Is the North Atlantic culture a square or a circle?
by Gestur Guðmundsson
For a thousand years three nations have co-existed in the North Atlantic, but
not until the entrance into a new millennium we start asking ourselves whether
we have something in common and whether we can learn something from each other.
For centuries our contact to the outside world went through three separate routes
to Copenhagen, which still must be considered to be the fourth corner of the
North Atlantic universe.
Independent of each others the North Atlantic nations began to question whether
they had a national culture, and the three countries gave different emphasis
and meaning to the issues of language, literature, pictorial art, music and
dance. In Iceland language and literature became dominant. The Saga literature
and the Saga language were considered a firm foundation for a national identity.
The emphasis was on establishing institutions that could carry this heritage
into the twentieth century. Fortunately, Iceland had enough material resources
on which to base a national economy. But it was a difficult battle. Internationally
Iceland's national independence received political recognition with the establishment
of the republic in 1944, cultural recognition with Halldór Laxness' Nobel
Prize in 1955, and economical recognition with the fishery limits approved in
the post-war period.
In Iceland the national cultural heritage was predominantly understood as language
and literature, and other parts of the cultural heritage were repressed. The
collection of manuscripts formed the core of the Icelandic national heritage,
but the manuscripts were studied only for the text, and it is not until the
very recent years that research has begun in the great musical and pictorial
heritage hidden in many of the manuscripts. Iceland has also only recently got
a real history of housing and decoration - a work carried out by a single volunteer.
And one might wonder why only Bólu-Hjálmar's poetry has been considered
interesting and not his artisan production.
The fact that a large part of the cultural heritage has been repressed might
also be considered an advantage. When the first Icelandic painters, sculptors,
composers etc. fought to make a name for themselves, they were not burdened
by a heritage. The world were at their feet, and they went on Grand Tours to
the metropolis, absorbed the latest in international art, copied it and began
slowly to find their own personal expressions, often inspired by the scenery,
light, natural sounds and human activity that surrounded them in Iceland. The
recognition, which these pioneers have obtained both in Iceland and abroad,
seems to show that the lack of heritage can also be used as an advantage.
Greenland and the Faroe Islands have been part of a Danish state that has been
organised from the centre, and the contact between the North Atlantic neighbours
has until recently been so slight that they might as well be positioned in three
different corners of a four-cornered North Atlantic universe. The development
of national independence has made the three nations inclined to seek inspiration
from and compare themselves with greater cultural units than their closest neighbours.
My expertise is the Icelandic and not the Greenlandic and Faroese cultural development,
but I am fairly sure that the Faroese and Greenlandic national identities are
much closer connected to a visual, physical and musical culture than the Icelandic
identity is, while the two countries only recently have developed a written
language and literature based on oral traditions and bible translations.
The fact that the Faroe Islands and Greenland are not independent national
states is in my view not due to a lack of linguistic and literary heritage from
the Saga Era. How many nations have such a heritage? Not many of our Nordic
friends (even though they and especially the Norwegians are welcome to draw
on the Icelandic heritage). No, the reason is that Greenland and the Faroe Islands
have not had the means to become national economies. Today the two nations might,
interestingly enough, be about to have the means, at the same time as the issue
of national economies has become problematic or irrelevant. National identities
have become more a question of culture than economy.
During the last decades we have become more aware that national cultures are
constructed, we no longer believe in a national essence or character. Cultural
globalisation has sometimes turned people difficult defending their national
culture, but hopefully it more often instils in people a feeling of responsibility
to administer our heritage and pass it on to a more global future and to anchor
global cultural currents in our smaller local and national worlds. I am going
to use pop culture as an example because it is the area I have studied most
thoroughly and because I think it is very important for the cultural development
of our time.
One of the most important post-war developments in Icelandic cultural life
was that after having suppressed its musical heritage the Icelandic people adopted
international pop music and made it its own. This was not an easy task. It took
generations of pop musicians to develop Icelandic pop music from bad copies
to original music. It met resistance from people who wanted to defend the national
culture and would rather attach it to European high culture than pop culture.
English lyrics was one area of dispute where criticism turned out to be constructive
because many Icelandic pop musicians undertook the task of delivering well-written
Icelandic pop lyrics. In the process they renewed the Icelandic language and
proved that you could be both global and local. And the recognition these musicians
obtained was not limited to the local, as some of the most innovative pop artists
have won international admiration from both arbiters of taste and the general
public manifested with Bjørk winning the Nordic Council Music Award.
Pop culture has not threatened high culture, but rather vitalised it. Pictorial
art, compositions, theatre and other art forms have taken it as a challenge
- quoting it, commenting on it, learning from it. Pop culture is the cultural
activity with the largest growth, but almost all other cultural activities have
also experienced growth, and research shows that a large consumption of pop
culture is connected to a varied consumption of other art forms. This connection
has been demonstrated globally and is especially significant for small culture
areas. For instance the growth in Icelandic film production has been conducive
to other areas. Writers, actors, musicians, scenographers and other groups have
expanded their fields of activity without giving any less to their traditional
spheres. They learn to deal both with the highly mediated culture, the lonely
chores and the face-to-face confrontation with the audience.
The growing consumption of international mass culture in Greenland and the
Faroe Islands has not reduced local awareness. Within a short period of time
TV channels and the internet have entered most homes in Greenland and turned
one of the most sparsely built-up areas of the world up side down. The young
people have wholeheartedly welcomed these new opportunities, but they continue
sailing kayaks, fishing, dancing the Greenland polka, and they decorate their
internationally labelled clothes with collars of seal skin and their TV sets
with Greenlandic art. In the Faroe Islands the youth is oriented towards international
culture and they want different jobs than their parents, but they want to do
it in their native country. The challenge for the young people is to find realistic
solutions to what they want, and for society the challenge is to develop a more
balanced occupational structure. And this tension seems to be productive for
Faroese everyday life.
My experiences in social and cultural research have taught me to be careful
when predicting the future, but nevertheless I venture the prediction that these
new productive tensions in Greenland and the Faroe Islands will continue to
characterise the cultural development, and that much of this development will
take place within pop culture, although it will not be isolated from the other
For many years mass culture and globalisation were seen as American culture
(or cultural imperialism) which thus appeared to become the fifth corner of
the North Atlantic cultural universe. Many feared that this corner would become
more dominant and penetrating in everyday life and culture than the Danish centre
ever was. But as time has passed it has become more doubtful whether pop and
mass culture is an American phenomenon, the impulses come from so many directions
today that it has become truly global. Thus the North Atlantic universe is about
to get so many corners that it is no longer an angular figure but a circle.
However people from the North Atlantic, to a much greater extent than other
people, live in both the past and the present. When we seek new destinations,
we ask ourselves how we reached our present position. The North Atlantic House
gives us a good opportunity to compare the three different routes and ask ourselves
why they became so separate. Here we can return to our point of departure and
compare our travels and what they have brought forth. Here the fourth corner
of the historic construction of the North Atlantic offers us an opportunity
to seek both our past and our future.
> Back to top