restricted access 6. The nature of aesthetics in the works of Mary Brunton, Hugh MacDiarmid and Alasdair Gray
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93 6. The nature of aesthetics in the works of Mary Brunton, Hugh MacDiarmid and Alasdair Gray ANDREW MONNICKENDAM In the introduction to Hugh MacDiarmid’s Aesthetics in Scotland (1984), Alan Bold comments that it is, for its author, ‘an unusually contemplative piece’.1 Contemplative it might be, but it is openly polemical in nature and extensive in scope, prone to sweeping generalisations about Scotland and its culture. Three points require a brief explanation. First, Bold dates the essay as written in 1950. Second, instead of an extended disquisition, the essay is best approached formally as if it were an early nineteenth-century review of a novel: a series of longish quotations joined at certain points by a series of brief interjections which therefore help to create a set of ideas. Third, the aesthetics in the title have less to do with literature and more to do with the visual arts. Among his contemplations, two basic ones can be underlined. First, his point of departure is that ‘[f]ar too many Scots are still utterly insensitive to the arts – a higher proportion, I think, than can be found in any other Western European country’.2 This deep-rooted anti-aestheticism is, in this instance, a result of the education system, as ‘most teachers are not expected to have any standards of appreciation or knowledge beyond those of the general public’.3 In contrast, he has positive things to say about the radio and its potential to spread the gospel of literature. This line of inquiry then entangles itself in a series of stereotypical arguments based on ethnicity. He positions in one corner – what for him epitomises Scottish neuroticism – the figure of John Ruskin, and in the other, the Celtic mind: ‘the Gaelic people were gay and fantastic’.4 Their position as lying outside the European mainstream is confirmed by their distance from the Bible. An additional problem for Scotland has been that the Enlightenment philosophers – he specifically mentions Adam Ferguson and Hugh Blair – ‘knew and cared little or nothing about the arts’5 due to their addiction to the ‘emotive 94 language of the Bible’.6 This controversial hypothesis remains a very potent explanation for better comprehension of another phenomenon, namely the Kailyard, particularly in such stories as James Barrie’s ‘A Literary Club’ (part of Auld Licht Idylls (1888)), where learning morphs into sentiment and then into national virtues. That said, the major contemplation, one made several times in this short piece, is rather different, namely that [t]o blame all this on Calvinism in Scotland is stupid. It not only ignores the facts which are admirably set out in Dr Mary Ramsay’s Calvin And Art. It ignores also the fact that it is quite unjust to attribute to Calvinism a crude Philistinism which was, in fact, bred by the Industrial Revolution and aggravated by the loss of our own national roots.7 As we shall see, both writers share a series of common concerns. Ramsay begins her account by proposing that the twinning of Scottish Calvinism and Philistinism is the consequence of a misunderstanding of the nature of Calvinism in Scotland and an over-emphasis on ‘the influence of theology on art’.8 Calvin believed in art which was ‘protestant, realistic, moral’,9 and his attacks on art are, more often than not, attacks on ‘certain practises of the church of Rome’.10 The word ‘certain’ deserves underlining. The end result of St Gregory’s adage, that images are the books of the illiterate, has been to keep people illiterate, or, if that is too strong wording, to justify criticism of certain practices of the Church of Rome. She adds that for Calvin ‘one kind of “image” alone can be rightfully found in Christian temples, the sacred symbols of the Christian mysteries’.11 For Ramsay, Calvin was not a suppressor of art, but he believed art should follow the abovementioned directives. Ramsay’s argument is based on geography and religion, though which weighs more heavily is in the end not very clear. Both the opening and closing of the study contain assertions that echo MacDiarmid’s on nationhood . Ramsay states that ‘a Scottish art that is really national and not merely sporadic, individual, eccentric, must wait for the restoration of the Scottish andrew monnickendam 95 the nature of aesthetics: brunton, macdiarmid and gray nation’,12 and, as a conclusion, ‘our art history seems to resolve itself into the story of individual artists or at best small groups...