I first got wind of it in Linda Essig’s post on Facebook (Linda, who writes the blog “Creative Infrastructure,” was also kind enough to post a “love letter” to The Culture of Possibility last week). Then I got a note from my friend David Francis in Edinburgh, a wonderful musician (he and Mairi Campbell make up “The Cast”) and leader of the Traditional Music Forum there.
David wrote that a recent speech by Fiona Hyslop, Scottish Culture Secretary, “seems to prefigure a change in cultural policy in Scotland and maybe the kind of paradigm shift you write about” in my new books.
He is right, and it is thrilling.
I urge you to read Hyslop’s talk for yourself (and then try to imagine any U.S. counterpart speaking with such forthright vision and conviction). She sets out to demolish the exhausted orthodoxies of old-school arts advocacy, and succeeds brilliantly. Instead of justifying the anorexic character of most contemporary cultural subvention, she challenges herself and her colleagues to do much more. And she does not shy from outright contradiction of the tired old economic-justication arguments her counterpart in London, Maria Miller, trotted out to a blue-ribbon audience at the British Museum a few weeks earlier, when she prioritized culture as a product, a bankable commodity. From Hyslop’s talk:
Recently, the Culture Secretary for the UK Government set out a different approach to culture and asked the culture sector to help her make the arguments about the economic impact of culture in the context of economic growth.
I don’t agree. That is not the future I choose.
The Scottish Government already accepts the case for the role of government in supporting the cultural sector. We actively support the case for public subsidy of the arts. We understand that culture and heritage have a value in and of themselves.
I don’t need or want the culture or heritage sector to make a new economic or social case to justify public support for their work. I know what these sectors can deliver because I see it in action. I visit hardworking artists and practitioners who are exploring new ways of working; and who are creating dynamic and exciting new ways of enjoying and sharing their work and the work of our ancestors. They think in new ways precisely because they are artists….
This Government does not look at our cultural life and heritage as if they are merely products that can be bought and sold. If there was ever a way to suck the vitality out of a topic that should energise, invigorate, inspire and move—it is to make a perfunctory nod to generic social benefits and then, in the next breath, reduce it to nothing more than a commodity.
So, for this Government, the case has been made.
Wow! Just imagine hearing that in Washington, DC. I can’t find a transcript of the audience interaction that followed the Culture Secretary’s talk, but David Francis told me that in the “Q and A afterwards she set out the hope that culture would permeate the thinking and action of every government department and underpin all of the indicators they use for assessing policy outcomes.”
Hyslop’s talk ends with a call to vote yes in the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, clearly asserting that renewed attention to Scottish culture which has emerged as part of the independence debate is critical to that nation’s future:
[O]f course I want to see a yes vote but I’m struck by the energy and stimulation that the act of simply asking the question has brought to us. Imagine how much more we could be if that question is answered in the affirmative. This nation has many great minds, great thinkers, great artists—all of whom have a part to play in building something exciting and new.
This generation has been given the priceless opportunity to shape its own future according to its own values.
No doubt, the independence movement is a cause as well as an effect. Around the globe, when peoples and countries rise to claim their independence, the real and deep value of culture becomes far more evident than in those places where it is taken for granted. The signs and symbols, stories and themes, sounds and gestures of cultural identity resonate more strongly. Their embedded meanings break through layers of conventional dismissal and trivialization into much greater visibility. It’s not that art and culture are more important under such circumstances, but that with new eyes, their enduring crucial importance becomes evident.
We are living right now on the bridge between paradigms. The people who believe in the old order, Datastan—in which value must be economic or otherwise reduced to numbers—are defending the old reality with all they’ve got. Look at Maria Miller’s speech (and weep), for instance. But the new reality, The Republic of Stories, is emerging despite their insistence, and they cannot stop it. A few clips on the subject from my recent Berkeley book launch:
From Cecile McLorin Salvant’s new album, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” May we all know what time it is!