Do you remember when the government signed their coalition agreement last spring? I showed up, mostly to snatch some snacks (breadcrumb theory in action) and say hi to some old colleagues in the media. But as flat and ordinary as the wording of the agreement was one paragraph shook me from my slumber: “Icelandic national culture will be held in high regard, it will be nurtured and strengthened.”
The reason was that in those words you could see how perfectly the government misunderstood culture. The addition of “national” would have been totally unnecessary if the government truly cared for Icelandic culture – but no, with those words they were calling for a homogenous culture, a culture that is not allowed breathing space, a culture with a clear agenda – to promote and flatter the nation. Self-aggrandizing at the expense of other nations. This is the defensive stance of an island state towards the rest of the world, towards the corruption of those nasty foreigners.
One can certainly find a lot of good things in Icelandic culture and some fine modern artists mostly seek inspiration in our Icelandic heritage. There is nothing wrong with that, just as there is nothing wrong with Hjálmar seeking inspiration to the reggae of Jamaica, Dagur Kári finding inspiration in the French New Wave and Sjón being an old surrealist. Real artist simply seek nourishment from the art they find tasty and nourishing, regardless of origin.
But nationalists can be found elsewhere too. For example in America. An American is writing reviews about Iceland Airwaves these days and the two reviews published so far can be summed up by those words:
„It’s only my second day at Airwaves and already I have some solid advice. Icelanders: do not attempt to replicate the music of the African diaspora, especially reggae and hip-hop. You will fail. Miserably and laughably. Be yourselves. That is the way to make the best music.“
One almost feels our nationalistic government is speaking through Michael Azzerad there. Don’t do anything foreign, please just play traditional rhymes and play music in woolen clothes. I don’t know if Azzerad realizes that the world’s music would be unbearably boring if everybody took his advice, an endless remix of national motifs and all originality would be long dead, no new things mixed together anymore. I do agree with him however on one point, that artists should be themselves – but the self is not a nation, the self can be drenched in music and culture from all over the world, the self can even be sick to death of the old beats of the national culture. And it may simply want to create something else. There are numerous people around the world who are better informed about American culture then the average American, that’s what happens when your culture is dominant. And some of those are perfectly capable of creating art of equal value, sometimes even greater. American culture is a young culture – and one of its main strengths is precisely the fact that it’s an immigrant nation that has been busy importing influences from all over the globe.
But the worst effect that clichés like this have on the cultural life of a small nation like Iceland is that it poisons the cultural discourse and the Icelandic grant system – both in culture and the humanities – which is already way too likely to favor nationalistic projects in favor of un-nationalistic ones. It can easily make the air a bit hard to breathe, since the vast majority of the world’s culture is not on the menu – we always have to find the national angle.
I don’t know where Azzerad goes next. Perhaps he goes to Japan to ask them to stop drawing manga or to Hollywood to ask them to stop practicing this French fad of the Lumieres. But you can tell him that nationalism doesn’t suit Americans terribly well – nor does it suit Icelanders.
Ásgeir H Ingólfsson