Gardar Eide Einarsson, Eivind Slettemeas, Stephan Dillemuth:
You were working
on a project called "The History of the Norwegian Institution
of Art". We
are particularly interested in the way dissent is articulated and
the kinds of structures necessary to insert criticism into the established
order before it is institutionalised and officially accepted.Traditionally
institutions safeguard the status quo (yes, also in the arts!),
but ideally they are supposed to actively introduce change.
How do individuals unsatisfied with the status quo connect to other
individuals who find themselves in a similar situation? What sort
of pre -institutional structures do these groups create and how
do they set out to change the idea of a public sphere?
So, for example... How were the ideas of the French Revolution introduced
into Norway and were there consequences for the king's head?
Dag Solhjell: Usually the word Enlightenment is used
in connection with rationalisation/scientification - but the Enlightenment
also contained a strong Romantic side. Consider how emotional Diderot's
famous critiques of the Salons were, for example.
A focal point in the establishment of modern art is, in my opinion,
the opening of the Louvre in Paris, just before the French Revolution.
This new royal institution in a royal castle assembled objects that
were largely religious in their origin. In spite of this, the Louvre
was left unchanged after the antireligious revolution. The revolutionaries
realised that a museum transformed religious images into something
else - into art. They understood that a museum functions as an efficient
mechanism for secularisation - more efficient than destruction.
Napoleon expanded the Louvre's collection by forcing conquered states
to surrender paintings and sculptures - a great number of which
were religious images. These newly consecrated (or rather deconsecrated)
works were in part returned in the post-Napoleonic area. Many were
not restored to the churches and cloisters they had been taken from,
but were instead installed in new museums created for that occasion.
So eventually most European countries started to treat religious
images as art.
The same process takes place today. Artefacts gathered through anthropological
expeditions to 'primitive cultures' and subsequently placed in Western
museums are now being claimed 'back'. However, they are not brought
back to their original use in these cultures, but to anthropological
museums in the culturally transformed states.
In a sense institutional art - in fact, our concept of art - found
its starting point with the French Revolution. The images were the
same but the context had changed.
Q: In your book the public sphere as such is not really an
issue. What, then, is your interest in it?
DS: I take a reductionist
view. Art is not an anthropological constant. The concept of art
as we know it today came into being in Europe in the late18th and
early 19th century. It was strictly a bourgeois idea. When we talk
about the public sphere we have to take the cultural changes of
that period into account, like Habermas did when he studied the
rise of the public liberties of that time.
Art is a way of treating objects, not a particular type of object,
a lesson Duchamp taught us almost 90 years ago. This 'way' was historically
and culturally constructed in the European culture of the 18th and
19th century. One can say that the concept of art is the symbolic
form of objectifying and universalising the aesthetics - the taste
- of the European upper middle class.
In the case of Norway, and I think of other protestant countries
in Europe as well, I can see two historical origins of this modern
concept of the 'aesthetic'. One is rationalistic, in the sense that
art becomes the object of science, and modelled on the natural sciences.
Art history and its methodology is a classificatory system, very
much like the Linnean system of classification in botany, zoology
and geology. Art history objectified paintings and sculpture as
The other historical and cultural origin is in my opinion a religious
one. I have conducted a study, similar to Weber's work on the effects
of the ethic of Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism, comparing
the ethic of pietism and the spirit of art. I wondered if Pietism
in the early 18th century could have been pivotal to the formation
and content of the modern concept of art (and thereby to the concept
of kitsch). I undertook a comparative study of psalms from the Danish
bishop and psalmist Hans Adolf Brorson's (1694-1764) psalmody, Troens
Rare Klenodium from 1739 (Brorson 1953), the German philosopher
Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) Kritik der Urteilskraft from 1790 (Kant
1987, English translation 'Critique of Judgement'), and personal
notes and diaries of the Norwegian expressionist painter and printmaker
Edvard Munch (1858-1944).
This study suggests that the concept of art has, in part, a pietistic
origin, and that the modern art world not only has an aesthetics
but also an ethics - an ascetic ethics of pietistic origin. In catholic
France the Jansenist movement provided Catholicism with a strong
pietistic element, especially in Paris in the 18th century.
Q: Where did Pietism come from? Was it imported into Norway?
How did it gain a foothold there?
DS: Pietism originated
in Northern German territories in the second half of the 17th century
as a reaction to a clergy more occupied with their spiritual power
than with pious faith and deeds. The movement's most important centre
was in Halle, with its university run on pietist principles. A parallel
movement in French Catholicism was Jansenism, among whose adherents
was Pascal. Pietism was introduced as a state religion in the Danish-Norwegian
kingdom in 1736. Along with it confirmation became compulsory; this
demanded the knowledge of writing and reading, which in turn demanded
the introduction of compulsory schooling. Psalms were rewritten
to say 'I' instead of 'we'.
The basic postulate of Pietism is that only the pure faith (belief)
leads to salvation - and the best way to consult and show your faith
was by consulting your own feelings. It meant that the proof for
there being a God was to be found in oneself, not within the clergy
or the religious community. The individualism of the rationalistic
side of the Enlightenment went hand in hand with the individualism
of pietistic and other non-orthodox spiritual movements within Northern
Q: How did these
individualist entities organise themselves? If one can speak of
an age of Enlightenment in Norway, did this involve the extensive
organisation of state and society the same way it did in other countries?
DS: The proponents
of the Enlightenment in Norway were the priests, who were among
the first natural scientists in Norway. Like Linne, they saw God's
power of creation in the infinite richness they discovered in their
naturalist studies. We must remember that even Kant put the beauty
of nature above the beauty of art - because God had created nature,
whilst art was produced only by man.
Q: How did the Romantic
period then come about in Norway? Was there a noteworthy circle
of people or a particular institution that promoted these new ideas?
DS: The pietists
came to seek signs of their salvation in their own feelings. According
to Kant, to be taken by the beauty of nature indicates a moral inclination.
If one was moved by a painting of a natural scenery one was a morally
worthy person and had a right to salvation. Within the upper middle
class the expression of strong sentiments and feelings when faced
with beautiful or sublime nature and works of art was regarded as
a sign of moral salvation. Romanticism can be regarded as secularised
pietism within the upper middle class. The lower classes stuck to
their religious beliefs, while the upper classes took Romanticism
on as their secular ideology thereby becoming the cultural 'proprietors'
of the concept of art. Pietism itself became the religion of the
lower classes: the lower church, which often shows hostility towards
Q: Do you think
Norwegian art today is still ruled by Pietism and Romanticism?
DS: I think the
pietistic postulate of salvation has undergone a transformation
from "only faith brings salvation", via Kant's postulate
that "only pure taste gives access to beauty", then to
Munch's postulate that "only an open heart gives access to
art", and finally to the dominating postulate of the modern
institution of art: "only the new brings artistic recognition".
Faith, Taste, Open Heart and the New are analogous concepts, as
are Salvation, Beauty, Art and Recognition. Artistic Recognition
is, according to my theory, the equivalent of Salvation.
The art world has its own 'esoteriology' -a teaching of the road
to salvation, or recognition. This way is marked with pietist signposts
- among which the anti-commercial ones are the most prominent. Like
pietism, art is directed towards the otherworldly.
Art historians call the style of the romantic period 'National Romanticism'.
I would rather change the terms around and call it 'Romantic Nationalism'.
Romanticism invented nationalism, but once it had invented it, it
became nationalism. Romanticism is individualistic, but nationalism
is collectivist. Romantic nationalism has made nationalism seem
idyllic and innocent, and calling it national romanticism has contributed
Q: Romantic Nationalism
was a concept obviously strong enough to survive until today. How
does art relate to nation? When was this concept invented and how?
DS: In my view,
our very special ability to view something as art has not been part
of any other culture. It is a European notion which has now spread
all over the world, and is part of all cultures. So how do you look
at an African mask in a European art museum? The same way you would
look at a crucifix in the same museum - both become the same in
the context of art. Thus we europeanise African artefacts - and
the artefacts of every other culture. Here we might talk of a European
nationalism, we romanticise other cultures, 'artify' them, and classify
them under the European cultural concepts. This is what institutionalisation
really means - it is responsible for the way we look at things.
Q: Does this imply
that artists who want to change people's points of view have to
institutionalise their point of view?
DS: No. They have
to cease being artists, stop calling their work art, and escape
from the institution of art. This is not an aesthetic operation,
as it would seem, but an ethical one.
Q: Were Romantic
National artists in Norway aware of their representative function
or was their work merely appropriated for political ends?
DS: From the very
start of the Norwegian art institutions in the beginning of the
19th century Norwegian art had always been narrowly connected to
the political power - it has never been independent of it. This
still seems to be the case. There are three partially independent
art worlds in Norway - one of them is the politicised one, it operates
in a co-operative relationship with governmental institutions. It
is egalitarian, and its agents seek to justify their existence and
their public support by offering themselves as instruments for the
governmental or local cultural policy. I call this the inclusive
sub-field of art, because the cultural policy of Norway is dominated
by egalitarian values.
Then there is another art world that is trying to maintain its autonomy,
and it is the values in this art world we think of when we talk
about 'art'. It commands most of the symbolic power in the art world,
and is strongly hierarchical. I call this the exclusive sub-field
In the 1990's, for instance, young artists organised an art subsystem
within this sub-field, with their own galleries etc., in opposition
to the powerful elite of the exclusive sub-field. They were trying
to create new art institutions, a new art scene, not unlike the
pietist opposition to the orthodoxy of the 17th century. The artists
acted as curators, gallery owners, critics; they established a Nordic
and European network. To talk about Norwegian art is nonsense in
this new setting. That is why a lot of Norwegian artists are better
connected internationally than the governmental institutions - though
the latter have 90% of the money, they only have 10% of the network.
And then, of course, you have the commercial subfield.
Q: This whole scene
seems to experience a drift upwards...
DS: Yes, because
this 90's generation of artists is aware of the game of the art
world - the ethical rules of art. They are now more and more recognised,
and they are even being recruited by the institutions they once
opposed. The art academies were instrumental in this development.
Art theory also produced a theory of the art institution. Because
the 90's generation was more local and active, severing connections
with the co-operative and inclusive parts of the art world, they
were more effective.
Q: Do you think
there is a lack of public debate? And if so, why?
DS: To mention an
example: 1200 Norwegian visual artists receive a scholarship at
an average of about 60.000 Kroner every year. Only one or two art
critics receive a small grant annually, they are even poorer than
the artists are, but they are needed to make art a topic in the
public sphere. The politically powerful artists' organisations have
silenced their critics. We cannot talk about art in the public sphere
without taking into account the large discrepancy in the economy
of artists and critics.
Q: A grant led art
economy obviously stabilises structures and one cannot expect that
they destabilise themselves. Usually artists themselves work as
critics so that petrified structures are criticised and changed
from the roots, from the base structure. In how far do you see models
of self-organisation as necessary to induce changes in society?
DS: We have a cultural
policy, through which almost all art institutions in Norway are
either are either governmentally owned or heavily supported by the
government. New artistic initiatives are curbed within this public
structure. Government funding implies control: the political, egalitarian
field of art does nothing new unless there is support for it in
The 90's generation did new things without economic support from
the cultural budgets. Instead of arts funding, the artists lived
on unemployment benefit and welfare money. Therefore these artists
were exempted from indirect control via the goal-oriented, and thus
artistically limiting, arts funding schemes. In the 90's most of
this extra-cultural money was used to produce art, to create different
effects on the art world, and to challenge the existing art structure.
Q: We are entering
a Corporate Age, a new era. Can institutions as you see them speed
up that process of change?
DS: Different views
of art can exist next to each other - but maybe something new is
coming: maybe the corporate influence on art will create a corporate
art world in Norway, parallel to the political, commercial, and
autonomous art worlds. Corporate values are very different from
political or commercial values. The corporations ask: what is in
it for me/ what kind of profile do I want?