Culture after the Crash


REVIEWS:THERE ARE MANY connections between Iceland and Ireland. Irish monks lived in Iceland before the Vikings arrived. The Norse chiefs took female slaves from Ireland and Scotland to Iceland so that, during the Age of Settlement, 76% of women in Iceland were Celtic. These factors contribute to the fact that Icelandic DNA is currently more Celtic than Scandinavian, with Ireland and Iceland sharing similar bone structure, skin colouring and type O as our most common blood type, as opposed to type A in other Scandinavian countries.

However, the similarity with which we are perhaps most familiar is captured by the joke “What is the difference between Iceland and Ireland? One letter and about six months.” Both countries experienced a period of sudden and unprecedented economic growth in the 1990s (called the “Nordic Tiger” in Iceland) followed by a similarly sudden collapse over the past year. Perhaps because Iceland is outside the Eurozone (it has recently applied for membership of the EU) its economic crisis is worse than ours, with Icelands national currency plummeting in value and the country facing the threat of national bankruptcy last October. During that month, Icelanders descended on Austurvöllur Square, banging pots and pans outside the Parliament of Iceland building (Althingi) until they successfully replaced the previous government with the current coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance and Left-Green Movement.

A few months before this, I was in Germany, where Fishamble’s production of Sebastian Barry’s The Pride of Parnell Street was representing Ireland at the New Plays from Europe Festival (as part of a national and international tour supported by the Arts Council and Culture Ireland). I met Stefán Jónsson, head of acting at Iceland’s Academy of the Arts and director of the Icelandic National Theatre’s production of Badstofan/Blood Puddingby Hugleikur Dagsson, also at the festival. This play was about poverty stricken Icelanders in medieval times banging pots and pans to express their discontent – they had no idea how prophetic the play would turn out to be. I also met Ragnheiður Skúladóttir, dean of theatre and dance in Iceland’s Academy of the Arts and general manager of Lókal Theatre Festival in Reykjavík. She later invited another Fishamble show – Forgottenby Pat Kinevane – to the festival. But then Iceland’s economic crisis hit and I expected the festival’s funding might be in danger. However, when Ragnheiður contacted me to confirm the invitation, she also said that, contrary to my assumption, the festival was certainly going ahead as planned. So Forgottenwas performed in Reykjavík this month.

Organisations like Lókal are surviving intact (albeit on a smaller scale than before) in the current climate, because there’s such a strong belief in Iceland that arts and culture represent an integral role in the economic recovery of the country and need to be supported now more than ever. Iceland has produced a very high number of world class artists (Björk and Sigur Rós are perhaps some of its best known current exports) for its population of 350,000 people, and values its international reputation as a culturally sophisticated country.

Scandinavian countries have a strong reputation for providing a high level of services to every citizen, and the arts are considered as necessary a service as education and health. Sweden’s Government Bill on Culture, adopted by the Riksdag in 1996, says the current national objectives for culture policy include promoting “cultural diversity, artistic renewal and quality, thereby counteracting the negative effects of commercialism” and enabling “culture to act as a dynamic, challenging and independent force in society”.

Some of Iceland’s Scandinavian neighbours, in similarly challenging times, have protected education and the arts so they can emerge from periods of economic difficulty as an educated, imaginative and innovative nation.

This has been a source of inspiration for Iceland in recent times. In May, Iceland’s new coalition published its platform paper, with plans to “ensure economic and social stability, and to seek national unity on Iceland’s path to reconstruction”. The government’s aim was to create “a Nordic welfare society in Iceland, where collective interests take precedence over particular interests” and states “education, science and culture are important aspects of rebuilding Iceland” citing “creative and critical thinking, together with increased emphasis on democracy and human rights” and “cultural activities throughout the country” as elements which need to be fostered.

Ragnheiður Skúladóttir is concerned about the future but hopeful the arts will continue to be considered central to Iceland’s recovery. She says “the Icelandic government has been very busy since the crash making sense of how the landscape will be in the future. There has been a directive from the government that 10% cuts should be made in all sectors except education and culture, health and social welfare where a 7% cut should be made. The uncertainty is the worst but we live in uncertain times, and let us hope the people that sit in Althingi have the foresight to bet on our real riches: culture and education. We have to use the time ahead and prepare for the unknown future and hope that the endurance, creativity and the resilience that has brought us this far will continue to be our biggest asset.”

This sense that the current crisis represents an opportunity for Iceland to reassess its values and decide what sort of country Icelanders want to emerge from the gloom, is shared by others working in the arts.

Stefán Jónsson says “While the Icelandic bank robbers are still partying abroad, hiding their stash on faraway treasure islands, ordinary people in Iceland are having to cope with the hangover of a cocaine party most of them weren’t even invited to. People are furious. We’re feeling the cuts everywhere in society. For some people, the arts and culture are an obvious choice to get rid of in a recession. Poor imagination always wants more of the same. They want to continue to exploit our nature, sell our energy cheaply to dubious multinationals, privatise everything, kill the whales. We need the money, no matter what! Others say it’s now time to put more creative imagination to work because that will lead us into a brighter future than the recent gold digging craze did. There are signs that the latter opinion will have the upper hand. Of course we have to make use of our solid natural resources in a healthy way, but the benefits of investment in arts and culture cannot be underestimated. I think our new left- wing government understands this. It is working on a plan for the future to ensure that both our welfare and cultural bodies survive intact. Hopefully these terrible times will teach us something about value, bring forth politicians that understand the importance of spiritual assets, and create a more humane society.”

Playwright Bjarni Jónsson is relatively hopeful too: “The day the Icelandic economy came crashing down, one realised that – apart from the fact that nobody died and we had food and water – we had all this culture left. Yes, suddenly culture didn’t seem a luxurious thing, but rather a base or a firm ground; a kind of a safety net. That, I believe, is a valuable lesson we learned last autumn and the authorities seem positive towards the arts.

“Well, in the end we did go from fishing and farming straight to international banking and that didn’t go well, but there’s never been anything you could call “art-crash”! Government subsidies for the arts were gradually built up through the years. We still have a functioning public funding system for the arts and, at the beginning of this year, the government even decided to restructure and expand this programme.”

When I was in Iceland recently, I was struck by people’s optimism for the future and the powerful sense that Icelanders are reclaiming their country, and relishing the opportunity to create an Iceland that reflects the values about which Icelanders feel passionate.

If there is truth to the “one letter and six months” joke, then let’s hope we in Ireland will similarly protect funding to crucial organisations like the Arts Council and Culture Ireland, that we will value the wealth of internationally acclaimed art we produce, and that we will celebrate the key role culture plays in our recovery.

After all, the strong arts activity in Ireland creates jobs (as reported in this paper’s Artscape recently, there are 50,000 jobs in the arts and creative industries), generates income (with cultural tourism alone, also as reported in this paper, worth €5 billion annually), and significantly boosts our international reputation.

Jim Culleton is artistic director of Fishamble: The New Play Company, which brought Forgotten to Lókal in Reykjavík this month. The Pride of Parnell Streetis at 59E59 Theaters in New York as part of the 1st Irish Festival until October 4th. Both shows are supported by the Arts Council and Culture Ireland