A picture doesn't tell the whole story

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em>

Two events recently took place in Scotland that seemed entirely to contradict each other. For the nation that brought forth Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, this may not surprise many. But even those used to dealing with the paradoxical Jocks were shocked at the speed with which two apparently entirely opposed views on the same sort of thing were uttered.

On Wednesday 24 November, Donald Dewar went to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh to unveil the latest, and spectacular, addition to the collection. Sandro Botticelli's Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child is a stunning picture by the late-15th-century Florentine master at the pinnacle of his powers. Until last week, it belonged to a titled family from East Lothian who had decided to sell it to the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. In 18 days, from a standing start, the National Gallery of Scotland raised £10.25 million to outbid the Texans and keep the Botticelli in Scotland. The bulk of the cash came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but through Donald Dewar's intervention the Scottish Executive came up with £500,000 to clinch the deal. After cleaning, the painting will begin a triumphal progress around the country's galleries. Given the speed of events, it is clear that no one had to be persuaded that this was something worth doing for Scotland, and, given our collective capacity to girn, it is amazing that nobody moaned about the cost.

However, in the same week, moans of another sort came from the composer, James MacMillan. In the programme notes for his new Symphony No 2, he claimed that a cultural ice age gripped Scotland and that to make any art was extremely difficult. "I believe the miraculous can appear, that through grace and generosity of spirit, buds of artistic imagination can sprout, sorely and painfully like a woman's bitter birthing agonies." In the same text, the recently Booker-shortlisted novelist, Andrew O'Hagan, wrote in similar sombre vein: "For all the glories of its humane tradition, Scotland has no time for the discomfiture of thinkers, no ready heart for the excoriation of myths, and no spirit, no confidence, no capacity for tolerance, in the face of unsettling truths."

What is going on? Should these remarks be taken to mean that Scotland is happy to cough up £10 million plus for the paintings of dead, foreign painters, and next to damn-all for living, Scottish artists? Or are things just a bit slow in the composing business?

Or, much more likely, do these views depend absolutely on the viewpoints? In response to MacMillan and O'Hagan, Scottish writers in particular rushed to contradict the notion that Scotland is a cultural desert, and politicians chipped in with a few cheery comments on the state of the nation's arts. By the end of the week, the only thing that was clear was that they were all talking about different things.

Botticelli would have been baffled. In 15th-century Florence, and for a long time afterwards, all art was bespoke. A patron went to an artist and told him, sometimes very precisely, what he wanted, what he would pay and when he wanted it. The National Gallery of Scotland's Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child was not painted because the maestro felt the urge to be creative. Botticelli was commissioned to make the picture, and in every meaningful sense, it survives as the deposit of a 15th-century social contract and needs to be understood in that way. Sometimes patrons complained about quality, but mostly that had already been settled beforehand by the decision on price and which master to go to.

Discussions of quality, interpretation and comparison had real meaning when paintings, buildings, sculpture, pieces of music and poetry had such clear purpose attached. Now that most art is not bespoke and history has robbed it of much of its clarity of purpose, the old social contract between artists and their clients is broken. Among much else, that makes for disabling vagueness in discussions about art, often, for example, mixing it up with the general idea of culture. So when many responded to MacMillan and O'Hagan with faintly patriotic assertions that Scottish culture was fine, thanks, they might have been missing the point. For artists working in areas less connected to a popular audience, such as classical music composition and literary novel writing, Scotland may well seem inhospitable and bleak. If that is the case, and not simply the expression of eccentric views, then Scotland needs to think about this seriously.

Despite the contradictory evidence hanging in the National Gallery of Scotland, when MacMillan and O'Hagan warn that all is not well, we should listen and, if necessary, act. Because we can't blame the English any more.

Alistair Moffat