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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 art forms.

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.

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