There’s a lovely quote from the artist William Crosbie in an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.

“My name was mud,” he observed in 1939. “I had gone off to Paris and come back with new ideas. Scotland doesn’t like that.” Crosbie’s surrealist approach was rare in Scottish art, and was therefore frowned upon.

In another part of the exhibition (“A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950”) hangs William Gear’s “Autumn Landscape”, painted for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Despite being awarded a prize by the then Arts Council of Great Britain, the president of the Royal Academy denounced it as “scheming, self-conscious, anglicised”.

Iain Macwhirter: Why the right-wing press is the real casualty of Flag-gate

It’s a reminder that Scottish artists have often found themselves in conflict with the cultural establishment, which is as it should be. One could almost argue it’s a necessary component of the creative process; without that tension, art – be it literary or visual – risks becoming lifeless and dull.

As does the discourse around culture and politics. There was a lot of this during the independence referendum a few years ago, something not helped by a near-hegemony in favour of a Yes vote amongst Scotland’s vibrant community of writers, artists and musicians.

And judging from a spat a few days ago, some are still fighting old battles. It started when the composer Sir James MacMillan wrote that Scotland’s “culturati” were “nationalist and socialist – on steroids”, while the Government was “frantically” trying to keep its “artsy stormtroopers onside”, worried about defections to Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative offer of “grievance, moral superiority [and] a hint of radicalism”.

As was the case with previous broadsides, Sir James made reasonable points but expressed them in a way that made them easily dismissed, as indeed they were in counterblasts from some of those named and shamed in his original article, such as the “soi-disant intellectual” (it means self-styled, I had to look it up) popster Pat Kane.

Iain Macwhirter: Why the right-wing press is the real casualty of Flag-gate

Kane – a prominent and often pseudish pro-independence campaigner – denied Scottish artists were unquestioningly pro-SNP and, for what it’s worth, I think he’s right or, rather, they’re now more critical than they used to be. As Kane pointed out, they do want to challenge the Scottish Government on certain areas of policy.

That criticism, however, remains rather muted and low-key, often with an all-too-obvious tension between the critic’s support for independence and what’s being said, the sort of reticence which is completely absent when the target is, for example, Unionism or the UK Conservative Government.

A few days ago, for example, the artist Sandy Moffat criticised what he called the “tiny number” of Scottish students studying in art schools. “Scottish students have been sacrificed because they don’t pay fees,” he said. “Anyone who can write the cheque and pay the fee is in.” Although “tiny” was an exaggeration, Moffat had identified one of the many distorting effects of “free” tuition, although one assumes he continues to support that Holy Grail of Scottish Government policy.

In response to Sir James’s critique, Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop (does anyone, the composer asked, look at her “and see a leader?”) said that encouraging a “vibrant critical debate” about how Scotland supported artists and art was “hardly a radical conspiracy”. She also reiterated that it was not the job of “any government to tell artists or cultural organisations what to create”.

Yet a few months ago Hyslop said something slightly different. Artists, we were told, don’t have to be close to government, but they ought “to have a common understanding of what the country wants”, a way of “bridging, of helping ambition for the country”. But who defines that “common understanding”? The SNP? And, besides, isn’t it rather difficult to reach a “common” understanding of a nation split between Yes and No, Remain and Leave?

Iain Macwhirter: Why the right-wing press is the real casualty of Flag-gate

Did the novelist Eric Linklater possess a “common understanding” of what Scotland wanted? In his classic (and still very funny) satire “Magnus Merriman”, he poked fun at most aspects of Scottish life, literature and politics in the 1930s. No-one was spared, even the Nationalist party the author had represented in the East Fife by-election of 1933. Strikingly, nothing remotely comparable was published during the 2012-14 referendum, a period in Scottish politics ripe for caustic irreverence.

It’s important to acknowledge, however, that Scotland’s politico-cultural dynamic has never been clear cut. In a new book, “Literature and Union” (Oxford University Press) Gerard Carruthers – a professor of literature at Glasgow University – argues that a “crude separatism” in Scotland has “wrought almost as much damage as English indifference to our understanding of Scottish literature”.

And while he observes that Scotland’s “literary intelligentsia” is almost exclusively committed to independence, “its postmodern critical compass” also “warns of the dangers of uncritical nationalist perspectives”. The Union can hardly be said to have constrained the artistic genius of Burns, Scott or Stevenson, any more than it interfered with a flourishing of Scottish culture in the 1980s.

The book (edited by Carruthers and Colin Kidd) therefore concludes that artists’ exploration of a Scottish identity has been as creatively stimulating as it’s been difficult, a sort of plea for a more nuanced approach to the debate. Carruthers also mentions Muriel Spark, who’ll be honoured at an event in Edinburgh on Wednesday night, which will include a reading from bibliophile Nicola Sturgeon.

Iain Macwhirter: Why the right-wing press is the real casualty of Flag-gate

“Writing as often as not of other places – France, Italy, Africa, America, London – as of Scotland,” he observes, “and with more interest in issues of religion than in nationhood, is Spark un-Scottish?” Well, of course not, but rather simultaneously “a Scottish, British, and, indeed, a world writer”. Here’s hoping for more of that sort of thing, more William Crosbies and Eric Linklaters; Scotland’s cultural – and political – scene would be all the better for it.