Published August 11, 2014
When I was 20 years old I decided to enter the Icelandic School of Arts and Crafts in Reykjavík. My grandfather voiced some doubts, but my parents were OK with it. But one day I met a distant cousin of mine on the bus, who said:
“You’re going to the School of Arts and Crafts? Why? You want to learn how to knit?”
This was back in 1979, way before Björk and Raggi Kjartans. This was the time when you only went to art school because you had this disease, this art disease, this ongoing inner desire to express yourself. It had nothing to do with the hip and the cool. Our art school was lightyears from being the coolest school on the planet, like it has become today.
In 1979 it was considered abnormal behaviour to study art, to become an artist. Icelandic society was still struggling with the big swallowing of abstract painting (a procedure that lasted 30 years), and only a handful of parents could say they were happy seeing their children off to the “Myndlista- og handíðaskólinn.”
We’ve come a long way.
Today Icelandic parents are almost hoping for their kids to go to art school, to grow long Mugison beards and become the hipsters of the future, the leaders of the next generation. When you look back, you can see that art has made a difference here in Iceland.
2. The Björk Effect
I grew up in a very one-sided society: Only one man could be Prime Minister, and he was also the richest man in Iceland, only one man could write in Icelandic, and he was getting very old, only one man (yes, they were all men back then, women were only used for modelling or teaching French on TV) was a good painter, and he lived in Paris, and only one man was good at dancing, and he lived in San Francisco, and no man at all was good at the theatre and absolutely no one at doing films. Well, back then only one film had been made in Iceland, and it was only shown… well, uh… once.
Everything was one, once and one-sided.
Reykjavík only had one restaurant, one bar, one disco, one radio station, one TV station, one museum, one gallery and one tree (down in Suðurgata). And downtown there was only one man walking around and that was all the street life we had. This man is dead now, bless his soul, but we’ve come a long way from one to one o one. For now we have 101 of everything. One hundred and one restaurants, one hundred and one pubs, one hundred and one writers and one hundred thousand bands.
And it was all thanks to one little woman, and her One Little Indian. Yet she was never elected for any office, she never even entered politics, she only had this incredible voice, and a thousand ideas, a thousand ways to use it, and all of them were NEW. Yet she did more for Iceland in thirty years than a hundred politicians in a hundred years. She transformed our culture, raised its standards, pushed it to a higher level, gave it a wider exposure, branded it as trendy for the next fifty years, lifted our spirits and gave us self-esteem. More than anyone it was she who took us from “One Everything Reykjavík” to “One O One Reykjavík.”
We should stop talking about before and after the Crash and start talking about before and after Björk.
It’s maybe the most radical example in history of how much art can do for a society, how much one little woman can do for her country, how much power art can have. For proof you only need to look at the current Icelandic music scene, from Arnalds to Airwaves, from Samaris to Anna Þorvaldsdóttir. A radio station in the States even did a special best-of list for 2013, with Icelandic bands only. With its music scene Reykjavík is like a small kid with a balloon the size of the Zeppelin airship.
The answer to the eternal question why there are so many rock bands in Iceland is obvious. One star creates a thousand.
3. The Man Who Saved Iceland
A similar example of the power of the individual is the curious case of Árni Magnússon. In the beginning of the 18th century (his 350th birthday was celebrated last year) he started his quest for finding the old manuscripts, second or third hand copies of The Sagas, first written on calfskin in the 13th century. This, our national treasures, the foundations of our nation, our claim to fame, and the most evident proof of intellectual life in the Northern Hemisphere before the invention of books, all this could have been lost, were it not for the relentless work of this one stubborn man.
Árni came around when paper was new in Iceland. People had started preferring neat looking paper manuscripts and printed books, and were fast forgetting about the old and smelly calfskin things. Hard times had even forced people to make shoes and clothes out of the skin pages and, when the cold and the hunger hurt the most, some had even taken to eating The Sagas. (A fitting end to the “Oral Tradition” that created them.)
But Mr. Magnússon went all around Iceland, visited every farm he could, searching and asking for lost pages of lost manuscripts. He could see that some world class literature was being lost forever, if nothing would be done about it. Before he died at the age of 66, he managed to collect enough of it to save a whole “civilization.” He practically gave us the Iceland we have today.
4. “Cut Taxes, Kill An Artist”
From this we can see how art can influence society. At first sight it may not look like the most necessary thing for a nation, but when you look closer, it might actually be the most important one.
For some years the artless people have been telling us: First we need to fix our health system, before we can allow us an art school, a museum, a theatre, or all those artists’ grants. A recent bumper sticker even reads: “Cut Taxes, Kill an Artist.”
And sometimes you might actually admit to yourself that art is not totally necessary. I mean, the fishing can go on without it, the taxis will run, the aluminium factories will be OK. Yeah. Let’s admit it.
We’re not necessary! We’re just parasites on the back of society! Sucking out blood and money! For our own egoistic careers!
And so you lay down in your bed at night, an unnecessary man falling to his unnecessary sleep, and in your unnecessary dream you dream that people are standing outside your house, banging their pots and pans, screaming for their money back, all those grants they gave you over the years, and you spent on rented rooms and bread and butter, in the hope of writing novels and painting paintings. They don’t care about any of it, it’s all shit to them, and now they’re setting fire to your house…
And then you wake up from those stupid thoughts and you don’t care if someone says you’re unnecessary, for you realise that art is necessary for you. You just have to be an artist, like some people are farmers and other people are gay. Yeah. It’s a biological thing. It’s the same as with the gay 7%. There will always be that magical 7% of every nation that wants to make art, to do “needless” things: Write Sagas, sing about Human Behaviour or put the sun inside the Tate Modern. And no matter how many Hitlers this planet will see, they’ll never be able to eliminate this 7% need to do unnecessary things.
5. A Featherless Peacock
For society, art is like what the feathers are to the peacock. They might not seem necessary to his survival, but if you take them away from him, he’s no longer a peacock. Without his feathers, he will hardly have sex, hardly have any offspring, he’s just a poor little creature trying to SURVIVE.
And people who are only trying to SURVIVE can never form a society. They’re just on their own, roaming around looking for food, fighting against the elements and their fellow humans. That’s not society, that’s not a culture, that’s not even a nation.
6. The Safest Investment In The Land
To build a nation you need some kind of pillars, something that lasts, and what is that? Some years ago you might have named the rock solid institutions: Church, Banks, Parliament. But these things all collapsed some years ago. The church is the home of secret dealings and the abuse of children and women, the banks came crumbling down, all in the same week, and the only people who have faith in politics and parliament anymore are the politicians and parliamentarians. But those people come and go; they only last a few years. Who remembers a prime minister from the nineties, a minister of finance from 1953? Were those people necessary? Some of them, I’m sure. Did they do something important? Maybe one or two of them. Did they change society? One of them did, yes, but only for the worse.
But what about the artists and poets, actors and musicians? Did they matter, do they last?
Well, Megas has been around since 1970. He’s still making music, giving concerts, recording albums. Bubbi has been big since 1980. Atli Heimir has been composing since 1960. Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir is 83, and still writing great poems. Kristján Davíðsson passed away last year, aged 95. He did his best work in his last few years and a painting by him is still regarded as the safest investment in Iceland. Erró finished art school in 1950 and is still our hottest painter. When Icelanders are pressed to prove they’re Icelandic, they start singing: Ríðum ríðum, a poem written by Grímur Thomsen, in the 19th century. The national poet Jónas Hallgrímsson celebrated his 200th birthday in 2007. He’s never been bigger. Njáls Saga is still the national epos, written around 1230. It has not yet collapsed, nor become a home of child abuse; people still have faith in the story and its characters. It has not faded one bit in 800 years, nor lost its value. On the contrary, there is no value to be set on the oldest manuscript of Njála. It is priceless.
7. The Pillars of Society
So here we come to the conclusion: The arts are the business you can really count on. Classical artworks don’t fade with time nor crash overnight. Artists create the stuff that lasts, making the link between one time and another; they fabricate the glue that keeps our society together. Culture creates the true continuity every nation needs. The Sagas, novels, artworks, poems, musical pieces, plays and films are the things that make a nation. If you met a person from the 14th century, at some time travellers’ convention in Harpa, the only thing you could talk about would be the Sagas. Artworks form the landscape of society; they become its mountains and glaciers, the focal points of the national conscience, the cultural references reuniting people of all ages. Artworks are the true pillars of our society.
8. The Power of Art
You can even say that art has too much power. It has the power to change the way we think of ourselves and the world. And this is exactly why people are always picking on it. People are afraid of art and the power of art. Deep down they fear nothing more than the novel that’s being written, the film that’s being made or the music of tomorrow.
Politicians fear art because they know it has more power than themselves. Politicians fear artists because they know they’re more powerful than themselves. That’s why politicians keep picking on artists. That’s why they want to cut their budgets, censor them, or put them in jail.
The power of art is a special one, for it only increases when attacked. Pussy Riot only gained power in prison. (Maybe Putin realised this in the end and let them free.) A book that is attacked nearly always becomes a best-seller. Jón Gnarr might also have realised after his four years in office that he has more power as an artist than a politician. Or who has more power today: Bono or Bush? Even Bush knows the answer to that one, that’s why he’s painting puppy paintings. He realised that the only way to keep his power was to try to become an artist. And he can tell you: To decide to go to war in Iraq and to paint one puppy painting is an equally difficult thing. (The result is also equally horrible, though the puppy painting might not kill as many people.) That’s also the difference between art and politics: If you do bad art, people don’t die.
But still art can kill. It can kill politicians. In the end Pussy Riot will kill Putin the politician. And this is the reason why too many politicians dream of killing art. Deep down they know that art is stronger than them. And politicians are all about power. So they’re forever jealous. That’s why too many of them wake up every morning thinking: I have to fight against art! I have to write an article saying:
WE DON’T HAVE MONEY FOR MORE ART!
OUR LIVES ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ART!
OUR CHILDREN’S HEALTH IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN ART!
You see? Art is so precious, so important, that even the ignorant people, even the enemies of art, even the artless and the heartless, can only compare it to their own lives, and the health of their unborn children. They would never say this about football or ice cream: We can’t afford it, our children are more important. They would never say this about the gym or the trips abroad: We can’t afford them, our lives are more important. They can only say this about art, for deep down inside they know, that it is actually more important than their lives. It will always outlive them and outsmart them. Therefore we can say that not only is art a necessary thing for every society to have, but it’s probably the MIT of every society, the Most Important Thing.”
9. The Krónur Bills
For final proof you only need to check out our krónur bills. They all come with a portrait of a great Icelander, someone we associate with true and everlasting value. And who are they? They’re mostly artists, poets and painters, men and women of culture. The poets Einar Benediktsson and Jónas Hallgrímsson, the painter Jóhannes Kjarval, and Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir, famous for her design patterns, plus the aforementioned Árni Magnússon, have all been featured on the Icelandic krónur bills.
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to start some art-fascist movement here, but when art is under attack we have to take to our weapons, the ones that are mightier than the sword or the gun. So instead of looking at me like an art-fascist I ask you to look at me like a lawyer, making the case for art in the time of need.
Who is Hallgrímur Helgason?
Hallgrímur Helgason is an Icelandic writer/artist living in Reykjavík. His last show of paintings, “The History of Icelandic Literature Vol. IV,” at Tveir hrafnar listhús, Reykjavík, was covered in Art Forum by Douglas Coupland. His books are out in many languages, the best known being ‘101 Reykjavík’ and ‘The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning,’ both available in English. A stage version of his last novel ‘The Woman at 1000°’ will premiere at The National Theatre in September. The Danish film ‘Comeback,’ based on his screenplay, will premiere early 2015.