WHAT do you see when you look at Steven Brown’s paintings? If you see a business, a brand, commodities from a clever entrepreneur, then I agree with you. If you see art, though, I must beg to differ.

Brown gave us McCoo - his most famous, repeated image. A rainbow highland cow. His Ayr company went into liquidation this week, however. It had a turnover of £11.5million and employed 21 staff. Cash flow and creditor pressure were blamed. Last year, Brown sold his Oor Wullie and Big Tam McCoo painting for £40,000.

The loss of 21 jobs is a personal tragedy for everyone affected, and Brown is a man hard not to admire. He found fame and wealth after overcoming two heart attacks and battled depression to build an instantly recognisable brand. Brown and his staff deserve every success – you can only hope they rise again.

However, it’s the use of the word ‘art’ when it comes to Brown and his business which troubles me. Is this really Scottish art? If so, what does it say about Scotland? In fact, what does it say about the west? There’s little difference substantively when it comes to the cultures of Scotland, England, America, Australia and the rest of the anglophone countries. Culturally we’re synced.

READ MORE: Steven Brown Art firm goes into liquidation with loss of 21 jobs

Art should affect your soul. Art, in all its forms – music, literature, painting, sculpture, dance, cinema – should make you see the world in a new way, should illuminate some thought or feeling inside you that you’ve never experienced before, art should let you look through another person’s eyes, art should change you. Art should make you angry, scared, elated, aroused – it should grab hold of your heart and mind and shake up the emotional world in which you live. Art should tell you truths you didn’t know or were too scared to learn. Art should make you feel awe, pity, wonderment. It should renew you and nourish you. Art should inspire and humble you.

Does Brown do any of that? I feel his work is for people who neither like nor trust the idea of art. To me, Brown’s paintings are comfy. Brown provides prettiness and safety. It’s a warm bath, and that’s not art. Brown’s work is home decor, interior design. It’s meant to make your living room attractive, not to touch your soul or change you.

The irony is that while Brown may not be creating ‘art’, he’s certainly reflecting culture. Our culture has become ‘comfy-cosy’, safe and unthreatening when it comes to art, literature and music. In that sense, Brown is entirely in keeping with a culture that doesn’t really value ideas.

There’s a uniformity about Brown’s art. It’s there to fill a space – not in your heart, or soul, or mind – but on your wall. There’s also a grating ubiquity to Brown’s art, at least in Scotland. It fits with our mass-produced, mass-consumed culture. It sits easily alongside tribal tattoos, European city breaks, mindfulness, Love Island, Med holidays, Netflix and chill, retro breakfast cereal, breakfast for dinner, Ed Sheeran wedding songs, banter not a conversation, Sunday at the shopping mall, and arguments in Ikea. It’s safe. Everyone does it. It’s moribund.

It’s also understandable. It’s not hard to work out why so many now chose cultural comfort rather than a cultural challenge. Our world is horrible. The news frightening. Bank accounts depleting. Hate festering. Progress offers only pain. Why not chose the equivalent of easy-listening when it comes to culture, rather than something which unsettles or questions you.

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However, if we wrap ourselves in a cultural comfort blanket we’ll stagnate, calcify. Art is the hard abrasive necessary to keep culture on its toes, to fend off entropy.

We’ve ceased to exist ‘inside’ culture. Now we ‘consume’ culture from without. For something to be consumed it must be easily digestible. No wonder that bland art is called pablum – gruel made for weaning infants. And our ‘art’ is infantilising us.

Think of music. The common theme in so much mainstream music is "you’re great, you can do it, the world will love you, success waits around the corner". Life is a constant summer festival and sooner or later you’re going to take to the main stage. Literature has been reduced to what supermarket buyers think a good book is – a 200-page pitch for a B movie that’ll never get made. Cinema is a repeating rhythm of superheroes.

Mattel is creating a Barbie dressed as David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust for the adult market. Grown-ups queue to see Toy Story. No wonder. We’ve made children of ourselves. We’re all guilty of it.

Of course, great music, literature and cinema is still being made, but it’s increasingly pushed to the fringes, while the centre-ground keeps growing. I’m not saying there’s no place for mere entertainment, and everything should be high art. I’m saying that the middle of the road is now the only path to travel.

So much of culture is now like a recurring meme, reflecting how the digital rather than the artistic is now the great cultural driver. Perhaps, the meme is the biggest cultural development of late. Brown’s art is meme-like – he repeats the same images over and over. The simpler it is, the more we’ll buy it.

Our ‘comfy’ culture makes even discussing such issues difficult. To subject Brown to scrutiny as his company fails will be seen by many as cruel instead of what it is: a timely assessment of someone with a position in Scottish culture. To wonder what people see in paintings like McCoo – to suggest money may be better spent on a good print from an art store – is to risk being labelled an elitist snob. What could be worse in our cosy anti-intellectual society?

But Brown should be subjected to scrutiny as he affects Scottish culture and how it’s perceived. His images of cows with Saltires on their horns are seen by the world as saying something about Scotland. To me, it risks saying that we’re a sentimental and frivolous people. That we remain in our tartan shortbread tin. It’s art for the kailyard.

Our country brims with great artists of all disciplines. Our problem is that we pretend to care for them – when we really don’t. We’d much sooner remain comfortably numb.

Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year