Capital Offence

At the end of last week, the Grauniad shored up a decades-old reputation for clod-hopping sub-editing by crediting Glasgow with being the capital of Scotland. Given that 115% of weegies might agree with such an assertion, this is not all bad, even if such Southern ignorance/laziness did nudge a few hundred more switherers into the ‘Yes’ camp.

But the unfortunate thing is that the article itself (Don’t call Glasgow’s Contemporary Art Scene a Miracle from Maureen Jaffrey) did have merit, pointing out that three of this year’s four nominees for the Turner Prize are graduates of some form from the Glasgow School of Art and seeking to explain why that might be. Indeed, the article implies that this is no longer surprising; indeed it is now considered the norm:

“In recent years the city has come to dominate Turner prize lists. Glasgow winners include Douglas Gordon (1996), Simon Starling (2005), Richard Wright (2009) and Martin Boyce (2011). Martin Creed (2001) and Susan Philipsz (2010) both studied and made their careers elsewhere, but grew up in the city. I could go on: nominees Christine Borland, Jim Lambie, Nathan Coley, Cathy Wilkes, Lucy Skaer, Karla Black, Luke Fowler and David Shrigley have all lived and worked in Glasgow.”

While the original article made no attempt to politicise such eminence, I found it stood in sharp contrast to a Simon Shama’s piece in the FT on May 9th, which is being seized upon by unionists as a shining rationale to retain the status quo. Whereas Shama waxes lyrical about all the quirky contributions the Scots have made to the union, he cannot seem to grasp that the present argument is not about the splendidness or otherwise of what the nations on this island (what he calls “a splendid mess of a union (that) should not be torn asunder“) have achieved but what each perceive as a best option for their future going forward from this point.

For his sole forward-looking argument, Shama cites Adam Smith “the capacity to enter into the experience of someone not necessarily like you was the fundamental principle around which just societies, as well as rich ones, evolved.” On this basis, he argues that both Smith and Hume would have been ‘No’ voters, which rather presumes impervious national boundaries of that era still apply, rather than the present actuality of global mobility and economy dominating our lives today. Smith and Hume would worry little about borders today.

In contrast, Jaffrey’s article is suffused with the gallus, mobile creativity that was always part of Glasgow but now manifests itself in multiple channels well beyond any Clydeside garret, making nonsense of geographic or political barriers. As she says:

The novelist Nicola White cites “the collective, egalitarian feel of Glasgow, the multitude of practices and groupings, the respect for hard work, the ‘now’“.  All of them agree that the do-it-yourself culture of the city’s artists, who built their own institutions rather than rely on established ones, has been crucial.”

Even Edinburgh would concede Glasgow as the Art Capital of the country, just as Aberdeen is the Oil and Dundee the Game Capital. All of this is indicative of a new Scottish cultural vibrancy radiating from Glasgow, despite (as many artists would avow) the clammy hand of Creative Scotland slowing things down. These artists are interacting with a market outside the UK via the mobile telephone, cheap air travel and the internet. And since they are working a deep cultural source that has been opened recently, their art will be no more impeded by borders than French impressionists were over a century ago.

Glasgow has always been outward looking: a mighty river runs through it. Its built fabric is Victorian and very grand. Rents are considerably cheaper than in many major UK cities and the city council, which once appeared wrong-footed by the riches on its own doorstep, has now invested hugely in studio complexes. Glasgow is home to impressive architecture (the Glasgow tenement is crucial, offering large rooms, high ceilings and huge windows), a strong cultural sector (music & film as well as art) and reasonable rents. It is also a smallish city—the M8 cutting right through it means most people live 20 minutes from the airport; cheap flights do the rest.

There is a critical mass of  creativity that no earnest bureaucrats can create. Artists are gregarious, routinely alerting each other to their colleagues’ progress: one studio visit leads to another. Artists learn from, share with, and are challenged by their peers.

Given such circumstances, it’s little wonder that Glasgow has become such a force in contemporary art. That, in turn, is a springboard that will showcase Scottish culture far beyond the limits of a small country—whether that country is Scotland or the UK. Small wonder then the little-Englander mentality that drives most of the unionist campaign has little traction in Glasgow in general and its artists in particular. The corollary is that the vibrant Glasgow art scene is one of the many forward-looking drivers that point towards independence being the better choice for a Scotland with a future other than as an appendage.

Ben Luke of the London Evening Standard said: “The shortlist confirms the supremacy of Glasgow as the UK centre for new art”. Now, if we could only get the weegies to recover engineering skills that made miracles a century ago, it could reassert itself as the finance capital too and re-establish itself as what it once was in 1910—the richest city in the world.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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