In December 1901, Kaiser Wilhelm II gave a dinner for artists who had contributed to the building of a grand Berlin boulevard that was lined with sculptures of famed Germans. His two most favoured artists were invited to sit next to him. He gave a long speech that became known as 'Rinnsteinrede' – 'the gutter speech.' He condemned modern art as lowering itself into the gutter. That is not the reason why I was reminded of it the other day.
The Kaiser also gave a positive description of what art is about. He saw it as an edifying and pedagogical tool to improve society. He understood it as a means to give expression to the ideals that had become a possession of the people, but that they could not express themselves. 'The nurturing of ideals,' he said, 'is the greatest task of culture.'
Fiona Hyslop, who is not only the Scottish cabinet secretary for tourism and external affairs but also for culture, recently gave expression to the Wilhelminian dogma in her own words. Artists, she said, don't have to be close to government, but 'they just have to have a common understanding of what the country wants. This is a way of bridging, of helping ambition for the country.'
When I published this statement on the Facebook page 'No to Scottish Independence,' it drew, predictably, comments that compared her sentiment to Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany. That's overegging the pudding. But Ms Hyslop's views correspond amazingly with those of the Kaiser, and it was his nationalistic thinking, after all, that was the seedbed for what was to follow in German history. Our top Scotticulturalist's pronouncement gives an insight into a mindset which holds, to quote the Kaiser once more, that 'so often, under the much abused name and flag of "freedom", one descends into excess, licentiousness, and presumption.'
Nowadays, even an art historian would be hard-pushed to recall the names of the characters favoured by his majesty in being allowed to sit next to him. Those he attacked, however, are today household names not only amongst cognoscenti. I am not sure whether Ms Hyslop counts among those who could name any of them, but I am pretty sure that readers of the Scottish Review don't need to be persuaded that she doesn't stand at the forefront of intellectual life in Scotland, despite her exalted position. Which is a great pity, and to the great detriment of the country.
Over the years, the devolved government of my homeland Bavaria contained many dimwits. But for culture secretary, the brightest and most independent of mind were picked most of the time. Some were true intellectuals in their own right. And so it should be. Culture that goes beyond being a tool of politics, ideology and fleeting 'ideals' is the heart of any civilised community, be it on a local, regional, national or, indeed, international level. For Ms Hyslop, culture appears to be about identity and partnership funding.
More surprising, though, is that her deeply illiberal comment wasn't greeted by an outcry, a howl of anguish, by Scotland's artistic elite. Or is it? Are Scotland's 'creatives', as the SNP likes to call them, not the problem themselves? Don't they see challenging the ruling party's consensus as an abuse of freedom, quite like our Kaiser and his artistic chums?
I don't want to name names, but a personal experience might be worth recalling. My relationship to a friend of ours who is a very good, inventive painter, suffered over the 2014 referendum and her continued support for the nationalist cause. Her regular line of attack against my unionist views is that I don't understand the Scots and what the country wants. Usually she follows this up with a kind of superior laughter, slightly patronising, that does not brook any dissent.
Her reprimand implies a deeply irrational presumption of individual longings finding their expression in a country's will. This presumption may sit at odds with the 'civic' nationalism recently expressed by our Brexit minister Michael Russell that 'the Scottish government greatly values EU citizens who have chosen to live in Scotland, for their outstanding contribution to our country, economy and culture…they provide diversity and vibrancy to our communities. Scotland would be a much poorer place without their skills and experience.'
In my artist friend's view, however, the understanding of what the country deep down wants, at a level beyond democracy and referendum outcomes, will always remain a closed book to me. I may have lived here for 40 years, I may have raised four children and now see my grandchildren grow up, some of them even speaking Gaelic – no matter how much I try, the Scottish Nibelungenschatz will remain hidden from me.
The columnist Stephen Daisley gave Scotland's 'curious band of establishment artists, perhaps the only artists anywhere in the world who side with the government against the people,' a thorough thrashing in the Spectator recently:
Vast swathes of the cultural and intellectual elite believe it is their duty to have 'ambition for the country'; that their art, or what they try to pass off as art, should not speak to Scotland but for it. Whether it's Alan Bissett, ever on the brink of another act of free verse, or Eddi Reader, Scotland's artists offer a vision of nationalism far removed from the pleasantries and euphemisms of Nicola Sturgeon. It is in art that Scottish nationalism becomes unleashed — and unhinged. It drives the novelist Alasdair Gray to divide English migrants to Scotland into 'settlers' and 'colonists' and complain at the hiring of English arts administrators to run Scottish cultural bodies. It prompts poet Liz Lochhead to lament 'a shortage of Scottish people working in the National Theatre of Scotland.' The [true] affliction of Scotland’s artist-activists is distance from the national mood. They see a country under the British jackboot which is relaxed about it. This they cannot understand or explain.
What Scotland's punters really want is not so very different from what the English or the Welsh want. To the uninitiated, that is not difficult to understand. They experience life in a similar way. They listen to the Archers, they watch the Great British Bake-off, Formula 1 and bonking on a Spanish island. They struggle with sex and old age. They suppress the inevitability of death. And they indulge in our state religion, the NHS. True artists deal with these phenomena. They deal with our obsessions and our consciousness.
Ms Hysop's 'common understanding' bites itself in the tail. What she means, of course, is her understanding, and that of her party and her party's favoured artists such as Jack Vettriano and Scots makar Jackie Kay. Just as well they'll be forgotten in a hundred years' time. Or probably a lot sooner, just like the Kaiser's chums.