant space, Scottish Culture hasn’t had an entry in a year.
Alarm bells are ringing about Bella’s definition of culture. Or should the capital C give it away? The criticisms by Loki (many of which I agreed with) re NC are possibly ones that should be asked by Bella of itself. And I have a concern about the number of articles non-attributed. Am I just being stupid? Am I supposed to know who they are written by? Are all articles without a name written by Mike Small? I don’t mean to sound arsey, but it’s pretty hard to engage with a first person authored piece when one doesn’t know who the first person is eg the 18th December 2012’s ‘Unanswered questions have been raised about Scotland’s cultural institutions.’ It makes the reader feel at best ill informed and at worst an outsider to the whole experience.
I’m just about coming to grips with the fact that Bella isn’t just the online arm of National Collective. That probably is my own ignorance, but the cast lists seem to read very similarly to the ‘outsider.’
All I know about NC is that it wasn’t for me or the likes of me. And yes, there are more like me than you might comfortably like to acknowledge. My own analysis of NC (from the outside) rather too closely coincides with Loki’s own. I assumed they went out and ‘did culture’ in a variety of places and with a variety of people, but to me, feeding off the grassroots isn’t the same as feeding the grassroots. Forgive me if this sounds unkind, I’m sure they did good work, it’s just that there’s plenty of us who didn’t benefit from their particular flavour of culture. And who want to create expressions of our own culture, not be patronised in any sense of the word.
I’m assuming that cultural activism Scotland is just another Big Voice in the making. Certainly it seems that the Big Voices are getting active in and around the field of culture in a fit of post Referendum/Election exuberance – or perhaps to them it’s a playground? Aye, there’s the rub. For some of us wee voices (including yer rural cousins) culture is a field not an urban sprawl or a playground. It’s not a pub debate or an intellectual wankfest. It’s who we are. Something we hold dear. For some of us culture is at the very heart of our being. We are not gripped with angst about our identity as Scots. We do not need to intellectualise about ‘nationalism’ in its many historical and political guises.
We know who we are and we are proud of our culture. It’s just that the Big Voices, even while claiming to speak for us, seem bent on denigrating and denying both us and our version of culture. I appreciate this is because it is alien to them, that they do not understand it. We should educate them perhaps? I suggest that they might get out of their comfortable white middle class urban landscapes and go to where wee voices really are. They can do it on the internet without even leaving their seats. But I fear it’s a journey too far. Because it challenges the whole premise of their being.
Which comes back to the monetisation or commodification of culture. As soon as you pay someone for producing ‘culture’ or ‘art’ to the level that they become a ‘success’ or they can ‘give up the day job’ you are alienating them from grassroots culture. Culture is a manifestation of creative expression and monetising it creates a false notion of ‘quality’ which denies the lived experience of a lot of wee voice Scots. The ‘professionalisation’ of the arts has become a major retrograde step, disenfranchising the many. If culture is our birthright, why should we be paid for creative expression? Why should a privileged few get Big Voice status?
On Bella Caledonia I read the Butterfly Rebellion post from 14th September 2014. Again it was an unattributed piece and again, while it interested me I still felt like an outsider at some party. And this is the way many of those involved in true grassroots cultural activity feel. We can press our noses up against your window but how (if we wanted to) can we take an active part. Surely an authored piece should be given an author? Opinions are like arsesholes. Everyone has one and that’s fine, but why are we expected to privilege the Big Opinions? Are they really so much better/authentic/intelligent/creative than the rest of us? I question that. And I think that this is one of the key lessons (and perhaps a ‘way forward’) for those interested in culture in Scotland. Accepting diversity. Accepting the validity of things alien to your own view of culture.
If you call someone ‘gallus’ it is not an offensive term. But calling someone’s cultural expression ‘twee’ is an act of cultural racism. We have to be very careful of the words we use – Scots or English. ‘Authenticity’ is another buzzword which seems to have a variety of meanings. But it’s a key concept, though perhaps ‘honesty’ is a better one. As long as person is honest in their cultural expression surely they are entitled to its validation? Denying the lived cultural experience or expression of those who are not of your socio-economic or cultural background is an act of oppression. And I’m afraid the cultural elite has previous in this respect. MacDiarmid is not god to us all. The man was at best a contradiction and at worst a cultural racist. (I make no claims as to the ‘quality’ of his poetry, I don’t know it well enough, I’m just talking about the way he denigrated those whose cultural production or ideals did not accord with his). I don’t think ‘nationalism’ is the issue here, I think cultural imperialism is more significant.
Seems to me like the Big Voices are having a bit of a spat and as ever the wee voices will be either used as collateral, pawns or simply overlooked in the Big Voice world view of culture. Sorry, I find I should write Culture there. Please wake up Big Voices. First to the fact that you are Big Voices and second to the fact that as such you may well be alienated from the very people you claim to represent.
How does one even get invited to the Big Voice party? How would we find out about cultural activism Scotland? ‘Culture What’s Next’ was an ‘open’ event – but only if you knew about it. Presumably you have to be active in the Trad network or a time served National Collective member? I’m not having a go here, I’d just like to point out that perhaps those of you Big Voices who think you are ‘for culture’ are a bit less aware of grassroots cultures in Scotland than you might be.
How does one get involved in Bella Caledonia? Is it as easy as writing to the editorial team asking to be allowed in? Some of us don’t have this inherent confidence. For me, a key issue in Scotland is lack of confidence – and I think grassroots culture is instrumental in building this confidence again. By grassroots I mean actually finding and embracing the culture of the grassroots, not going out to the grassroots and ‘giving’ them some culture or cultural experiences.
I fear that with monetisation (although, perhaps without it anyway) the likes of Bella Caledonia will become an alternative media that, while it speaks for many more Scots, still doesn’t address everyone. That it will be top-heavy with those within the Scottish cultural elite, who probably don’t even realise this is what they are. I’d like to think that Bella would speak for the wee voices as well as the Big Voices. And I fear that cultural activism Scotland will go the same way. Same old story. Big Voices take centre stage, the rest of us should know our places.
I missed the full experience of the For Culture event and to date I’ve only read Kieran Hurley and Chris Silver’s pieces – by which time my blood pressure was up to unmanageable proportions. I will read the rest of the pieces and I will look forward to the ‘outcomes’ when they are published. I have now ‘found’ the site and I’m ‘for culture’ too, so of course I will share it around. I’m open to the possibility it’s inclusive but I’m not asking to join the party. What I’m trying to point out here is that despite the democratisation of the internet the privilege still goes to the Big Voices.
We wee voices know quite a bit about them, but what do they know of us? I’ve read Lesley Riddoch’s ‘Blossom’ and it was pretty good in parts (though I felt it could have done with some editing given that she’s a ‘professional’ journalist. I’m only voicing this as a criticism after years of hearing the same criticism levelled at wee voices who express their opinions publicly without the benefit of the opportunities Ms Riddoch has enjoyed in life). I only bring up ‘Blossom’ because the section on culture left me convinced that once more there are blinkers on those who think they speak for the people but speak for the elite.
For example. Have you Big Voices heard of the work of McStorytellers? It’s been running for some four years now. It offers a place for Scots writers to publish their stories – people who would never get published by the mainstream and who probably don’t have the confidence to publish for themselves. It offers a range of ‘authentic’ voices and has, to date, published just shy of 600 short stories (that’s nearly a million words) by more than 70 writers online and just short of 40 books/ebooks. And it is spearheaded by one Brendan Gisby. Who is so far off the radar of Scottish Culture that he makes me look like an insider.
Spin offs from McStorytellers include McVoices and McRenegades. The former are perhaps still too unconfident of their place in the ‘new’ culture of blogging to vye for attention. And the latter is a group who are working on building their voices (real and fictional) and their confidence, determined that even if no one is listening, they’ll keep talking. That’s an expression of cultural activism. They are not offering a challenge to the well kent voices, they are simply making it known that culture goes deeper into Scotland than is currently accepted. There are many ‘alternative’ Scottish cultures and many wee voices who never get heard.
It’s not in the gift of Bella Caledonia or any of the Big Voice organisations to offer acceptance to these groups, but perhaps you should at least be aware of them before claiming a desire to stand up for the many cultural voices of Scotland. None of the wee voices can afford to promote themselves. We all pay for the privilege of not being accepted and many of us accept that this is just the way things are in a hierarchical society. We are at the bottom of the pyramid. We have no representation but ourselves. And we can’t pay for those higher up the food chain. It seems to be developing into something of a chicken and egg situation of who can help who. And how. I don’t have all the answers I’m just trying to voice my opinion as constructively as I can.
I’ve personally been involved in a range of projects all of which have managed, rather spectacularly, to stay beneath the radar of the culture vultures of Scotland. There was my three year stint as Director of the Edinburgh eBook Festival (miss that?) And my most audacious cultural engagement to date came last year when I republished the Galloway novels of S.R.Crockett in 32 volumes. No funding, no crowd-funding, just three years of hard work and putting my money where my mouth was for something I believe in. Which is, essentially the right for all aspects of culture, but most particularly the culture I am part of which is working class rural Scotland, to be ‘voiced’ as loudly as possible.
You’ve probably never heard of S.R.Crockett and if you have you’ll be wailing ‘kailyard’ at me now. Which is just an example of the danger of the cultural elite no matter what their political persuasion. MacDiarmid stabbed Crockett in the back after he was dead and that’s good enough for most of those who seek to privilege urban culture. But let me tell you, nostalgia is a matter of perspective and there are many Scots who feel there’s not enough sentiment (or heart) in our fiction. More of us who are starting to see the Crockett is more a prose version of Burns than anything else.
Does Bonnie Gallowa’ have a place in Bella Caledonia? And do the wee voices stand a chance of getting heard by the Big Voices or are they just so many peasants who challenge the ‘fact’ that quality is decided by those with the academic or cultural badge of favour. As it says on the Bannockburn monument there are plenty of ‘small folk playing our part’ in Scottish culture and I’d like to think that Bella would offer an open door to the likes of us. But I don’t feel confident in that. How can you respond to my (and our) lack of confidence?