Much of the art we love today was created by artists who were unconfined by national boundaries and ‘homeless’.
By Anders Beyer
In public debate there are frequent references to a supposedly firmly-rooted national identity that pins down a Norwegian ‘we’, a particular Norwegian-ness which is unchanging and is part of the actual DNA of the Nordic mind. Political opinion-makers are increasingly employing a rhetoric hostile to foreigners, which in the most unfortunate cases rides on nationalistic currents for which we generally speaking have no sympathy. We are seeing a stronger political polarization and more people supporting a restrictive national line. It has become more legitimate to argue for “protecting one’s own, one’s own culture and identity”.
“Identity” is in reality a rather complex concept. Who among us can honestly say exactly who we are – beyond giving a name, a family, a nationality and a profession? If we try to define ourselves, we find that any definition falls short.
One problem is that our self-understanding does not necessarily coincide with the idea that our surroundings have about us. We are always involved in a variety of relationships that bring out different sides of us. Not everyone has several identities, but everyone’s identity is at least composite and flexible. It can be embarrassing to listen to a birthday or a funeral speech from which much of what in our eyes made up the identity of the subject of the speech has been left out.
It is no simpler to define the identity of a nation, a culture or a civilization. All such attempts have to exclude so much that there will always be individuals and groups who will not recognize themselves in a given definition of identity. To say for example that Christianity forms the most important criterion of identity in European culture – as some people do – undoubtedly makes sense in a historical perspective, but it is much more debatable today.
One problem is that our self-understanding does not necessarily coincide with the idea that our surroundings have about us. We are always involved in a variety of relationships that bring out different sides of us.
The situation of France is illustrative: the country has about 65 million inhabitants, and of these some 5-6 million are Muslims. In Norway too there are minorities, from ancient times first and foremost the Sami and more recently the (Finnish) Kvens. In addition, regional identity is particularly strong in our country. North Norwegians, Bergensians and South West Norwegians quite certainly define themselves as Norwegians – at least in normal situations, and especially when talking to foreigners. All the same, the regional affinities are often given more weight than the national ones.
That a Pakistani can be defined as Norwegian and Pakistani at the same time is in principle no more remarkable than a Bergensian identifying as both a Norwegian and a Bergensian.
In this context religion and religion-based culture seem to be just as important as language and schooling. At least this is an impression you can get if you follow the debate in any European country today. With the current massive flood of Muslim refugees and immigration new antagonisms have arisen which in many places have developed into mutual witch-hunts and hate campaigns, and have erased important nuances, for example between fundamentalist and liberal religious believers. ISIS and their adherents are regarded by many westerners exactly as they themselves want to be seen – as the true champions of Islam. The result is a fundamental scepticism and hostility towards Islam in general, which in turn creates mistrust of and dissociation from the West and Western culture among Muslims – who at the same time seek a more secure future in the Western countries from which they distance themselves culturally.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote a poem which became a Danish national song, and whose first two lines are as follows: “In Denmark I was born, ‘tis where my home is; / There are my roots, from there my world begins.” I have sung that song many times; nevertheless I often think about whether I must or should feel a particular kind of Danishness simply because I have roots in Danish soil.
Hans Christian Andersen’s text disseminates the erroneous, Romantic view that deep within every human being there is a kind of core affinity which is determined once and for all when you are born, and which never changes. But we change throughout our lives, and our identity is formed by a conglomerate of influences. Our identity is formed and transformed continuously.
The potential of art
Not least in the field of art, we encounter powerful attempts to present differences and diversity as enriching and to build up an awareness that what is different and unfamiliar may well be normal, necessary, innovative and inspiring. It is not without reason that the Festival’s multicultural project ‘Kaleidoscope’ (Fargespill) has become a political reference and a symbol of the possibility of peaceful coexistence across national boundaries.
It is precisely one of the qualities of art that it creates a sense of community across all differences. Through art we can be together in a way that builds bridges between people from different regions and social classes, from different countries and with different languages, religions and cultures. Song and music, literature and theatre can contribute to freedom and to the experience that identity is not a protective shield but an opening towards the Other.
Through art we can be together in a way that builds bridges between people from different regions and social classes, from different countries and with different languages, religions and cultures
The liberation of Estonia was made possible by the popular singing tradition. The easing of relations between East and West that began with Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika made it possible for national feeling and the urge for freedom to find more open expression in the Baltic countries. We had living experience of this at the great song festivals where hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the outskirts of Tallinn. It culminated in August 1989 when several million people joined hands and formed a continuous human chain from the Estonian capital in the north to Vilnius in the south. “The Singing Revolution” became a concept.
Composers without borders
Much of the art we love today was created by artists who were unconfined by boundaries and ‘homeless’, and who pointed out new directions in their fields.
The composer Gustav Mahler had a threefold identity. He said: “I am triply homeless: as a Bohemian among Austrians, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew in the whole world.” This homelessness was productive for Mahler’s music, and it comes to expression as a quite distinctive musical diversity. However, the critics in Mahler’s time thought his style was poor and that he created a music without identity, split among several genres and cultures.
The Festival Composer in the 2017 edition of Bergen International Festival is Finnish Kaija Saariaho, whose artistic and personal identity was forged in the encounter with all that France represents. For long periods of her life she has lived in Paris and moves naturally among several cultures, something from which both she and her art benefit.
In the book On Identity from 1998, the author Amin Maalouf writes of his French subtitle les identités meurtrières,meaning ‘identities that kill’: “The expression doesn’t strike me as inappropriate insofar as the idea I’m challenging – the notion that reduces identity to one single affiliation – encourages people to adopt an attitude that is partial, sectarian, intolerant, domineering, sometimes suicidal, and frequently even changes them into killers or supporters of killers. Their view of the world is biased and distorted.”
Saariaho’s art has the same overall aim as Maalouf’s: to contribute to a more open, more inclusive and richer shared humanity.
The Bergen International Festival in 2017
Does the Festival have an identity that is unchanging and valid for all time? No, of course not. The Festival is in constant motion and in critical dialogue both with itself and with its close and more wide-ranging surroundings. My job is to ensure an artistic breadth and openness that allows the public to encounter something new and something different, for which we perhaps do not yet have words.
This does not mean that contemporary art takes unconditional priority over the art of the past. For a great work never reveals its innermost secrets, and is therefore always open to new interpretations. This applies for example to Edgar Allan Poe’s mysterious, frightening and macabre stories, Shakespeare’s depth-plumbing dramas and poems, and Mozart’s brilliant operas. These artists will leave their marks on this year’s Festival. If their works have such great and enduring influence, it is because they are not confined to the spirit of a particular age, and because they can be understood in different ways.
The 2017 Festival has identity as its overarching theme. You will find a wealth of complex identities among performing and creative artists who are constantly on their way towards a different place. Meet them on their journey. Perhaps you will also meet yourself.
© Anders Beyer 2017
This text was first published in Aftenposten on Sunday 22 January 2017.
For a Norwegian version see here.