From Iceland — Screaming “Masterpiece“?

Screaming “Masterpiece“?

Published May 6, 2005

Screaming “Masterpiece“?

The categorical imperative: Create!

It happened suddenly and swiftly and no one even seemed to notice. 30 years ago bohemians Dagur Sigurðarson, poet, and Róska, artist, walked down Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street, laughing. They were laughing in broad daylight, and this caused an elderly couple to stop on their way and gaze at them fiercely until the man exclaimed: “People like this should be burned!”

Then one day, marching out of his studio and down Laugavegur, the artist smiles at the sun, looks around, and realizes that no one wants to burn him. Not a single soul.

For centuries the Lutheran moral imperative at this northern periphery of the civilized world was simply this: Work! And when you speak to native Icelanders today, you are likely to hear them describe the country according to that. You might hear that everyone has two jobs, three jobs, four jobs, to make ends meet, to keep life going in this cold desolate country. Only life isn’t what it used to be, and neither is work: according to economist Ágúst Einarsson, culture now amounts to 4% of the national economy, a three times bigger contribution than that of agriculture, and more people are now employed in cultural productions than fisheries. This is the reality of what has been labeled post-capitalism.

Post-capitalism replaces the once valid and still glorified Lutheran imperative “Work!” with a new pair of verbs: Enjoy! (By no coincidence, the slogan of Iceland’s favourite beverage, Coca-cola.)– and its complimentary: Create! ( For the slogan, we have “Think different” and “Just do it!”). And where do they lead to, in a country of 300 thousand traditionally industrious people, doing their patriotic best to fulfill the promise of sovereignty and prosperity? Hysterical inflation of creative efforts hyped up by international attention and recognition? Economically systematized and encouraged bohem…ish lifestyles? If so, what becomes of the subversives, and the subversive role of arts – its intention and possibility of saying something new and potentially dangerous?

Arts at the other side of history

In the early nineties, Francis Fukuyama wrote about the end of history, a hypothesis much popularized among right-wing intellectuals. His proposal was that after centuries of bloody struggle and dispute, humanity has now found the most stable possible social system, Western market-democracy, and all that is left is for that system to spread to the other 90% of the planet’s population … then we will finally be “there”. According to the theory, of course, some of us already are “there”, inhabiting a world of hobbies, seeking enjoyment wherever we please.

His hypothesis seems an apt ideological interpretation of the state of arts and culture in Iceland. 12,000 music students, 3000 choir members, 400 new book titles published each year – 10% of the Icelandic population showed up for the film festival in April; grandmothers listen to experimental ambient, and half a generation seems to attend the local art academy while the other half attends conferences about the links between business and culture. And those links certainly prosper – over a hundred artists have their basis to work and mingle on the premises of gallery Klink og Bank – a huge building offered the artists by Björgólfur Guðmundsson, one of the recently-made Icelandic mega-capitalists. Add state funding – government expenditures on “cultural affairs” amounted to 20 billion ISK in 2001 – not to forget easily acquired overdrafts and student loans, and you will see why basic production and services are mostly left to immigrant workers.

The facts hint at the utopian. Art is more fun than fish factories. So what if the art scene is not all that monumental, so what if the number of books printed far exceeds the amount of fresh thought in the country, and so what if the performed concerts exceed the potential audience – what excess could be more exhilarating? It is a miniature country, the number of inhabitants approximately the same as the staff at Disneyworld, and it has its own worthy superhero, (BJÖRK, if you need to ask), plus a handful of quite notable artists. Is a healthier and more enjoyable response to the fast development from third world pre-modernity to first class private-jetdom imaginable?

Screaming “Masterpiece!”

How do you interview culture? In Reykjavík you walk around the city centre and bump into it. Thus I bump into a member of the celebrated band Trabant. Does the general public’s acceptance and celebration of hitherto alternative culture and music pose no problem to you, I ask him. “No. I mean, of course not … if you’re doing what you want to be doing, then it’s not a problem that people want to hear it. I have no respect for those artists who claim to be so anti-social and subversive that they can have no audience, and stay in their basement creating only for themselves. Art wants to reach an audience.”

Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that art from a utopian society is opposed to criticism, but it takes one’s breath away to see how open the artists are about it.

But the art exists to find an audience. Soon, and perhaps before the publication of this article, a documentary will start running in local cinemas about the contemporary music scene. It is not so much a traditional rockumentary – where emphasis is usually laid on looking behind the scenes and revealing some “truth behind the hype” – as a … well, pyrotechnic orgy of national self-glorification. Its title is Screaming Masterpiece.

Whatever is Icelandic is most certainly employed in the film: Mugison plays in a remote church in the West Fjords, his woolen socks emphasized in close-up – múm are interviewed at the sea-shore … the scenes are interrupted with wonderful shots of a flying raven, and statistics about Iceland’s love for music. Asked how or why they got where they are, how or why the Icelandic music scene got interesting, most of the musicians either refer to the ancient heritage of “rímur” (a form all but extinguished in the 19th century, by romantic poets, embarrassed about the tradition’s naivety and shallowness) or, as would all decent naturalists, refer to nothing at all. The most popular response musicians in the film give when asked why they sing is to shrug their shoulders and say: “I don’t know. I was just singing a song …”. Some seem honest, others less so.

“Icelandic musicians get away with naivety that others don’t, simply for being Icelandic. Absolutely,” the English manager of a successful Icelandic rock band tells me.

In the film, though, one musician delves deeper than others into the underlying reasons, and attempts a realist, i.e. critical, analysis of music development in Iceland, as well as the patriotic hype. The one musician with a sense of perspective: Björk. The filmmaker (or the titling services? Can it be?) is eager enough in his image-creation to take artistic liberties in translating her comments from Icelandic to English. When she, for example, relates the fact that there were no instruments in the country for centuries, she adds “which is of course quite unusual” (náttúrulega dáldið sérstakt) – with a grin on her face. Quite unusual, however, becomes “unique” in the subtitling. And later “undarlegt” – strange – becomes “interesting”. Innocent enough, but let us dare to interpret: the slip reveals the eagerness of a country to portray an image of itself, to itself.

Later, Björk’s extremely critical comment about patriotic art and emotions being more or less the same in every country, and probably not the best foundation to build on these days, is followed with a hyper-dramatic, semi-Wagnerian performance from Sigur Rós and Steindór Anderssen. Combined with the strong recurrent image of a raven flying in slow motion, one sees the damage that occurs when the artists actually try to make a point.

“Coing” or the art of hysterical tolerance

It is not easy to realize if there are more alcoholics in Iceland than elsewhere or if treatment and discourse on the subject is just more common. In any case, locals are familiar with the AA vocabulary. The most commonly applied element of that vocabulary is the verb “að kóa” or to co. It is used to describe behaviour frequent among families and friends of alcoholics: they will, for the sake of peace and appearances, go along, act as if nothing has happened, and stay silent not only about the drinking habits of the alcoholic, but about the worst atrocities committed during drinking.

Silence as a behavioural pattern can be found in many other spheres of the social strata. A young journalist recounts: “After a recent opening of an arts exhibition I joined some acquaintances of the artist to a restaurant. After speaking about people who speak about rucola salad for a little while, I asked: ‘Does anyone have anything to say about the exhibition? Can we start a lively discussion about the works?’ ‘Ah, I don’t know,’ said the people. ‘I think it was cool. Yeah, it was cool. I have seen other paintings of his that were cooler, but this was quite cool.’ And then we spoke about panini. I would have liked to say that the works seemed purely decorative and did nothing for me, but … sometimes the peace is worth a bit of cowardice.”

Þórunn Valdimarsdóttir, one of a precious few rebels in Icelandic literature, addressed a writers’ congress two years back: “The liberties of Icelandic authors are limited by more than their involuntary inner moral guard, and the moral filtering of publishers: an author must survive. If an author’s inner guard, supposed to protect him against writing something that costs too much nervous pressure or makes him an outcast, fails, and if the publisher’s filter fails as well, then Icelandic society takes control – Iceland is small and monotone enough, by itself, to limit the freedom of authors.”

Does this go for other cultural spheres as well? I bump into professor Guðmundur Oddur, at the local Art academy and ask: Are Icelanders capable of criticism, deconstruction or mockery, at all? A pause. Then: “No. No, there are these three people who actually do it, but they are all kept in the cold more or less. Three people who criticize, and they’re not welcome. The problem is also, you have to be sure on which grounds you are criticizing, what your motive is. If it’s bitterness or resentment, you should rather go pray or meditate for a while … go and pray, your science will be gay!“

The pattern of suddenly accepting anything labelled “art” can perhaps be exemplified by the astonishing success of the Icelandic gay rights movement. Just as the idea to burn bohemians for laughing was acceptable 30 years ago, a little later folk musician Hörður Torfason had to flee the country for death-threats, after openly declaring his homosexuality.

Last year, however, more people participated in the gay pride festivities in Reykjavík than in the June 17th National Independence Day. Once again, on the surface of it, the development seems utopian … and yet, there is something strange, something eerie, about how suddenly the wind changes … it all seems so easy. The thought creeps up that perhaps nothing really changed, nothing of importance, that there may even have been nothing to change – that the country might be full of opinions but empty of convictions.

Filling post-colonial categories

“The biggest problem in Icelandic filmmaking is that everyone seems to feel compelled to make a film,” says Grímur Hákonarson, filmmaker. “People from theatre, musicians … it leads to chronic amateurism. I hail the amateur spirit, but it must move on to somewhere. Those who get official funding for screenwriting are mostly some sort of general celebrities, not screenwriters. Hard to reject because they are known. And the results demonstrate that … or the lack of results.”

It was a matter of some pride for Icelanders when a Swedish specialist declared, a few years back, that the minimum number of citizens for a modern country to run, to fulfil the demands of bureaucracy, economy and culture, were 30 million. A little short of 300 thousand, Icelanders celebrated their national characteristics: Yep, others say it’s impossible, but man, did we manage!

“You know why Iceland is best saved independent, you know why Iceland should never enter the European Union?” a professor of creative writing asks me, (I’m paraphrasing). “I’ll tell you why. When I go abroad, and take part in conferences, I am a representative of a whole cultural identity and a world of its own. When Iceland was part of Denmark, and should it ever merge with Europe, each of us will represent nothing more than an under-cultivated periphery, hillbilly towns on the border of nowhere.“

Keeping up appearances as a sovereign country requires many roles to be filled – the country needs a certain number of ambassadors, a bunch of congressmen, journalists, scholars, and most certainly artists – consequently there seem to be more than enough roles for everyone. The film-makers and artists are simply cast in the roles.

“Iceland produces five or six feature films a year,” adds Hákonarson, “which is, statistically, fine, even remarkable. But why are there no short films? Everyone wants to fill up 90 minutes, wave a camera around and shoot a feature.”

There is presumably no need in the Icelandic identity for film students. Possibly for expression. What we need is people who make movies.

Getting caught in your 15 minutes

Kristján Jóhannsson was a carpenter from Akureyri who started singing opera. And had a voice. In the eighties and nineties, when Icelanders won a row of “The Strongest Man in the World” and “Ms. Universe” competitions, Mr. Jóhannsson was hailed for having a stronger, i.e. louder, voice than even Pavarotti. He sang in foreign opera houses, and in the end moved to Toscana, Italy, where his Icelandic developed an Italian accent notoriously fast. Over a decade or more, he would appear in Icelandic media every now and then to declare that Pavarotti’s time was over, and he might be leading a new generation to take the place of the three tenors.

Needless to say, opera has little roots in Icelandic culture. But as Kristján seemed to fill the place of the “famous Icelander” people would buy his records in record amounts, according to some accounts up to thirty thousand a year, especially during Christmas, supporting his stay in Toscana.

Then came last winter. The yellow press revealed that Mr. Jóhannsson had taken what amounts to 12 thousand euros for singing at a beneficial concert for suffering children in Africa, in Hallgrímskirkja. An hysterical outrage broke out, where Mr. Jóhannsson attacked one journalist physically, another one verbally, and finally, as the yellow press revealed a brand new Google research, had no more defences. The yellow press pointed out the only real concern of Icelanders: Björk has 600,000 hits on Google, Kristján Jóhannsson only 3,000. Jóhannsson had been discovered. He was not world famous. He was, after all, after 20 years and at least a hundred thousand albums sold, only a fraud. Taking money from suffering children was nothing; not being famous was the real crime.

Of course we all know of the Warholian 15 minutes of fame. Jóhannsson got caught in the act: He got famous for being famous, but then wasn’t famous after all. What is most curious in this affair, though, is the public outrage. Because in fact everybody knew. It was never about him. Mr. Jóhannsson only accepted, even if quite enthusiastically so, a vacancy offered to him, the role of the world famous artist, one of a number of positions that need to be filled for the quivering little flower of a country to keep faith.

The revolt of nothing

Hjörleifur Finnsson, Icelandic philosopher, writes in the book Af Ljóðum (From Poetry) about the role of arts: “Contemporary cultural politics are concerned with the production and control of ideology and identity. It produces, together with other forces, identities and national identities and thus controls the reproduction of a people. It also serves the role of pulling the teeth out of ‘dangerous’ art and creation, that might disturb these identities.”

If that is so, if the arts are not outsiders and not dangerous at all, but first and foremost servants of the economy, group hysteria, national pride, class divisions and appearances – and these form a harmonious impenetrable whole – what options does that leave the rebel? How can he now provoke, at all?

“Sometimes,” says writer Andri Snær Magnason, “the whole thing is so noisy and you feel the whip on your back: Create! Create! Be something! – that you think that perhaps the most natural revolt would be to do nothing. Just like when everyone is funny so you want to stay serious. The most natural revolt would be to plant potatoes, do normal work, lead a normal life happy about yourself, instead of serving the image, national pride, ambition, outrage, economic growth, competition or what you call it. Just be yourself but not have to cover up in all this mess, serving the main aim of producing material for ipods, ringtones, commercial jingles – written texts are information for ADSL information service providers … perhaps that’s what you sometimes think – desperate creative efforts for what?”

This is in line with the 19th century nihilists who declared that in the kaiser’s service they’d rather be shoemakers than artists. Is there an alternative to nothing? There must be something … there is a saying among poker players that if you look around the table and don’t realize who’s being duped, it’s probably you.

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