“Don’t think of art and politics as separate parts of your life – you can do both”. These were the simple words of Katharine from The Stove in Dumfries that, in a few seconds, managed to make disparate bits of my life make sense. Our conversation took place at a thoroughly inspiring event – Art_Inbetween – at the newly refurbished Stove on Dumfries high street last week. Luckily for me, it was just one of a whole day full of provocative, compelling and exciting conversations with artists, performers, community workers and more.
It’s not something I talk about very often, but I spent about two thirds of my life working towards being an artist. Growing up in rural South Lanarkshire and the Borders, it was all I wanted to be and I was utterly determined to go to Edinburgh College of Art. It was at art college that my lifelong interest in politics and social policy led me off at a right angle, pursuing a career in activism and leaving my degree in sculpture to one side. These two sides of what makes me tick – art and politics – have always felt fairly exclusive of one another. So a decision to work in campaigns jobs in the voluntary sector after my time as student president felt to me like I was shutting art out of my life, at least for a while.
When I graduated a decade ago, many of my friends went off to Berlin or London, finding studio spaces in old industrial sites and exhibiting their work in shiny white cube galleries. The thought of bringing together art and community development was looked down upon amongst many in my immediate art circles, and often the combination of art and activism was seen as a less serious form of cultural practice. So I set aside the thought of art as a career, went into activism full time and stopped creating.
It was a breath of fresh air to drive over the hills to Dumfries last week then, to listen to people from across Scotland and the rest of the UK talk about art as activism, about art in a rural context, the politics of artistic practice and the very real political barriers to cultural creation in this country. Art_Inbetween was described as “a summit on arts practice in rural regions” but brought out discussions much more diverse than the description suggests. A morning of conversations about Dumfries and Galloway and the creative thread that runs through the region was followed by workshops on topics as diverse as the structures in place to support the arts and the problems of a rural/urban definition for how seriously rural-based artists are taken.
I was really heartened to hear the feedback from the different workshops at the end, all reaching the same conclusions. That capitalism, centralisation and an urban-focused economy are all deeply destructive and that we need greater democracy, participation and equality across the country if we’re to stand any hope of truly supporting the arts in D&G and beyond.
Throughout the day, it became increasingly clear to me that art and “the arts” more generally are not something separate from society. Indeed, to think of art in this way runs the risk of devaluing artistic practice and alienating many of the people who would benefit most from participating in it. If we’re to support the arts, through things like the Scottish Green Party’s Intermittent Work Scheme and protection for arts venues and studios, we must do so with an understanding that artistic endeavour is at the very heart of cultural life in Scotland. We must understand that art and politics are neither separate nor mutually exclusive, but bound up together.