When Jacques Louis David originally began working on the Tennis Court Oath in the late 18th century, he was barely beyond the sketch before he had to abandon it, preoccupied with other important political moments to document. The whirlwind (read bloodbath) of the Revolution meant that as a quasi-dictator of the arts under Robespierre, he was constantly on call to realise the Republic’s propaganda. His work, acting like a kind of neoclassical period tabloid, cemented the symbols of the revolution into the nation’s psyche.
In times of great change, the symbiosis of art and politics is never more acutely discernible. For example, the Dada movement, emerging in Europe in the early 20th century, was a group of rebellious creatives responding in confusion and frustration to the violence of WWI. Or the aesthetics of Constructivism, the art for social purpose, created by a generation of makers and artists in post-Revolution Russia who indelibly shaped the nation’s creative legacy, from graphic design to fashion to architecture. And take the unlikely relationship between Abstract Expressionism and the CIA, who seen Pollock and de Koonig as stellar exports for parading the ‘freedom’ of American art in comparison to the rigidity of Russian work during the Cold War – a fitting metaphor for their capitalist agenda. This measly (and West-heavy) list barely begins to enumerate the instances when politics and art have spoken vitally to one another in recent history.
And then there’s Scottish Independence. Putting ‘Scottish’ even a paragraph away from these seminal moments in the history of art makes me feel queazy. I mean, who would posit that this movement can compare to the historical magnitude of the French Revolution, the First World War, the Russian Revolution or the Cold War? Who would dare?
As we hover before this great decision in our own history, perhaps this visceral response is the manifestation of the elusive, Scottish ‘cringe’. It’s the part of me that still questions why people would want to holiday here, or that gets far too excited when folk from other places have heard of my local bands/athletes/landmarks/[enter favourite thing here]. It’s the part that believes we might just not be significant enough to be newsworthy.
And when you look at the development of the referendum debate, it’s not surprising that this feeling could systemically take hold. Not only are we told repeatedly that the world as we know it would implode if we tried to look after ourselves, but those who have wished to challenge this status quo have faced nothing short of derision and disregard from the majority of those with the power to change this perception. We’ve been battering our heads against a media that isn’t interested in the biggest grassroots movement in Scottish history.
The question should not be how our movement measures up to the legacies of these landmark historical events, but how it measures up to our very recent past of political inertia. Relative to what Westminster offers, the prospect of Scottish Independence is pretty fricking exciting – inspiring even, though I’m loath to use such a potentially insipid word. The Yes movement are energised and engaged and ready to take the reins from a fousty, archaic parliament, to form our own, more equal and progressive state.
But back to art and politics. National Collective have been instrumental in this campaign because they have harnessed the energy of this fundamental connection. They have organised the creative output of a nation, making of it a force to be reckoned with. Not only producing regular journalism and comment, but also bringing people together in real time, in real spaces with Yestival events up and down the country. Scotland has not seen the likes of this innovative engagement with politics before. And this, this more literal connection between our creativity and our politics, is worth documenting.
Let’s get above ourselves. Let’s ditch the cringe and agree that our moments are worthy of attention. In what, for many of us, is the most pivotal political moment we will ever see, we must value and document the creative work it generates. It is our responsibility to ensure that this energy, this special moment, is not forgotten, but can be recalled, analysed and experienced again and again by those who weren’t lucky enough to be knocking on doors on a rainy Sunday afternoon to talk about what independence might mean.
Photo: Peter McNally / Documenting Yes