Best of a decade: Respectable in the Noughties
- Kirstin Innes
- 2 December 2009
The last decade of Scottish culture has produced some of the most inspiring art in recent memory, with the birth of the National Theatre, the growth of the indie rock scene and the completion of the Scottish Parliament building proving the country’s commitment to bold statements and independent values. Kirstin Innes suggests we indulge in a little self-congratulation
Much of the most powerful art produced in Scotland in the 1980s–1990s developed in angry reaction to the political situation and tapped into our radical, left-wing and egalitarian traditions – it’s no accident that the most popular works of that period, from Trainspotting and The Steamie to the songs of The Proclaimers – spoke to working-class people first. But it was usually the art of the underdog, delivered with a knowing, world-weary sigh. However, armed with the devolved beginnings of self-government and (for most of the decade) a booming economy, something has shifted in Scottish culture since the Scottish Parliament opened in July 1999. Whether it’s a direct result of devolution, wealth, or the globalising influence of online communication, something gave us the confidence to shout this decade.
The early ’00s were shaped by uncertainty and resentment; mostly targeted at the escalating costs of Enrique Miralles’ Scottish Parliament building, which eventually opened to great derision in 2004. Miralles’ design is still something of an anomaly: even though the architect strove to represent shapes (the upturned boat, the leaves, the skating minister) he’d found in and around the country, it still feels distinctly un-Scottish with its crazy, beautiful patchwork of internationalism and ambition. It’s a picture of the country we almost didn’t recognise at first, but now, at the end of the 2000s, we seem to be growing into it.
When plans for it were first announced, opposition to the National Theatre of Scotland was fierce – Scottish theatre feared the then Executive’s interference in artistic output, and the leaching away of funding from established companies. Since the first NTS production (HOME: Dumfries, 23 February 2006) those voices have been decisively silenced. In the NTS – an organisation deliberately unattached to any one city theatre and based in one of the poorest areas of Glasgow – we now have a vessel for expressing stories that reflect the concerns of the whole country – from an Orkney musician to a Fife military regiment to an urban teenager with behavioural problems in care – onto a national and international stage, with a proactive touring programme that involves the nation and gets it thinking about what ‘national’ means again.
There’s a distinctive sense of joy in the art we’ve made this decade, one that keeps threatening to burst that old stereotype of the dour, downbeat Scot: pop-culture-influenced artists like Jim Lambie (sculpture), Douglas Maxwell (theatre), Alan Bissett (literature) and Calvin Harris (electronica) have all succeeded in creating upbeat, riotous technicolour work with distinctly Scottish cadences.
For the longest time, despite the latter-day efforts of Arab Strap and Bis, the only band known for singing in a Scottish accent were the much-loved but regularly derided Proclaimers. After the international flash of Trainspotting in 1996, though, a generation of musicians grew up with representations of everyday Scottish speech on a world stage. These days, you get the idea that it wouldn’t even occur to musicians like Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad or the members of the Fence Collective not to sing in their own accents, or to audiences that there’s anything odd about that.
This new confidence is not just about having the power to lure the likes of Alan Cumming back across the Atlantic and into a bum-flashing golden skirt as he did in NTS’ 2007 production of The Bacchae (although that was rather lovely to look at), because we’re no longer just pointing to those few Scots whose success has been certified by Hollywood or London as evidence of our worth.
Since 2005, there have been seven Scottish or Scottish-based Turner Prize nominees (and one winner, Simon Starling) – more than in the entire history of the competition before that point. Glasgow is now regarded as one of the major international hubs for visual art and grassroots experimentation. What happened? Did the quality of Scottish contemporary art suddenly improve significantly, or did we simply grow tired of waiting for crumbs of approval from a London-centric UK arts establishment, and work on creating world-class galleries and scenes of our own? It isn’t hard to see how these successes are a by-product of the same mores that led us to devolution in the first place.
An increasingly international outlook does mean we risk losing some of the things that made our national art distinctive in the first place. In literature, certainly, the Rebus-led, primarily commercial wave of ‘tartan noir’ Scottish crime fiction has dominated book sales this decade. However, the predominance of this trend has also led to the increased marketability of literary writers like Louise Welsh, whose dark, brilliant 2002 debut The Cutting Room was far too complex to classify, and in itself contributed to the Glasgow literary boom in the middle of the decade.
Of course, this era of growth, confidence and consolidation took place against the most economically prosperous time in recent memory. As we anticipate arts funding cuts to help levy up national debt, and the impending likelihood of a Conservative government ruling remotely from Westminster, it’s difficult to know whether this burgeoning optimism can sustain itself. Shifting the entrenched character of a nation doesn’t happen in a decade: we’re still prone to talk ourselves down and prefer our national ‘celebrities’ like Michelle McManus, and are still surprised by the success of an Andy Murray, or a Scottish-based company like Rockstar Games. However, on the cusp of another period of uncertainty, let’s just take a moment to look back at the last ten years and say ‘didn’t we do well?’