THE much-vaunted “culture wars” are a source of (often unnecessary) polarisation and over-simplification.

Where the arts are concerned, most of what goes on under the dubious auspices of the culture wars runs entirely contrary to the depth of understanding and subtlety that is required by artistic expression.

I’m not claiming neutrality in these social skirmishes. As a person of strong political convictions on a whole gamut of issues, from Palestine solidarity to abortion rights, I am quintessentially “woke”.

I also think that, contrary to much of the current media narrative, the culture wars are not primarily stoked by “woke lefties”. Rather, they are, for right-wing culture warriors such as UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman (below) and US presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis, a useful distraction from the economic and ecological crises caused by the system they represent.

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That said, as an arts critic, I often long to get beyond the frontlines of the culture wars. We need, I think, to bring a bit of nuance to the discussion.

A lack of subtlety can rebound on even the most well-intentioned of arts producers. Take, for example, the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS).

We have now had two consecutive Edinburgh festivals in which the NTS has staged plays by young writers of colour that, whilst being passionately politically engaged, were far from ready for the stage. Both Exodus (2022) by Uma Nada-Rajah and Nat McCleary’s Thrown (2023) were staged as part of the very popular Traverse Theatre festivals programme.

Indeed, Thrown was raised to particularly high prominence as Scottish theatre’s lone representative in the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival programme.

Exodus was, in my critical opinion, characterised by the front-loading of its anti-racist politics at the expense of theatrical quality. Thrown was so egregiously determined by its political agenda that I described it in my review as a “political treatise”, rather than a play.

As Oscar Wilde might have said: to stage one politically rhetorical festival failure may be regarded as a misfortune, to stage two looks like carelessness.

The issue here is not that Nada-Rajah and McCleary are writers without promise, but that the NTS has allowed, perhaps even encouraged, them to make the artistically disastrous error of putting the political cart before the aesthetic horse.

We, in Scotland, have some fine dramatists of colour: Jackie Kay, Hannah Lavery, Ramesh Meyyappan, Adura Onashile, May Sumbwanyambe, to name a few.

We need more, and, given the proper support and encouragement (and the honest and professional advice) needed to find their own theatrical voices, Nada-Rajah and McCleary will, hopefully, be among them. However, by putting their work on stage, in the critical glare of the Edinburgh festivals, when it was so far from ready, the NTS was not doing these young writers any favours.

An overly politically-determined, insufficiently flexible approach to drama affects my own profession, theatre criticism, too. We saw this at this year’s Fringe in relation to Andronicus Synedoche (see today’s festival reviews), by the acclaimed Polish theatre company Song of the Goat.

Director Grzegorz Bral was clearly stung by a number of, in my opinion misguided, criticisms about his production’s representations of issues of gender and race. Consequently, (and ill-advisedly, I think) he was reduced to coming on-stage before the show to offer explanations and an apologia with regard to the role of Aaron (the “Moor” of Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus) being performed by a white actor.

The harshest criticism came in the website of the Scottish magazine The Skinny, in which the production was accused of “a bizarre and critical failure of intersectionality”. Here the critic, Rho Chung, pinned their ideological colours to the mast, arguing, in effect, not only for racial sensitivity, but for a seemingly obligatory adherence to intersectionality theory.

A further observation by the critic reduced their review to a one-dimensional polemic. “Enacting an archetype of Blackness against a whitewashed backdrop,” wrote Chung, “positions whiteness, however unintentionally, as the default.”

This suggestion of “unintentional” racism being reflected in the colour of the wall is evidence, not of aesthetically critical thought, but of obsessive, indeed ludicrous, political determinism. Incidentally, the white wall is an absolute theatrical necessity in a production that is darkly lit and involves dark costumes.

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As I’m sure the Skinny’s critic is well aware, not all countries are equally racially diverse. Bral says that, working in Poland, he does not have access to a pool of Black actors, and I believe him.

Ironically, no doubt unbeknownst to them, in implying racial insensitivity on Bral’s part, the Skinny writer has attacked one of the founders of Poland’s Brave festival of marginalised cultures. Far from being some kind of racist, Grzegorz Bral has done more to promote multiculturalism in the Polish arts than almost anyone else.

Some people will suggest that as a white, cisgender, heterosexual male I have no right to engage in debates regarding identity. However, if political and cultural ideas are judged, not on their inherent quality, but on the identity of the person expounding them, we end up preferring the arguments on race and migration of Priti Patel to those of Jeremy Corbyn.

Where culture is concerned, we progressives need to carry our principles forward with a sensitive and flexible sense of the requirements of art. Otherwise, with the best of intentions, we can end up slipping into a rigid determinism that makes for bad art and bad criticism.