Sounding off: Variorums

Davy Cooper argues that the visual arts should be better recognised in Shetland for their role in driving social and economic progress.

I’ve wandered the edges of the visual arts community in Shetland for many years. I’ve been a journeyman illustrator, photographer and art instructor, in fact a jack of all trades and master of none. I’ve never been a true artist and never desired to be, but I do have an appreciation of the visual arts and the role which they can and, I believe, should play in our society. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen the art scene so vibrant locally as it is today, but I can’t help feeling that we have now come to a crossroads, whereby the visual arts must take a substantial step forwards or remain in the shadow of its musical counterparts.

The inspiration for writing this piece came from a fringe involvement with the Mirrie Dancers project. For a couple of days last year I did some guiding in the North Mainland for the organisers. It was part of a consultation exercise to involve local communities in choosing the locations for the light shows which were to be a principle part of the project. I naturally mentioned this involvement to some of my acquaintances and was surprised but probably not shocked at the generally negative responses I got in some quarters. Surprised because the reaction was so instant, but on reflection not shocked because this is the same reaction I have been listening to all my life. “Whit a waste o money” was the general initial response, and this set me thinking.

First of all I tried to look at the project dispassionately. I put on my best Philistine face and ignored all possible artistic merit in a bid to seek justification elsewhere. There was of course the cost – a lot of money by most peoples’ standards. But then again most of the money for the project had been raised from outwith Shetland, and no small amount of it had been spent giving employment and hiring premises etc. locally. Was it therefore a waste of money even if the alternative for that funding was to go to support similar projects in Glasgow or Edinburgh rather than here? Because this is not a question of hospitals or art. Money will be spent on the arts nationally regardless of our opinions. The question is: should at least some of it be spent here rather than in the big cities. I think it should.

The next comment of course is the assertion that it is a waste of time. For most Shetlanders, brought up under the good old Calvinist work ethic, wasting time is considered to be as bad as wasting money, which brings us to some key questions regarding not only the visual arts but art in general: Do the arts have an intrinsic value that cannot be measured using purely financial parameters? What can art do for us? Well, it can make us cry, make us laugh, excite us or relax us, it can tell us truths, it can feed us lies, it can manipulate our emotions, and perhaps most importantly of all it can make us think.

Good art should stimulate debate and require us to examine things from a different perspective. The Mirrie Dancers illuminations caused people to look at objects they passed every day in quite literally a new light. For instance I found the lighting at the Giant’s Grave in Lochend particularly evocative of a time long past when the stones might well have been lit by the flames of torches. Different perspectives stimulate original thoughts, original thoughts spawn new ideas and new ideas create progress. Rather than being considered a waste of time, art should be considered as a potential catalyst for social and economic progress.

You will note that I say economic as well as social progress. For the most part we tend to think of art as being a nice add on, a little “variorum” on the surface of society, a nice bit of decoration that serves no useful purpose. This has never really been the case. The visual arts in their broadest sense have always been an industry not just a recreation, and this is even more true in our modern world. Once upon a time the practitioner in Shetland might have been limited to a restricted range of media and a geographic market that was mostly island based, but this is no longer the case. The use of computers has opened up a whole new range of tools for the art practitioner and has at the same time opened up a global market. For the first time perhaps we are in a situation where the visual arts can be a significant industry, supplying low volume but high value commodities to an increasing international market.

Visual arts are low volume in terms of production, because it is unlikely that any artist would be producing several hundred original works per hour, but the size of the market out there is almost limitless. Websites by the million, customers by the billion and a whole new and rapidly developing industry of online streaming video and digital TV channels all present opportunities for the modern visual artist at no more cost than signing up for a broadband connection and obtaining the requisite computer equipment. The visual artist is therefore now in an unparalleled position to launch themselves on an unsuspecting world.

Having defended the role of art against the Philistine I should perhaps state that while I firmly believe that the visual arts can achieve much, I’m far from convinced that they always make the effort to do so. Many of our artists are absorbed in their art and struggle to see the wider commercial opportunities. More still can see those opportunities but do not have the requisite skills to take advantage of them. This is a situation that needs to be remedied if we wish the visual arts to be taken seriously as an industry.

I stated at the beginning that I believed the visual arts to be at a crossroads and this is surely the case. A good many great things are happening in this sector. The advent of Veer North has been a much needed stimulus for local artists; projects such as Mirrie Dancers have generated debate and publicity. Investment has taken place in developing college courses and in retail product development for such flagship projects as Shetland Museum and Archives. The advent of Mareel will doubtless bring even more opportunities, but these opportunities will continue to be limited until we look upon the visual arts as an industry and invest in taking that industry to not only local but national and international markets.

Shetland Arts is keen to develop our creative industries and deserves wholehearted support in this enterprise. It is an area in which we have much to offer, with high levels of existing skills in crafts, fine arts and new media. It is an area which offers many possibilities in collaborative work between visual arts, music and literature. It is an industry which, aside from a decent broadband connection, does not require large investment in infrastructure and is not likely to be crippled by spiralling transport costs. It is, perhaps above all, an industry which still has potential for expansion in the present economic climate.

You may then ask: what do I propose we should do? Well I do have one or two suggestions, and I will throw them into the ring as a starting point for the debate. I hope that this article will stimulate discussion and will be more than happy to see people put forward contrasting opinions.

Firstly I would like to see more collaborative projects taking place through the wider spectrum of the arts. I want to see visual artists working with writers, musicians and film makers to produce work that will showcase all of the skills we have available.

Secondly I would like to see training in marketing and public relations offered to and taken up by the artistic community. There is little point in producing first class work if we can’t get it to the potential customer.

Last and perhaps most important I would like to see Shetland as a whole take the creative industries seriously. Not just the artistic community or the council or the trusts but all of us. If we wish our economy to diversify and grow we must encourage those industries to which we are best suited. Shetland both produces and attracts craftspeople and artists, and as a community we should encourage and support them.

As a special plea I would also say that if, at times, some of what the artistic community are doing seems a little bizarre, off the wall or just plain crazy, then stop and think before you criticise. Many of our greatest ideas were considered as crazy at one point, and you can never tell what might blossom from the strangest of seeds.

If you’d like to comment on this article, or anything else in the magazine, please write to Shetland Life, The Shetland Times Ltd, Gremista, Lerwick. Or email the editor at


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