From Iceland — So What's This National Culture I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This National Culture I Keep Hearing About?

Published July 11, 2013

So What’s This National Culture I Keep Hearing About?

After any election there are always surprising developments. One of those after the last election in Iceland was that the new Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, added a “national culture” portfolio to the responsibilities of the prime ministership. Like with any surprise announcement, no one quite knew what to make of it at first.
Like when your parents tell you at dinner that they like their guppies more than you?
Well, maybe not quite that surprising. Former Minister of Education, Science and Culture Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who is the leader of the opposition Left-Green party, brought up this change in parliament and asked what the reason for this change was, and what exactly the new government understands national culture to be, as opposed to culture in general. Illugi Gunnarsson, the current minister for education and culture, replied that he would not define the term national culture and that the reason for the portfolio transfer was that the prime minister was really interested in national culture, whatever that may be.
You know who else was really interested in national culture?
The spectre of fascism was alluded to by the leader of the opposition Bright Future party, as part of the gloriously unfocused parliamentary discussion that ensued, where MPs brought up Latvian and Danish folk songs, Polish fried dough, and the prevalence of flatness in Icelandic baked goods. I assume the politicians were hungry and wanted to dance.
Perhaps they had eaten some special brownies?
Probably not as they are not part of the Icelandic national baked goods heritage, which you can tell by their non-flatness. If you want to get an inkling of what the new government means by national culture, you have to look at the organisational charts for the ministries.
Oh good, nothing gets me more excited than government organisational charts.
The Prime Minister took over a bunch of things that could broadly be construed to be national heritage, i.e. archaeology, historic buildings, ancient manuscripts, though with some weird extras like farm names.
If I want to name my goat farm Antichrist Superfarm, the prime minister has to give his permission?
Sort of, at least from the ‘Place Name Committee’ which has been moved from the Ministry of Education and Culture to the Prime Minister’s Office. Whether Sigmundur Davíð will personally approve every last farm, street or island name with a signature of his pen depends on how megalomaniacal he gets. I suppose we will know if a new volcanic island appears and he christens it Sigmundur’s Pen Island. In case you were wondering, the committee that approves baby names is still a part of the Ministry of the Interior.
So that’s where I go if I want to name my baby Antichrist Superman?
Yes, though I doubt they will approve it, as neither name is on the list. Yes, there is a list of approved baby names, but that is a subject for a future column. It was not just politicians who were startled by the organisational change, but also artists and writers. Most spoke out on Facebook, but several wrote articles about it. The most widely-read one is by novelist, editor and columnist Guðmundur Andri Thorsson, who noted the influence of Jónas frá Hriflu.
Wasn’t that a character in John Carter of Mars?
You are probably thinking of Thuvia of Ptarth. Jónas frá Hriflu was the leader of the Progressive Party in the ‘30s and ‘40s, which is now led by Sigmundur Davíð. Jónas had strong opinions on culture and did things like write a fairly nationalistic history of Iceland which was taught to schoolchildren for seven decades, and organised an exhibition of art he considered to be fake art.
Not to harp on this, but that sounds like something You-Know-Who would do.
As far as I can remember Voldemort never did anything like that. However there is an old tale, probably apocryphal, that the King of Denmark, then also King of Iceland, asked Jónas if he thought he was Mussolini. Guðmundur Andri’s point was that once you start creating a distinction between “culture” and “national culture,” the risk is that you start considering that which is not “national” to be “anti-Icelandic.”
Lock your doors, the Fascists are coming!
Calm, calm, the secret police is not coming for your abstract art collection. However, as journalist Ingi Freyr Vilhjálmsson pointed out on his blog, it is worrisome insofar as it could indicate a nationalistic turn by the current government, which goes with the recent decision of the new Foreign Minister to end accession talks with the European Union. No one is seriously expecting to see Blackshirts marching up and down the street anytime soon, but it would be nice if the politicians in power would not do and say things that put you in mind of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!