Two episodes this winter suggest that I belong to a field of culture that has no idea how to get its voice heard in the wider public arena. Both events involve large, strong organizations based in Oslo – Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA), and Kunst i offentlige rom / Public Art Norway (KORO) – and have given me a queasy feeling that the art field is the class’s absolute pushover, the kid who is unable to object when someone steps on his toes. Does the art field hit back when someone bullies us? No. Do we look for other, dialogue-based solutions? Are you kidding? We don’t even know where the school counsellor’s office is.
That bloody democracy
It began with OCA just before Christmas. For some time one of the country’s most pro¬mi¬nent institutions for visual art has been in a dispute with its “owners”, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The dispute has been duly covered in this periodical and in a number of newspapers, and has even been noted at Artforum.com and in the latest issue of Frieze. Agreement has seemed a long way off, although no one doubts that OCA is important. Directly and indirectly, the institution has become an instrument of internationalization and administers project support funding and development opportunities for a large number of artists, writers and curators every year (indeed I’m writing this from an OCA-funded apartment in Berlin, mine on loan for a two-month residency as an art critic and curator).
In November OCA invited the art field and its owners to an open meeting to discuss the core issue of the dispute, Norway’s participation in the Venice Biennale, an exhibition which OCA, according to the Ministry of Culture, is enjoined to cover within the framework of its fixed appropriations. And according to OCA this framework is not spacious enough. The two ministries chose to ignore the invitation to the meeting.
In its thorough February article Morgenbladet was the first to say out loud that the idea of the full meeting fell on barren ground with the ministries. You would think a rare glimpse of the demotic spirit in the OCA, often accused as it is of elitism, would be welcomed by the owners; but according to the newspaper it was a an unpopular move to take the debate out into the open – it didn’t build up trust.
What kind of signals are you sending about willingness to listen to the expertise when you ignore or turn down contexts like this? Call me primitive, but one interpretation is that you don’t see the issue as a pressing one, or the other participants as interesting dialogue partners. At the meeting several participants who had earlier been critical of OCA, such as the Norwegian Visual Artists Association (NBK), spoke of why they were now changing tack and choosing to fly the flag for support. With this, almost the whole field stood behind the same standpoint. But neither from the political front nor the non-specialist press was there any sign that the recommendations from a united art sector were picked up.
The next episode in the soap confirmed this picture. In December OCA was granted the audience with the Minister of Culture Hadia Tajik that they had been asking for so long. The board humbly declared it was “anxious to hear the Minister’s reactions and input”. But the humble were to be humbled, since the meeting turned out not to involve Hadia Tajik at all, but instead had the dismissal of the board chairman on the agenda. The impression that a black humorist could be left with at this point was that the Minister was unfortunately too busy visiting all the marching bands in the country to meet the spearhead of the arts sector.
One question began to pop up: how loud a voice does the art sector actually have in exchanges with political and ideological opponents in the public sphere? Does its voice carry at all? And if it’s true that we’re not being listened to, can we shift all the blame on to our “opponents” – that is, the politicians and the cultural editors of the country? The problem was to be even more clearly articulated in the light of the dispute between a bunch of KORO consultants and the presidency of the Storting that was in progress a few weeks later.
A stone of indeterminate character
For the pushover phenomenon was repeated after the New Year. This time KORO had appointed three consultants to the arts committee for a new monument on the public square Eidsvolls Plass in Oslo. The budget of five million kroner and the placing both signalled a grand venture. The committee included two representatives appointed by the Foreign Ministry and the Storting: the former Minister for Science and Culture Lars Roar Langslet and Per-Kristian Foss. An insoluble conflict quickly arose where the presidency of the Storting in the end publicly specified that the monument was to be “a figurative statue in the traditional sense”. The consultants withdrew from the com¬mittee. But that also meant that the experts had been given their marching orders – again.
After a brief period of public bickering about the departure of the consultants it seemed that it had all blown over. KORO announced the commission again without commenting on the weakening of their authority. This move is dangerously close to unconditional surrender. It is hardly how the organization wants to “emphasize diversity and innovative thinking in the production of art” (www.koro.no).
“If you want to erect a statue of Christian Frederik, you can’t erect a stone of indeterminate character. The monument has to remind you of a king who is to be memorialized”. That was how Per-Kristian Foss put it on NRK P2’s Culture News on 20 February. This should be “relatively obvious”, thought the Second Vice President of the Storting and the head of the Storting’s Arts Committee. On Culture News on 3 April he repeated that “the design has to look a bit like” the King.
After a few quiet weeks new life was breathed into the affair on 10 April, when Aftenposten and Bergens Tidende splashed the story over two pages each. Here Foss continued: “If the statue wasn’t figurative, it would confuse people more than it would arouse interest”. But even when the arguments have reached such a low level, with such hostility towards the current evaluation criteria in the field, no one has so far succeeded in entering into a debate, presenting counter-arguments, making an impact and changing the wrong-footed, undemocratic course of the affair.
True, there have been tentative run-ups to a debate, both here in Kunstkritikk and in other media. And true, Storting member Henning Warloe of the Conservative Party has stepped in on behalf of art and was on the mark and convincing in his caustic criticism of Foss and Langslet in Aftenposten and BT. But time will tell whether the resistance that has arisen will have any real effect.
The Battle of Eidsvolls Plass is in other words another example of the judgements of art expertise being set aside. The same goes for any demand for KORO to follow up on its prioritized focal area, “the development of discourse on the field of art in public space,” along with questions of principle about democracy and who decides over the city’s most prominent shared urban space. Foss and Langslet have received the unconditional support of the Ministry of Culture and it looks as though we again have to watch the whole thing blow over. And as a rule, with a couple of honourable exceptions, we let it blow over – the artists, the art press, the heads of the institutions and other potential opinion-formers. And then of course no one outside the art field, such as editors or opposition politicians, pursues the matter either. Presumably no one sees the need to defend an area of expertise that cannot itself produce relevant arguments.
Clearly this can teach us something about how the public sphere functions, but can it also teach us something about the internal culture within the art field? Is an inferiority complex the norm, or is it rather a matter of perplexity? Is there some truth in the rumours about artists’ lack of interest in the world outside the studio? This attitude was manifested in a comment by the media pundit Elin Ørjasæter in 2010: “Going to a party with artists your own age (50 +/-) means discovering you’re the only one in the gathering who owns a car, and the only one who knows the names of members of the government. That’s how isolated parts of the artistic population are becoming from the reality they are supposed to reflect, challenge and comment on”.
Ørjasæter nimbly glosses over the many artists, curators and critics who succeed in communicating political and social commitment. But for me such descriptions are still a wake-up call. No wonder the field is not being heard in contexts where our affairs are interwoven with the big issues in society at large if we do not speak a language the majority are willing to listen to, and if we make no effort to learn this language. That hasn’t always been the case, but the voice of the seventies sounds outdated today. Did we never find a new one that carries? In that case this is an infallible recipe for losing the big discussions, ideological, economic and political.
The art field itself must step out of the role as loser. We must get better at communicating what we stand for, what we are up to, and why it is important and relevant. Unlike in many other businesses, communication consultancy is an alien concept for many art institutions. Most of the press releases that are sent out can easily be passed over in silence, and few art experts consider it natural to turn up in a TV studio or write yet another newspaper article. Quite contrary to our widespread and counterproductive fear, it is entirely possible to engage in communication that is both professionally valid and reaches out to others. But that requires the players in the field to realize how important this is, and to be willing to participate in the public sphere, both on their own initiative and when editors and journalists call.