COMMENTARY: In Wednesday’s Aftenposten, journalist Jon Hustad laid into Culture Minister Hadia Tajik. Tajik cannot define Norwegian culture, he complains, and if she cannot define it, she is incapable of defending it.
Hustad’s attack is written in Nynorsk or New Norwegian. Nynorsk is an invented language, a conflation of dialects designed in the 19th century to remove polluting foreign influence from the Norwegian language. It is a language that is not taught to foreigners, who almost exclusively learn City Norwegian, or Bokmål.
Nynorsk was originally the language of the countryside but now increasingly the language of a marginal cultural elite, as even the countryside embraces Bokmål.
The very act of writing in Nynorsk excludes foreigners from the debate. It harks back to the days when nation states could view themselves as separate and distinct. It is a marker of Norwegian exceptionalism - we, the Norwegians, who are different from all others.
What is culture?
And how does Hustad go on to define those differences? Certainly not through high culture - there is no Ibsen, no Grieg, no Munch in his argument. This is strange, to say the least, because high art - literature, music and visual arts - are very much Tajik’s area of responsibility.
Hustad’s attack focuses instead on religion. And it is a very strange attack indeed:
“Credit rating agency Moody has made a ranking of the Catholic and Protestant countries in Europe. Those countries that have the least government debt are countries where the majority is protestant. The Nordic countries have in common is that they have never gone bankrupt, whether they have been bourgeois or socialist controlled. This is cultural, and it is virtually unique in the world.”
It is true that Norway is overwhelmingly a protestant country. Even as a Scot - and believe me, we know Protestantism - it is hard believe quite how far the chill fingers of Protestantism reach. Look no further than the state wine monopoly, and the widespread Norwegian belief that it protects people from themselves.
Norway’s good fortune
Hustad is right in pointing out that Norway is very, very rich indeed. The state’s sovereign wealth fund stands at NOK 3.8 trillion, or USD 130,000 for every man woman or child. You might even argue that this is down to protestant prudence - Norway has very thoughtfully and carefully invested its oil revenues and now controls over 1% of all the world’s shares. But neither Denmark nor Sweden enjoy such riches.
Hustad’s notion that Norway has somehow had a magical cultural formula that has created this wealth is arrant nonsense. Norway has a lot of oil fields. It has been lucky. Without that luck, Norway would be relatively poor.
Norwegians are no harder-working than anyone else. Most work a significantly shorter week than other Europeans. And for all the money poured into education here, Norwegian children’s performance is mediocre when it comes to reading, mathematics and science.
In fact, Norway struggles to make any high-cultural impact on the world. Where Denmark and Sweden are dramatically visible internationally, Norway is not. Swedish and Danish cinema have put their countries on the cultural map of Europe. Their state broadcasters have created a genre of television that the world now calls “Scandinavian Noir”.
The invisible Scandinavian
Where is Norway in all of this? Norway’s best - and best-known - actress, Liv Ullman, is believed by the rest of the world to be Swedish. Norwegian films, with a few honourable exceptions, never make it across the North Sea.
All of this is Norway’s fault. Sweden and Denmark have long put their money where their mouth is, culturally speaking. Denmark’s National Film School was founded in 1966, and Stockholm’s Dramatiska Institutet in 1970. Norway’s Film School was only founded in 1997, in the remote inland backwater of Lillehammer.
Where is the culture?
There are plenty of places Hustad could have started if he wanted to attack Tajik and the Norwegian record on culture. You have to look very hard in 21st-century Norway to find a commitment to high culture.
How many modern buildings are there in Oslo of international quality? I count two - the Opera House and the Astrup Fearnley Museum. That is it.
The National Gallery is a joke. The 19th-century building is not fit for purpose, and the collections are an embarrassment. Here the very good and the very bad hang side by side, as if Norway were a country with no quality filter. Just what of this is it so very important to preserve?
As for the Munch Museum, there could be no better illustration of a lack of Norwegian cultural ambition than the farce that surrounded the commissioning - and subsequent rejection - of the Lambda building down by the shore.
In 2009, Herreros Arquitectos had won the contract to build a home worthy of Norway’s most important visual artist. Immediately the project was enmired in bureaucracy, with demands that it be shortened by 2m. After a year of arguing the city authorities, who complained that they had not been properly consulted, rejected the building.
Norway, it seems, cannot preserve and promote its cultural heritage, any more than it can nurture new talent. This is a real problem, and Hustad should have addressed it. Instead, he trotted out the tired old national-romantic argument that there is something uniquely noble about Norway and its culture, and that foreign influence is disruptive and dangerous.
A newer, better Norway
It is not all bad news, of course. Rap duo Karpe Diem are uniquely Norwegian, but they bend the language in exciting new ways - a new and much more outward-looking version of Norwegian.
Hariton Pushwagner’s felt-pen artworks confront the protestant values of hard work and “getting by” that Hustad wishes to elevate, and create from them a nightmare world of conformist workers in unending offices in which individuals are crushed and obliterated.
Jo Nesbø is an international bestseller, but the Norway he describes, with its old-guard railing against the modern world, is a darker, more complicated place than the Norway Hustad longs to return to: if indeed that Norway ever existed.
There are new pricks of light all over the Norwegian cultural map. There is a sense that Norway is growing in cultural confidence and - thank God - throwing aside the cultural wet blanket of Protestantism. But Norway’s artistic achievements, whether in high or low art, do not fit with the vision of Norway that Hustad is trying to sell.
Attack on the person
But maybe Hustad is not talking about what most of us think of as culture: perhaps he means culture in the sociological sense? Hustad claims in yesterday’s Aftenposten not to have known that Tajik is a Muslim. This seems disingenuous - she is widely known, after all, as the first Muslim cabinet minister in Norway. Her parents emigrated from Pakistan to Norway in the 1970s. And in Wednesday’s diatribe Hustad asks her to compare Pakistani culture with Norwegian culture, and state which she prefers.
“Next time she is asked what Norwegian culture is, Tajik should compare Pakistani and Norwegian culture. I am certain she will find differences. And then she can tell us what kind of social model she believes gives the best results, whether people have grounds to be a little concerned.”
It is hard to know how Hustad intended this to be read: it certainly looks very like an attack on Tajik’s person, and a questioning of her loyalty to Norway. That is certainly how many of his readers interpreted it: the comments field was filled with views that could not legally have been expressed in the UK. Perhaps it is to Norway’s credit that it protects free speech, even when the free speech in question is overtly racist in nature.
What is there to like?
There is of course a lot to like about the Norwegian social model. Norway has shown itself to be a beacon of light when it comes to humanitarian work across the world. The state is essentially liberal, and takes care of those who cannot look after themselves. The legal system is humanitarian, and insists on extending rights even to those who commit the most appalling of crimes, as we saw in the Breivik trial last summer.
And there are of course many questions to ask of the Minister of Culture. But Norwegian exceptionalism - this sense that there is somehow something better, nobler, wiser about Norwegians than people from any other part of the world, and that only those with protestant roots can understand this - is the very worst of what Norway has to offer.
If that is the version of culture that Hustad is offering, then he has very little to contribute to Norway, or to the world beyond its shores.