Another Angle of Vision

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The last days of September in Orkney: weather fine and sunlit mirrors in Scapa Flow and Hoy Sound. The sky in flux after a day of high wind, creating fantastic cloud shapes. White horses prance on the waves and the ocean at Yesnaby is a frothing mass. I come away from such experience with a head full of light and air.

More prosaically, I also brought home a mind filled with ideas from the rich presentations given at the conference organised by the Centre for Nordic Studies and Orkney Islands Council. Over two days, some 20 papers were given on art, music, literature, archaeology and much more. I learned about the enduring legacy of artists like Gunnie Moberg for some of the UHI art students whose work was exhibited in the hall. There were fascinating accounts of how artists have responded to Hoy over the centuries, and the presence in Orkney of Iain Hamilton Finlay at the start and again at the end of his career. A presentation by Chris Wainwright, with gorgeous images of his light works in response to climate change, connected with the rescue archaeology on Westray where Neolithic sites are being lost to costal erosion.

There were continual and unexpected points of contact between the perspectives of artists and academics, Orcadians and outsiders, and of course far too much to report here: I hope the papers will be published in due course. I was there also to give a public lecture on Orkney’s culture, based on what I learned three years ago when I did some research going back to the 1970s. What struck me, and it shouldn’t be a surprise, was how much I’ve discovered and learned since then. Orkney may only be 380 square miles (allowing for coastal erosion) and home to 21,500 people but its history and culture has been traced back to 6820 bce and the oldest sculpture of a human figure yet found in Britain surfaced five years ago in Westray.

In my talk, I focused on the openness of Orcadians to the world, both through the people who have come to the islands over the centuries and in venturing out to explore and make contact with others. With a confidence in the local and the particular it is possible to welcome everything else. To download the lecture, click on this link: Another Angle of Vision: Some particularities of Orkney Culture.

PS Tomorrow is an important day for Orkney, when justice will finally be done to one of its remarkable sons, the explorer John Rae, who mapped hundreds of miles of Arctic Canada and brought home news of the fate of the Franklin Expedition. The unwelcome truth made him a marginalised figure in his lifetime, but on 30 September 2014, the 201st anniversary of his birth, a commemorative plaque will be installed in Westminster Abbey. At the same time, there will be a service at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall to honour a brave and honourable man.


The Pinning Stones

Portraits from The Pinning Stones by Ray Smith

On Thursday, the residents of Scotland decide whether to leave the United Kingdom and establish their own state. Whatever your view of the possible outcomes, we should be thankful that negotiations are not being conducted with arms as they are now in Ukraine. Democracy has its failings, as elected demagogues (the irony!) never tire of saying, but it is still our best way of settling differences – provided we see it as a process, not an achievement.

If the referendum were not enough to keep Scotland in my mind just now, I’ve also been preparing a trip to Orkney to give a lecture about its culture, based on the research I did there in 2011. It is a wonderful place, unique in so many ways, and it will be great to be in Kirkwall again, though I’m conscious that I might be landing in a country that has just declared its will for independence.

And now, after a long delay, I can also share my study of culture and community in Aberdeenshire, completed last year. Aberdeenshire Council will publish The Pinning Stones in paperback this autumn, and I’m grateful to them for allowing me to make the digital version available prior to publication. Although there are evident similarities and connections between Orkney and the ancient lands of Banff, Buchan, Gordon and Kincardine, I was struck as ever by how unique each place is. What things look like is so often a matter of perspective and the closer you get the more you are struck by the particularity within the unity.

To download a digital copy of The Pinning Stones, Culture and Community in Aberdeenshire, click on the links:

In the past 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to work in many parts of Scotland: in Glasgow, Aberdeen, the Western Isles, the Highlands, Argyll, the Borders and elsewhere. I’ve met many generous and creative people,  learned a great deal and grown to appreciate the diversity of place, life and culture that lies behind the single word ‘Scotland’. Whatever happens on 18 September, this is a nation and a people with so much to celebrate.

Human diversity is

Sarajevo, 2014 1

I have seen the future, brother, it is murder.

Leonard Cohen, The Future, (1993)

From the street corner where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie – precipitating not only the First World War but a calamitous century – a few steps might have taken him to an Orthodox church, a mosque, a synagogue and a Roman Catholic cathedral. In 1914 Sarajevo was, like most European cities, characterised by the religious, cultural and ethnic diversity of its inhabitants, who got along with one another reasonably enough.

It took decades of war, genocide, population transfers, forced conversions and ‘ethnic cleansing’ to create the false and frozen national unity of the Cold War. But everything changes; ice thaws. The natural diversity of human beings is slowly returning to Europe, though many find the change difficult to accept.

These thoughts were prompted partly by Saturday’s official commemoration of the assassination’s centenary, and partly by a characteristically pointless discussion about cultural diversity on Radio 4 this morning. Listening with half an ear, I paid attention only when I heard one contributor argue that ‘we’re always being told that diversity is a good thing’.

It’s true that these debates often seem to pit those who argue that diversity is good and those who say that people prefer to be with ‘their own kind’, or words to that effect. As so often in political argument, both positions flatter the listener by suggesting they have more power over their lives and circumstances than they actually do. Human diversity is a fact, not a good. What matters is how we live with it.

Those who cannot accept that reality sometimes take action to change it, like Gavrilo Princip in 1914. The consequence was murder, just murder, as numberless millions were sacrificed on the altars of nationalism, national-socialism and socialism. Today’s rebels against reality, in Nigeria, in Iraq, in Somalia and elsewhere, kill in the name of religion. Soon, the countries in the world that have not lived through genocide will be outnumbered by those that have.

Ultimately, the choice is personal. Which call will we respond to – the smooth and false appeal of liberation through blood or the stony path of struggling through today’s problems today, of living with our neighbours, whoever they may be, and of looking for what is cherishable in them, in us and in the day. Leonard Cohen, whose wise humanity makes him not just a great artist but a good one, spoke about this choice in an interview some years ago:

‘…Democracy, fraternity, equality, liberty, [these words] resonate in the heart. But when it comes down to individual choices, we’re very unwilling to surrender our status, to surrender our position in regards to the others. And we’re frightened by the notion that we might have to share our room with strangers; we might have to share our heart with strangers, to share our life with strangers, with those poorer than us.’

Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen (edited by Jeff Burger) p. 320

I don’t suppose the woman begging for coins where statues to both Gavrilo Princip and Franz Ferdinand have stood was allowed to sit there when the world’s panjandrums paraded in Sarajevo on Saturday. But I expect she’s there again today, as the leaders’ caravan passes on to its next self-admiring destination. Meanwhile, the people of Bosnia Herzegovina are busy helping one another recover from May’s disastrous floods, solidarity their only aid.

You don’t have to believe human diversity is a good thing – although there are arguments for thinking so – but there’s no point in pretending that it doesn’t exist or that it can be tidied away, except by murder. And everything’s better than that.

Below the radar

Wrangle 1There’s a lot of interest at the moment in the value of culture and cultural value (not the same thing), both in academic and policy terms, and I’ve touched on it before. Research programmes, initiatives like the Arts Council’s Creative People and Places and political speeches can all enrich the debate about how we understand culture, its purpose, value and meaning.

For example, in reporting on a recent symposium in the US, Geoffrey Crossick, Director of the Cultural Value Project, observes that: ‘the standard surveys of participation – of which the DCMS/Arts Council England’s Taking Part is just one example – have become a necessary part of the evidence base for those seeking to make the case for public funding of the arts’, going on to ask some important questions about the conceptual and practical difficulties of assessing levels of arts participation.

But what is the relationship between a level of participation in the arts and a case for public funding? Would a high level of participation justify that funding? Surely not in itself, since people participate enthusiastically in all sorts of things that do not receive (or request) taxpayer subsidy. Perhaps a low level of participation would be a better justification, since it would be possible to argue that this was a bad thing – but on what basis? – which might be remedied by subsidising more art and better access to it. But if the level rose or fell, what would be the appropriate policy response?

I hope that questions such as these, which demand the attention of philosophers as much as statisticians, will get more attention in the present lively discussion of cultural value.

Their practical and concrete nature was brought home to me a few days ago, when I met a team of bell ringers at Wrangle, in Lincolnshire, for a project about the church’s place in artistic and community life. These men are practitioners and custodians of change ringing, an ancient, uniquely English musical tradition that makes equally high demands on the ringer’s stamina, concentration and intellect. Bell ringing is  unlikely to figure in most surveys about participation in art, though clearly not for reasons of cultural value: the drawing of boundaries is always revealing.

Joining the canon

As tribute records go, La Bande à Renaud, is not bad, but it is a little sad. There is a valedictory air to these restrained, polite versions of songs by one of the dominant figures of French popular music since the 1970s, Renaud Séchan – which is ironic since Renaud himself was neither.

In scores of inventive, funny and angry songs Renaud sang for a generation, or at least that part of it that was rebellious and tender-hearted. He drafted a damning indictment of France in Hexagone and laughed at Margaret Thatcher in Miss Maggie. He satirised petit-bourgeois hypocrisy in Mon Beauf and the bohemian middle class in Les Bobos. But it is the songs of family life (En Cloque, about his pregnant wife, or Il pleut, one of many love songs to his daughter) that his true ‘coeur d’artichaut’ appears. His portraits of a lonely middle-aged woman living in the Paris suburbs (Banlieue Rouge), or of the child of North African immigrants (Deuxième Génération) are clear-eyed and moving, and, like the best of his work, uniquely his.

Renaud has not released a record of new songs for eight years; he says inspiration has deserted him, and he feels trapped in nostalgia. One article about La Bande à Renaud (on which he does not appear) suggests that the album is an effort to fulfil an outstanding contract with EMI and asks “Renaud, un chanteur fini?”.

Renaud may not write any new songs, but he is not finished. The France that inspired him is gone, along with military service, the guillotine, Mobylettes, les santiags and cafés with pinball machines; even the rich argot from which he crafted his texts, has been succeeded by new languages such as verlan. But that country lives in an inspired body of songs that is as eloquent a portrait of its time as that of Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens or Edith Piaf. Renaud’s world, like Maigret’s, was always a recreation of reality: as that fades into history, its simulacrum remains, offering new listeners imaginative access to a life otherwise beyond reach.

With La Bande à Renaud Renaud Séchan takes his place, if not amongst les immortels, then at least in the canon of French chanson. Unimportant in itself, like those pointless ceremonies inducting ageing musicians into ‘Halls of Fame’, it still feels like a moving salute to a great artist by his (slightly) younger peers. Happily, it is not the only such acknowledgement to appear now. In the belief that songs are made to be whistled in the shower, sung in the street, shouted in the metro, and reinterpreted on the web, 20 young artists have done just that, sharing the results freely online. Renaud, optimist and anarchist, must be proud.


Merci Renaud…


In search of gravitas

Gravitas, the heavy tread of moral earnestness, becomes a bore if it is not accompanied by the light step of intelligence.   (Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, Ch. 4)

In 1969, the same year that a NASA programme named after a Classical Greek god put man on the moon, the BBC broadcast a series of programmes under the title Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark. It was an instant and enduring success. Civilisation drew the template for a style of documentary making in which academics present their ideas direct to camera from sites associated with their subject. But it has also come to symbolise, for many people, an idealised time when the BBC embraced the first part of its Reithian mission to ‘educate, inform, entertain’ with particular authority.

I watched Civilisation a few years ago, in an effort to understand both Clark’s vision and why its presentation had been so influential. Truthfully, while both images and interpretation were impressive, the dated, patrician style made the experience more interesting than enjoyable. Perhaps Clark’s authoritative story of Western European art was so celebrated at the time because it appeared at the height of the Sixties’ countercultural challenge: here was someone who could slap that relativism down without even seeming to confront it.

BBC Kenneth Clark

All this came to mind because the BBC has undertaken ‘to re-imagine that great series for the digital age’ as part of what it describes as ‘the biggest push we’ve made in the arts for a generation’. Both promises were made by the BBC’s Director General, Lord Hall, at a recent speech in London. The shade of Lord Clark was summoned to lend gravitas to a commitment that amounts to a somewhat underwhelming increase of £2.75m on arts programming across all platforms. Tony Hall, a former director of the Royal Opera House, also called some erstwhile peers in the London cultural world to his aid: the BBC will be supported in its new pledge to the arts by ‘Alex, Vicky – and both Nicks’, representing some of the country’s most authoritative public arts institutions.

The BBC is by far the most important cultural organisation in Britain, and arguably the best public broadcaster in the world. It has done as much as any other part of our public life to reflect changing, contested expressions of national identity in the past century. The BBC is also the largest British commissioner and distributor of art, from drama and classical music (it supports five orchestras of its own) to film and writing.

BBC television Centre

The Corporation’s renewed commitment to the arts is surely to be welcomed, but is Civilisation really the model it should adopt? Were such a programme made today, it could not possibly have its predecessor’s influence because of deep changes, for better and worse, in the nature of public authority. Society and culture have been transformed in the past 45 years. Clark’s interpretation of culture, like Leavis’, Orwell’s or Arnold’s is now a part of the history of that culture, not a fixed truth to be recited like a creed.

If the BBC’s arts output is to play as important a part in national life today as it has in the past, the Corporation must be as imaginative and original as it is capable of being—in the stories it tells, the ways it tells them and, most of all, the range and diversity of people it asks to create them in the first place. Otherwise, we may end up with little more than a pale imitation of the old Third Programme, masking a flood of mediocre light entertainment while preaching to the choir. Kenneth Clark, whose intellectual integrity is so evident in his programmes, would shudder.

The Budapest Observatory


Budapest ObervatoryThere’s has been a great increase in cultural policy data, research and commentary in recent years, reflecting culture’s greater importance in the postmodern world, and facilitated by the ease of modern communications. Twenty years ago, fact checking (to say nothing of library research) was slow and laborious. Now, you can break off in the middle of a sentence to verify a figure or a date and get back to what you’re writing within seconds.

Among the many online resources that help make this possible, I particularly value the Budapest Observatory, whose small team, led Péter Inkei, analyses cultural policy and finance across Central Europe. Their distinctive character is clear from the home page, where a few bullet points set out the Observatory’s objectives and values with admirable clarity. Being concerned with culture in the countries between the Baltic and the Adriatic Seas, they are well aware of the financial realities, so they makes a virtue of necessity. In their words,  ‘We want to be as practical as possible – this explains the simplicity of our site, too. We hope to save on your telecom bill by omitting fancy images.’ 

What the Observatory offers, instead of fancy images, is an exceptional resource of information, data and analysis on culture policy in Europe. There are papers on questions as varied as art education in Hungary, literary translation and culture since the fall of Communism. always characterised by strong statistical evidence and an undemonstrative objectivity. It is often easier to find out about European cultural policy and programmes here than through institutional channels, and it’s valuable to see Europe from another angle.

There are too many email newsletters to give them much attention, but the Budapest Observatory’s monthly memo is always worth reading. The Observatory celebrates its 15th birthday on 22 April 2014: I wish them many more to come.

A Three Pipe Problem (MCV8)

‘What are you going to do, then?’ I asked. ‘To smoke,’ he answered. ‘It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.’

Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)

The term ‘cultural value’ appeared in British policy discourse about 10 years ago, notably in Capturing Cultural Value, a pamphlet by John Holden for Demos. Its use has grown quickly and it is now central to several campaigns, research programmes, and debates (an overview may be found on the website of The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value).

Whilst this extensive and varied engagement in the value of culture is very welcome, particularly in a British context where such discourse has previously been limited, there is neither clarity nor consensus about what cultural value actually means. The use of an ill-defined and consequently slippery concept to advance knowledge and inform policy is concerning because it risks obscuring the very tensions and complexities its advocates set out to address. Consequently, the term’s intellectual value is eroded even as more capital is invested in its ideological value.

Here’s a brief note developed from a talk given to an Expert Panel for the AHRC Cultural Value Project and supported by the University of Exeter. It considers four areas where discourse around cultural value seems to me confused, including the distinctions:

  • between value and values;
  • between capacity value and effect value;
  • between intrinsic and extrinsic effect; and
  • between what is observable and what is controllable.

There are others, and there is much more to be considered if a stable basis for discussion could be established, so this note should be considered as no more than a beginning.

Cui bloody bono?

The speech of women

There is a paradox, acknowledged by the speaker herself, in a woman giving a lecture about how the female voice has been excluded from public discourse since the origins of Western culture. Mary Beard’s lecture, given at the British Museum for the London Review of Books and broadcast on BBC4, was clearly not an instance of being silenced. But the examples she brought forward, from Telemachus telling his mother Penelope to be silent in the Odyssey to the misogynist abuse flung by Internet trolls at women who speak in the media today, were damning.

Apart from all the mythological transformations into non-humans (where have we heard that before?) of women who dare to speak, it was the characterisation of women’s voices – and by extension women’s words – as strident, shrill and unpleasant that struck me. Never mind what’s said – it’s made irrelevant, literally unlistenable, by the speaker. It’s ironic that the ad hominem fallacy (in which the person is attacked, not the argument) should refer to men: presumably ad feminam attacks were so normal as not to need definition or, indeed, to be seen as a fallacy at all. *

Mary Beard’s opportunity to speak in public is relatively new in historical terms and it comes at a significant cost that many women in public life will recognise. One aspect of that is the personalised abuse to which a woman wishing to be heard risks being subjected, and I admire those, like Beard, who with far greater courage than me, will not allow themselves to be silenced by the vitriol so commonly flung in their faces. Another is being cornered into speaking about the experiences, needs and rights of women: as she observed, she might have been speaking about migration or the war in Syria. I remember being told by someone at Channel 4 that their diversity research showed not only that disabled people appeared on screen very, very rarely but that when they did, it was almost always to speak about disability.

Mary Beard 2

Democracy, silence and art

Although her lecture was about the silencing of women in public space, Mary Beard could have said as much about children, the old, foreigners, the poor and many of the others who are stigmatized in different societies. In fact, it’s easier to identify those who have control of speech, and therefore power, in human societies, across the globe and throughout time: strong men. The model is set by Classical Athens, the original democratic society still idealized today. As I have written elsewhere:

Athenian democracy was limited to men, and even then only men who had completed military training. Women, children, slaves and foreigners – the vast majority of people living in Athens in the 4th century BCE had neither a vote nor a voice.

Democracy is fine, it seems, so long as the self-perpetuating group of rich and powerful men who have dominated most societies throughout history, control who actually gets to be heard in public space. The exclusion of women is the most salient example, and has required the most cultural effort to maintain, principally because they are half of the population. But there are many others who must be silenced if democracy is to be controlled by 20% of the adult male population of Athens.

And that is why art can be so important. It is a way for the silenced to express themselves. It can be a way to be heard when others are blocked. Jane Austen wrote about female experience anonymously, but without needing the male or androgynous pseudonyms adopted by the Brontës, Mary Ann Evans or, most recently, J. K Rowling. Farm labourers in NE Scotland composed ballads to satirise the masters who gave so little in return for their work. The enslaved peoples of Europe’s ‘New World’ created whole cultures in which to hold and express their selves – cultures so powerful that they have sometimes, as in the case of the blues, occupied and transformed those of their oppressors.

The one public place in Athens where women’s speech was not just heard, but essential was the theatre – an ancient auditorium of the Parliament of Dreams.

Theatre of Dionysos Athens

Cui bono?

At root, the silencing is not misogyny or racism but about power. Those poisonous cultural and ideological systems were invented to legitimize the unequal distribution of power. They must be challenged not only in themselves but in their root causes. We must be tough on oppression and on the causes of oppression, if one can use such a formulation without being overcome by the irony.

And the struggle to be heard exists in the arts as it does in every other part of human society. The powerful defend their control by talk of standards, quality and excellence, always reserving to themselves the knowledge, judgement and taste to sort the good from the bad. There is a useful Latin question worth asking when someone tells you your work is not up to standard, your claim is illegitimate or your voice should not be heard: cui bono? It means, who benefits? In whose interest is it that the voices of women, of working people, of the poor, of disabled people, of the old or the ill or the stranger should be silenced?

When you listen to those voices described as the norm, as objective, ask yourself sometimes not only how good is their argument, but  whom does it serve. Cui bloody bono?

* It’s been pointed out to me – by my mother, pace Telemachus –that hominem is properly translated as human, while vir is man, but since human is often used as an equivalent of man (in the same argument that claims mankind to describe women), I’ve let it stand, if only because it illustrates the pitfalls of our gendered language. (And there I was congratulating myself that my Grade 6 O-level Latin had got me correctly to feminam by reconnecting some long disused synapses: vanitas vanitatum…)