I’ve been away for a few days, specifically in Scotland for the Burns celebrations in Dumfries. It’s the 250th anniversary of his birth. That’s right, 250. I suppose we have a natural affection for seeming milestones (they give us the illusion of order) but 250 seems a tad random, or more likely, a convenient hook on which the tourist authorities could launch their “Homecoming” drive. Reality it seems is what we make it.
Burns is certainly important in the history of literature, though I’m not sure he’s a great poet. I know that when in Dumfries the Scottish first minister Alex Salmond described Burns as “our national bard” he meant something more than Burns’ poetic skills. There’s an irony here: Burns was not much of a nationalist, but he did embody a kind of Scots distinctiveness, warm, compassionate, committed but down to earth and with a feeling for the land. In this sense he seems much more of a national bard than Shakespeare can be for the English, even though he’s often called that. It’s hard to think of anything distinctly English about Shakespeare (Burns had the advantage of writing in an intensely local dialect). I suppose the history plays deepened certain myths of Englishness, but no more so than the Roman plays did for the ancient classical world.
But perhaps this is because the English don’t have much sense of a distinctive culture, or worse that the English are culturally less interested in culture than the Scots.
Whatever, the interesting question for me here is how we have moved from the popularisation of poetry that Burns initiated to the idea that art can be somehow democratic.
It seems we have developed a schizophrenic attitude to virtuosity, which leaves creative work in an uncertain place. I don’t think people have stopped admiring virtuosity, but art establishments are worried about elitism, while technologies have vastly simplified the means of production. It used to be impossible to produce music without reasonable mastery of an instrument. Now all you need is a computer mouse and some software.
The end results need to be judged on their own merits, though I’ll say more about the relationship between quality, effort and refinement, between knowledge and appreciation, at some later date. For the moment though I just want to note that in a broad sense we seem to be moving to a different definition of popular culture. Where this idea of accessible art/entertainment once marked a shift in subject matter and reach (where poets might “speak for” a broad group of people or even a nation, it’s looking for the moment like a much more participatory concept, appropriate to the age of democracy.
I hope this is going to turn out to be a good thing, but I’m not sure. I’d worry if I thought it might reinforce the nerve-failure of movie studios who regularly “test” alternative endings – much of the power of a story comes from the sense that as a reader, listener or viewer you’re not in control, hence the desire to know what happens next. If everything can be bent to our wills then we face the grim prospect of a world no bigger than our imaginations. (I’m always puzzled by that cliched marketing assertion that “the only limit is your imagination!”; for most that’s quite a serious limitation.)
The paradox of this new idea of popular culture is that it has the potential to liberate individual voices from the tyranny of the lowest common denominator. I have a feeling that money will have a strong influence on the way it actually pans out (my guess is that we’re moving beyond the gold rush era of internet development).
Who knows what Burns would have made of all this. Then again, he might have been a populist poet before the idea really existed, but he had to make a living working as a taxman.