JOYCE MCMILLAN on NOW’S THE HOUR… for the Scotsman Magazine, 26.7.14. _________________________________________________________
CULTURE AND POLITICS often make uneasy bedfellows; so it was in slightly apprehensive mood that I set out, last week, to watch the First Minister pay an official visit to the Scottish Youth Theatre, at its headquarters in Glasgow’s Merchant City. The occasion was two-fold; the First Minister would see both a brief performance by the Tin Forest International Performing Company – a group of young people from across the Commonwealth taking part in this huge Glasgow 2014 community project – and an extract from the SYT’s forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe show, Now’s The Hour, in which young people voting for the first time face up to Scotland’s big day of decision.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried on this occasion, either about the politics or about the art. The short Tin Forest dance piece was impressive, the First Minister was in genial form; and the extract from Now’s The Hour reduced him and almost everyone else to tears, not because the show takes any particular view on the referendum debate – it is strictly neutral – but because of the bright, achingly hopeful faces of the twelve young people in the cast, as they posted humblingly wise letters to their future selves into a giant ballot box.
So far, so good, in other words; but there’s no point in pretending that the coming referendum doesn’t raise serious questions about how arts and politics should interact, in a 21st century democracy. On the “yes” side, there’s plenty of creative excitement around the idea of possible future Scotlands; but also a sense that this is more of a time for cabaret, debate, and brilliant fragments, rather than sustained long-form work “about” the referendum. And on the “no”side, there is much concern about the future of the dense network of UK connections in areas like classical music and literary publishing; along with a genuine if as yet unjustified apprehension that in or out of the UK, Scotland’s SNP-dominated government is bound, in the end, to start favouring artists who share its political perspective.
Scotland’s current situation, in other words, throws a sharp light on the fact that in any political situation, the price of artistic freedom is eternal vigilance. If there are relatively few “big plays” about the independence debate on this year’s Fringe, that only serves to remind us that art necessarily moves to a very different rhythm from politics, often decades in advance when it comes to imagining new cultural identities and possibilities, many years behind in responding fully and deeply to sudden change.
And when it comes to protecting artists from politicians and their demands, that remains a vital task for arts funding bodies, for the media, and for artists’ themselves; all of whom need to be aware not only of explicit pressures to take political sides, but also of the more subtle pressures that pervade our PR-driven world – to join in the business of hype and image-making rather than asking tough questions, to celebrate rather than interrogate, and to be co-opted to an ethos of global marketing that presents itself as apolitical, but which can nonetheless, like any ideology, become an enemy of truth, and of real creative freedom.