Let me plunge you back into the cauldron of 2014. Scotland is in the midst of – of all things! – a nationalist revival. Relaxed, middle-class liberals, who a mere three years beforehand would have considered open displays of patriotism to be scarcely less embarrassing than practising Scientology, have persuaded themselves en masse that nationalism is somehow progressive. And the general weirdness of this self-contained interlude in recent Scottish history (it now seems a hundred years ago!) was to receive perfect expression in an organisation called National Collective.
They were supposedly artists and writers. They had, in their own description, “set out with the aim of imagining a better Scotland and inspiring others to campaign through art, written and spoken word, events, local groups and social media.” Tychy was never on speaking terms with them from the outset. I think that I first saw them on some BBC television show, a panel discussion where they had been produced to speak for the whole of the Scottish arts. “Who fucking elected them to speak for the arts?” quoth Tychy angrily, switching off the television, or, more probably by then, closing the tab. Inspecting their website only made my enmity bitterer. Everything was a cliché. Everything! Every line that they wrote – every idea – every feeble, expiring wisp of so-called art.
National Collective wasn’t an arts movement – they were a Blairite think-tank that was masquerading as one. They were prostituting “the arts” in order to enrich their unexciting political agenda. Art was only ever a supplement to them, or something to add a useful weight to their plastic politics. Their founders Ross Colquhoun and Rory Scothorne made no attempt to pretend that they were artists and you are bound to know the sort of people who came to populate this movement. The sort who are more interested in networking than exhibitions; the sort who can always see opportunities to promote themselves and get their message across. Career activists, in other words.
I wrote a short story about them in which their bus ended up going off a cliff. Many readers were horrified. In truth, I too was beginning to get scared by the magnitude of my own anger towards them – I hated them more than I did even my employer or any ex-partner. I continue to maintain, however, that my bus-plunge short story is the only meaningful work of art to ever have any passing connection with National Collective throughout their entire history as an arts movement (they finally ran out of stamina in 2015).
But I have an inconsistency to expiate. Why is it that I am so sympathetic towards the apparently comparable movement “Artists for Brexit?” This group is small and it was founded earlier this year in a Weatherspoon’s pub in London. Their founder Manick Govinda explained that:
We are the 4 per cent in the cultural sector. Maybe there is slightly more. We don’t know. People are worried they may not get work, their names may get dropped from commissions or galleries. We hope now that others may come out of the closet.
Are Artists for Brexit just a rather more English version of National Collective, with the same coat being turned inside-out? They are ostensibly National Collective through the Brexit looking glass. Both see, or in National Collective’s case saw, a special role for artists to reimagine the nation anew. In both cases, artists are, or were, a super-empowered creative rump within the broader power of the people to create their own destiny. Yet the characteristic unhappiness of any politicised art movement is that it requires some level of conformity, the very antithesis of the individual daring that artists are ideally meant to evince. If artists are all delivering the same message, they end up resembling corporate employees. And indeed, these movements will become naturally hostile to the emergence of any bold new artist, just as National Collective had shed Loki and Ewan Morrison along the way, because such Übermenschen distract from, or at least complicate, the desired equality of the collective.
I do not favour didactic art, and certainly not propaganda. Imagine that William Shakespeare had written down all of his personal views about monarchy in a pamphlet, or whatever particular polemical format was available in his day. You cannot ever imagine this. All that you will gain is a mental picture of him sitting at his desk, no doubt in some ratty tavern cubbyhole, scribbling away. It is impossible to imagine the contents of his pamphlet or even the tone that it would take. Because, although Shakespeare’s plays will have at some point caused you to reflect deeply on the bravura and vulnerabilities of different monarchs, they are politically self-effacing. They are as mysterious as the heart of the forest and they lead off into all manner of winding interpretative paths. This is what makes them great works of art.
Shakespeare was in his heyday seventy or so years after the very first Brexit, the Protestant Brexit from Roman Catholicism. Maybe this is how long we will have to wait until we have our first great artist for Brexit of the twenty-first century.
Out of solidarity with the new movement, I tried to write my own piece of art for Brexit. It is called “Lord Andrew Adonis’ Guide to the EU” but it is actually three-fifths Voltaire to two of Adonis. I wanted my first piece of art for Brexit to be richly European, Enlightened and optimistic even as it landed in the end with an emphatic democratic thump. It is nonetheless an easy satire against the EU rather than a positive work of art for Brexit. I confess that a real Brexit-friendly oeuvre would be beyond my talents. This would be presumably something brash and cheering, a socialist-realist mural or one of those football-terrace pop songs that used to be commissioned during Britpop for World Cups.
What potentially makes Artists for Brexit distinct from National Collective is their place within the arts. In 2014, you could generally perceive through the fog of the debate two armies of equal size. Artists did speak out for the Union, though they were quieter and more apologetic than National Collective’s parading, self-congratulatory activists. The arts therefore wasn’t as dangerously implicated in Scottish independence as it is presently in Remain. In 2016, one survey by the Creative Industries Federation had found that 96 per cent of its members supported the EU, whilst a Times Higher Education poll had put over 90 per cent of the university sector down for Remain. And this was before the backlash against the result.
The 4 per cent of artists who are lurking, like foreign cells in an unsuspecting body, might represent a kind of helpful inoculation rather than a cancer. Look, we can say once the class war really gets going and the proletariat are on the rampage, here are some artists who are on the right side. So don’t burn down the opera house! Don’t blow up the art gallery!
Artists for Brexit are not likely to produce a renaissance in creative expression any time soon. But they might prompt a more immediate consciousness amongst artists about how badly things are going. If artists and academics are, as a class, so fully on the wrong side of history, so completely uncomprehending of what democracy means, so dead-set against the power that the majority of people wish to continue to exert by voting, then their star will surely fade and fall.
Artists for Brexit are really a cry for relevance, or a demand that artists do not slip worryingly out of sync with the people whose lives they are meant to represent and who consume their art and who, through the taxation system, invariably pay for it. Great artists can get out of sync in this manner – the nineteenth-century Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland is a worthy example – but in a democracy with a mass participation in the arts it is ominous. The Euro establishment is collapsing with Brexit – the British establishment is deeply shaken – the arts establishment should have the flexibility and imagination to think itself out of its current hole.