Should Scotland's famous arts fest join the independence debate?

Some organizers want to remain politically neutral. But many argue they shouldn't be afraid to let arts and politics tangle. 

David Moir/Reuters
Edinburgh International Festival director Jonathan Mills poses for a photograph during a news conference launching this year's festival program in Edinburgh, Scotland March 12.

August in Edinburgh in synonymous with the arts. This August over 25,000 performers have descended on the Scottish capital, offering everything from stand-up comedy and one-act plays to jazz, opera, and poetry readings as part of several separate festivals that are collectively known as the "Edinburgh festival." 

But while the cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town will be littered with flyers and street performers until the end of this month, the program for next year’s festival is already causing a stir.

The 2014 Edinburgh festival – which bills itself as the largest arts festival in the world – is scheduled to end just weeks before Scotland goes to the polls in a historic referendum on independence.

But the Scots’ historic constitutional choice won’t be on agenda at the oldest of the festivals, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), according to its director, Sir Jonathan Mills.

Mr. Mills told a Scottish newspaper earlier this month that he was "not anticipating anything in the [program] at all" next year about the independence debate. The program will concentrate on the Commonwealth Games – due to take place in Glasgow next summer – and the centenary of the start of World War I. 

"We would not wish our festival to be anything other than it has always been, which is a politically neutral space for artists. It is important that it remains that," Mills said in an interview with The Scotsman. 

Founded in 1947, the EIF has a budget of £10 million ($15 million), around half of which comes from public funds.

The reaction to the director’s comments about next year’s program was quick, with many in Scotland’s artistic community questioning the idea that the arts are "politically neutral."

"I don’t think the EIF is going to be able to keep this issue out. We’ve got a year to make use of this opportunity to start a proper discussion," novelist Denise Mina told the Sunday Herald, a popular Scottish newspaper. "The discussion has become really narrow and people are stating their positions. Nobody is really listening to each other and the festival would have been a great opportunity to listen."

"The arts are one of the places where we can discuss the more abstract notions. It’s a real missed opportunity by Jonathan Mills. It’s fearful and it’s shameful," Ms. Mina added.

But the director of another of the festivals, the Edinburgh Book Festival, has said that independence will be a part of the conversation at his event in 2014. "Our job is to discuss things that matter, and for me to ignore the referendum would be the wrong thing to do. We want the book festival to be a safe and fair and unthreatening environment to discuss ideas and debates," Nick Barley told The Guardian

By far the largest slice of the Edinburgh festival pie belongs to the Fringe. It was inaugurated in 1947 when eight theater companies who were not invited to the International Festival decided to perform regardless, and has grown into one of the most recognizable arts festivals in the world, with a reputation for being more spontaneous and edgy than its more formal sibling. The Fringe has no selection committee and invites all types of performers and materials.

Despite this, Scottish independence remained a rather marginal theme in this year’s Fringe, says Ben Judge, editor of Fest magazine, a publication appearing each August about the city's festivals. "You can count the number of independence-minded productions this year on the fingers of one hand. So why is it that Scottish artists, comedians and playwrights seem so disengaged – at least creatively – from the debate?"

Not everyone agrees, however, that Scotland’s creative community are disconnected from next year’s referendum. Artists are struggling to find an outlet in mainstream Scottish cultural forums, says playwright and novelist Alan Bissett.

"You have to find your own space – put on a show [and] take it to the Edinburgh Fringe or put it on YouTube," Mr. Bissett says.

Bissett believes that the arts have a particularly important role to play in the lead-up to next September’s vote. ‘‘Because [independence] is so complex, the arts is the ideal place to have that discussion," he says. "Artists aren’t beholden to ‘the truth.' We are much more about exploring the emotional complexities. People who experience a play, or a poem, or a novel about nationalism recognize more of it because it’s not black and white."

As well as providing a forum for debate beyond the febrile, often partisan, atmosphere of the official "yes" and "no" campaigns, the arts can also act as an alternative record of next year’s vote, Bissett says.

"When we look back at the Treaty of Union [the agreement which led to the creation of Great Britain in 1707], one of the first things we think of is Robert Burns and his angry poem '[Such a] Parcel o’ Rogues [in a Nation].' So now we can look back and see, 'ah, not everyone was happy about the Treaty of Union.'"

Posterity is not the only aspect of the independence debate engaging Scottish artists. Many artists will also be actively fighting for a "yes" in the referendum in 2014. 

"What artists sense with independence is that it can revitalize not just Scotland but the rest of the UK as well," Bissett says. 

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