Kirsty Gunn: Snobbery is the death of art

It doesn't matter who you are, your opinion about art is valid (Picture: Getty)
It doesn't matter who you are, your opinion about art is valid (Picture: Getty)
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‘Well I just don’t agree with you,” came the assured voice from the front row. “Not one bit!” The voice belonged to a beautifully dressed elderly woman in the small but perfectly formed lecture hall at the Smith Art Gallery. “I have strong opinions in all things,” she added, “and I have to say that I think you are completely wrong.” She gave me a charming smile and settled back in her seat so that the debate could commence. What fun.

This was in Stirling where I was last week to give a talk and reading as part of the Stirling Literary Society’s lecture series, run by the terrifically organised Gillin Anderson who invites authors and intellectuals and critics from across a range of Scottish literary and historical backgrounds to come along and speak. I was there with Professor Roderick Watson – emeritus professor of literature at Stirling University and a distinguished academic and critic and poet and editor – though everyone just calls him Rory. “And no one believes he’s retired either,” I remember Angela Smith, the modernist scholar and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield expert, also from Stirling, telling me. “He looks younger than all of us!”

It’s true. Rory is someone who has that magical quality of seeming to sit squarely in the middle of the present tense. He has the combination of modesty and great erudition – plus a sense of fun. Earlier in the evening I had been talking with him about Nan Shepherd and the Scottish novel, about which he knows a great deal.

READ MORE: Kirsty Gunn: The life lessons of the natural world

The Scottish novel is much on my mind – more so than usual, I mean – because I’ve finished my own. Though it might not seem Scottish at first, actually it is … “in, I think, the most important sense”, I told the lecture theatre in Stirling, meaning that, to my mind, the most distinctive and interesting thing about Scottish novels is that they are concerned chiefly with their own making. For that reason, I’d gone on in my talk, I’d made a sort of link between my last novel – which was set in Sutherland – and this new one, which is based in London. “I needed a sort of bridge to walk readers over from the hills of Rogart down into the gardens of West London,” I told the audience.

A link of some kind will help, I said, when it seems that I have written two such disparate books.

That was when the wonderful white-haired woman in her 80s with beautiful posture piped up.

We had a terrific discussion then about whether the reader needs such prompts and signposts – she clearly had no use for either. But we agreed, in the end, that as I was only talking about this particular instance – not about all novels, or about all of mine. We could reach an understanding. “Each time we read it’s our own adventure,” someone else in the audience cleverly said. I had a wonderful evening.

Being there, with the Stirling readers, made me think about how educated our country is, at this sort of local level, I mean. Yvonne Cook, a long-time member of the Society, gave thoughtful and probing “closing remarks”, and the whole level of discussion had been so engaged and inquisitive. There were no signs of that hierarchy you can witness at so many literary events – where there are those who are “in” and others who are “out”.

It seems everywhere you go in Scotland there are pockets of concentrated cultural activity like this, with highly evolved interest groups organised in formal and informal ways to make the most of everyone’s education and knowledge and expertise. Up in Sutherland I subscribe to “Am Bratach”, the local monthly magazine that is just full of this sort of thing – rural news and interest, historical writing, literary and journalistic reviews, memoir, special interest features and the like. It’s a full afternoon of engaged reading and, in its way, as absorbing as The New Yorker or Scottish Review of Books, other journals I take.

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For every aspect of culture can interesting, it’s just a case of widening one’s point of view. Cultural snobbishness – based on notions of academic and educational and social superiority – is the death of art everywhere. There is no better or lesser.

Whenever any of us focus on life beyond the constraints of our day-to-day and give our attention to the things that give us pleasure – whether it’s music or writing or gardening or making quilts or cooking or making paintings and embroidery – we are brought into a different realm where the considerations of pleasure and beauty and intellectual satisfaction can dominate our mindset. It’s the joy of being creative. At Dundee a young student of mine who is now to be heading off to Oxford for the next stage of her creative life hosted a reading at Avery and Co, a terrific cafe and restaurant just by the Rep Theatre.

Called “The Road We’ve Taken”, the evening was all about making those creative choices – in this case writing poetry and presenting it in dramatic and musical ways.

“To wake up alive in every new morning,” Shanley, our hostess, finished the last of her own trio of poems – and it seemed to sum up perfectly the verve and imaginative singularity of this group of enthusiastic and well-read young people.

Creativity is our future. The robots are coming and they’re coming fast. With all the talk in the media recently about the loss of jobs to machines and technology being used to solve problems that previously would have needed human intelligence, it’s more important than ever that we fund arts education in schools and foster creativity at all levels of society.

Let’s stop funneling money away into the so-called “bodies” and “centres” that say they are promoting art, but are actually just generating paperwork and massaging statistics. Instead, let’s support the actual teachers of it, the practitioners and the instructors and the enablers. We don’t want bureaucrats telling us how to be creative. We want places like the Stirling Literary Society to flourish all over the land.