NOWSTALGIA – or : how to prepare for the future ? (1)
Anne Szefer Karlsen
Observing the expressions of art of today indicates that we are in what could easily be called a visually constipated time. Explanations of this could be the commodification of the image and an excessive visual culture, or one can say that we have arrived here due to increased self-censorship.
Looking at how and what art and artists take from and give back to other parts of society, how other parts of society at any given moment gives to and takes from art and artists and how we can create from and negotiate these two, four, or even more positions, a few parallels become apparent within the very specific relation between artists in Norway, Norwegian society at large and its largest industry : the oil and gas industry. This relation is not necessarily apparent at the surface of the discussion implied by artworks, but has nonetheless impacted art production in Norway. The creation of possibilities through financial support encourage mainstreaming and self-censorship in terms of what expressions are put forward, not necessarily the number of expressions, which tend to increase in an affluent society. The self-censorship I refer to is a result of consensus and protectionism, which in turn can be said to be the result of the “oil-society”, but also traditions, stale language, and lack of imaginations. There are of course complex issues at hand when it comes to the ideological impact this industry has had on arts, but for now, in this very first attempt at mapping these relations, I will point out the simultaneity of a few economic moments and propose that they are related to each other and what position artists have created for themselves within society.
In a visually and even ideologically constipated time as today it can be difficult to find a meaningful way to “prepare for the future”. One could say that feeling too content might create a lack of different kinds of imagination. Trying actively to prepare for the future, what we create are in effect moments that have profound effects and will be looked back at fondly in the years to come ; in other words by preparing for the future we create so-called nowstalgic moments. Moments that challenges the existing status quo. Unfortunately the nature of the nowstalgic moment makes it difficult to precisely calculate or construct them. They become apparent only after the fact. Just like nostalgia and the Kodak moment, nowstalgia is connected to the temporal as well as the spatial, related to both the where and the when. One could say that a nowstalgic moment can be likened to a historical fact, which in turn can be likened to a photograph which we can bring out and scrutinise. So, let’s take a look at a few snapshots from the last fifty years.
In pre-petro times (i.e. before the oil economy) art in Norway was a self-organised endeavor, the few art institutions which existed were slow to pick up new currents in art, and the Norwegian art field did not vary much from other northern European countries ; art institutions were rigid and reproductive. The lack of experimentation made them into mere places of display. The artists were the ones preparing for the future, and the government saw it as their role to help. The State paired up with the artists, and not the institutions, to integrate art into society. The founding of the Arts Council in 1965 was a way of improving arts’ position. Art was mapped out, and borders were set up.
At the time Norway did not have completely clear geographical borders, but in 1965 the mid line principle negotiations were manifested in bilateral agreements with Britain and Denmark (2). According to the mid line principle, the maritime border is decided by geography and not political power, geographically positioned right in between the countries in question. The mid line negotiations and the subsequent creation of an oil industry has a creational myth related to two particular bureaucrats who blindly were preparing for the future. One can say that 1965 is the year that frameworks for the future are made, and from then on the content needed to be provided.
This brings us to the year 1974 : the year that the big oil field Statfjord was discovered in the very southern part of the Norwegian continental shelf. That is, within the borders which were negotiated in 1965. 1974 is also the year all artists in Norway joined forces and put forward three demands towards the government. Even though artists were invited by the Ministry of Church and Education to provide input to the then future National Art Plan, the creational myth of this important moment for art funding is that the government listened to the artists because of their activist approach with demonstrations and strikes. The so called “three point program” chartered by the artists was : 1 : Economic compensation for the use of artists’ work. 2 : Increased use of artists’ works. 3 : A guaranteed minimum income for all professional artists, when points 1 and 2 do not create reasonable income.
In both events we can recognise elements from the folk tale, luck and the magical number of three. It is not without reason that the last forty years have been described as the “oil fairy tale”. With the income from the oil there has been room even for the government to prepare for the future and be visionary and for art(ists), this meant the creation of a set of structures in the aftermath of the 1974 art activism.
Art in Public Space, a governmental office for art in public was founded in 1976. From 1976 onwards, all fifteen Art Centres were established to encourage the development of the three point program and to help fulfill the financial situations called for in the 70s. And much later : the Contemporary Art Museum was founded in 1990. The 80s saw the start of the building of several art and culture structures, continuing throughout the last thirty years. I should add that there of course have always been artists who do not conform to this system, experimental artists who have found alternative expressions and spaces for their practice. The reason why I focus on the more structural side of the art world in Norway is because that is the one most closely linked to the institutions of society. Just like the oil industry is now linked to the government of society.
The oil finds led to several changes typical for most petro states and these are points to be emphasized and remembered : Public sector expands, the State becomes ambitious on behalf of itself and its inhabitants, subsidies start to be established. State dependency grows and possible opposition is weakened. If we adapt this model of change, initially elaborated from observing agriculture and industry (3), to art, we find striking resemblances : Private business (and initiative) is weakened, as is the potency of art in society, inducing further state subsidies. Due to the already high level of societal organization, the taxation has been kept at a relatively high level in Norway even with the new income from the oil and gas industry, unlike in many other petro states. This also means that a high level of representation and accountability is demanded from the people. In terms of artistic development, it has created a consensus based subsidy system, organised much like the rest of the society. So within the comfortable world of societal institutions and subsidies, the art, or even the artist, has been numbed. Unfortunately accountability is not always a friend of the arts. Today it seems art is about to lose its possibility to discuss, participate in and change society. We find a large degree of visual predictability and the space for opposition is not cared for. (I am generalising, of course !)
Norway has been a relatively conflict free society where the popular sport of consensus has been widely exercised. This means a high level of mainstreaming, even within the arts. My worry is that this makes for an art world operating on autopilot, where it is more important to create tactics and strategise than to be truly challenging. My recent reading of Marcia Tucker’s memoir, A short life of trouble, tells me that this is not historically a new situation, but that now it is happening here. Today the tradition of public support for culture and arts is being questioned, and we are slowly arriving at some kind of conflict zone not dissimilar to the rest of Europe. We agree so much that sometimes the reasons for doing something get lost in tradition, but with a growing feeling of societal conflict these traditions are questioned. And so, it is with a growing sense of panic I see that hardly anyone anymore knows why there is public support for the arts, why we should nurture challenging and experimental art institutions. Unfortunately one could say that the adaptation of the consensus society within the arts has created a situation where the art professionals themselves have pushed art to the side. My questions relate to how we can make the future arrive : Have we come to a time where art is met with the same attitude the father of a friend of mine met in his teacher sometime in the fifties : “I hear what you say, but I don’t listen” ? Is the appropriate response to this to speak louder, to speak up or to shut up ?
Even though I am focusing on the case of Norway here, we can see similar developments in other societies with a sudden influx of business, say from mass tourism, which in turn also is a result of affordable oil energy. When art is mainstreamed it loses its power and can no longer be in constructive opposition within society, creating fertile soil for artists to create alternatives : alternative structures within society, alternative outlooks and views of the world which are not any more available to a broader public. For all these situations, happening within the petro-state as well as in the new tourist destinations, there are important questions to ask : Can we carry art into the future through an improvement of the existing situation ? How do we take care of freedom of speech ? How can we ourselves create nowstalgic moments without self-censorship ? How can we prepare for the future ? What would we see if we took a snapshot of today and kept for the future ?
Anne Szefer Karlsen
(1) This is a revised and abridged version of the paper prepared for Activities and Vocabulary, discussing and sharing art projects at large. Co-organized by tranzit.at (Vienna) and L’appartement 22 (Rabat), at ESAV-Marrakech (Ecole Supérieure des Arts Visuels), 22-25 November 2010. Thank you to Erlend Hammer and Pedro Gómez-Egaña for valuable comments.
(2) As a geographic anomaly Norway and Russia on the other hand continued to renegotiate their maritime borders until 2010, when the two countries finally agreed on a demarcation line after forty years of negotiations.
(3) As in Petromania by Simen Sætre, (J. M. Stenersens Forlag AS, 2009, ISBN : 978-82-7201-440-6).