Íslensk menning og samfélagslegt vald 1910–1930.
Doctoral dissertation. Submitted 31st May 2011, publicly defended 3rd February 2012 at the Faculty of History and Philosophy, University of Iceland
Icelandic Culture and Social Power 1910–1930
From the eighteenth century onwards European intellectuals, artists and politicians elaborated ideas and agendas aimed at utilising the arts to push forward various reformative social programs. Their proclaimed intent was more often than not to enrich the existence of the public and elevate the psyche of the general population to a higher standing in terms of civility and moral maturity. Though such ideas were debated in Iceland during the nineteenth century; it was first in the early decades of the twentieth that culture and politics began to intersect on these particular grounds. In addition to the high regard held for literature, mounting local appreciation of the arts and the general growth of the cultural field went hand in hand with rising political interest in employing fine arts in the service of societal goals.
The objective of this study is to analyse the interconnection between culture and politics in Iceland from the closure of the nineteenth century and till 1930 with special emphasis on ideas on the social role of the arts and how they were put in practice. The main focus is on the 1910s and 1920s as it is maintained that this period is of central importance for the emergence of a local discourse on art and culture, and its function and use in society. Within the political field and in civil society in general this is also the era where special interest in the arts was awakened and definite steps were taken in building up a system that aimed both at supporting and utilising the arts for the benefit of society. By the 1920s art and culture had become an important locus of governmental concern and widely recognised as being entitled to public support by various means and through different resources. This is also the period where central cultural institutions took form – institutions that were intended to actuate and strengthen local artistic creativity, safeguard cultural heritage and disseminate artistic products to the public.
Politics are generally defined by people’s ideas about the kind of society they wish to inhabit. Ambition to take part in politics and seek political powers is fostered by ideas about the improvement of society and visions of the model community. This becomes evident when considering the objectives and implementation of governmental concern with art and culture in Iceland during the early decades of the twentieth century, where culture in the narrower aesthetic sense was conflated with visions of desirable cultural development in the broader anthropological sense. Art came to be seen as an instrument to improve life and enrich the mental composition of the Icelanders. Ideas on the social function of the arts played an important role in considerations of future developments of the Icelandic community. Public debates addressed questions concerning the kind of society people wished to create within the emerging sovereign state and the kinds of individuals commentators anticipated would populate the model community.
In the spirit of the bourgeois aesthetics that had developed in Europe the attitudes of many intellectuals and politicians in Iceland was marked by the position that art could only be true if it expressed real beauty. They believed that it was the beauty that had the ennobling effect on the soul of the individual and this posture framed their ideas on the relationship between life and art. The ideas on art were thus connected to ideals of desirable moral ends: the exemplar citizen and the desirable society. The road to the promised land of civilisation passed through the mental life of the population. Thus discussions on the future civilisation of Icelanders often dwelt on how individuals could cultivate themselves to become truly civilised.
The dissertation explores how the assumed positive impacts of beauty on the mental make-up of individuals related to objectives of getting them to discipline their thought and conduct in specific ways in the name of enhanced personal maturity and moral refinement. Exploring the political, academic and social commentary on the role of art and beauty the formative contribution of local scholars, working e.g. in areas of aesthetics, ethics and psychology, is linked to the political agenda. It is argued that, in their writing on ethical and psychological reform, public intellectuals contributed substantially to the epistemological grounding of local cultural politics that were emerging during the 1910s and 1920s.
The research draws on ideas developed by French social theorist Michel Foucault on forms of power relations and in particular on his notion of governmentality. According to Foucault modern arrangements of social power are distinctively concerned with manipulating the premise of behaviour so that individuals will on their own accord refine and discipline their conduct in particular ways. Foucault concludes that, in addition to the kind of governance which consists of direct commands and interdictions, governments have developed epistemological and institutional techniques that indirectly influence the behaviour and thought of individuals. To this indirect or ‘soft’ form of exercising power Foucault refers as ‘the conduct of conduct’. This form of governance operates through influencing the objectives of individuals, structuring how and to what ends they discipline their behaviour and thus, in effect, form their personality and selfhood. The study employs this position to explore and elucidate how culture became a political undertaking in Iceland. Governmental support in the area
of culture and utilisation of art in the service of societal objectives is considered as examples of ‘soft’ governance designed to develop the context of local self-formative processes. On this grounding the following questions are posed: Why and how did Icelandic authorities start intervening in matters of culture? What measures did they employ to enhance and use culture? Who was the individual that was to be influenced by art? What kind of society was the objective of support of the arts and their dissemination amongst the local population? The bourgeois aesthetic discourse that developed in the Icelandic context in the first decades of the twentieth century is thus connected to the political implementations that were to promote public access to the edifying and ennobling influences of fine art and literature. The subject is approached from the perspective that governmental strategies were inter alia directed at convincing the local population of the self-evident necessity for cultivation and refinement by means of the edifying effects of artistic beauty. The aim was to get people to read good books; listen to beautiful music; look at sublime pieces of art, leading to both personal and social betterment – lifting the community to a higher cultural level and enhancing moral maturity.
The dissertation is divided into two main sections. The former section deals with research and writings of local public intellectuals on the social role of the arts and how their positions relate to academic concerns in aesthetics, ethics and psychology. Special focus is placed on how they related mental development and the educative value of fine art to general social objectives of cultural progress. In this context attention is paid to closely related ideas on cultural and social decline which many intellectuals in the era associated with the perversion of the arts. Thus the dissertation seeks to shed light on the logic of the widely expressed repugnance towards avant-garde art in the inter-war period and how such art was signalled as the vehicle of ugliness and as an adversary of civilisation.
While the former part of the thesis is concerned with how knowledge on culture and the arts developed in scholarly and public discourse, the focus in the latter part is directed at emerging institutional structures and the more narrowly defined political discourse. Attention is paid to how both civil associations and government agencies intervened in the area of culture and the arts and how that intervention was formative for the cultural sector. Stress is placed on exploring how culture entered the political scene and on analysing the steps taken to enhance cultural life in Iceland. Cultural politics are discussed as reformative politics and attention is drawn to how advancements in that sector was closely related to other political objectives, such as regards alcohol policies and town-planning policies, that were directed at improving the life conditions, conduct and mentality of the local population. Different aspects of the formative history of Icelandic cultural politics are explored concluding in a survey of the millennial parliamentary celebrations at Þingvellir in 1930. The festivities are considered as the culmination of the cultural politics that took form in Iceland during the 1920s and a primary example of how governmental approach to art and culture was defined by objectives aimed at raising the community’s civilisational level and fashioning the nation so it would compare to other nations, in local
parlance referred to as “the cultured nations”.