Thursday, February 17, 2011

Culture, you know your debt?

The development of the Slovenian nation has to a large extent been tied to the development of our culture, which marks our attitude towards ourselves, our environment and the world in general. Towards life and our role in it.
While thinking about the development of innovation ecosystems, I inevitably also think about the roles of culture and art in them. And I pose this question: where are our artists, writers, and poets? Where are you hiding your power and inspiration? So few of you can be detected among the people, in the centre of life, in the swirl of our challenges and on the path of finding new visions.
I agree with my guest in this issue who says that “sometimes the questions posed by a work of art intentionally remain unanswered, which is a good thing.” Yet, in a nation so closely tied to the expressions of inner life through art and culture, the leaders of such expression should not limit their exchange of wisdom to closed circles. We need you. We need you on the side of ethics, light and progress. This issue's story is dedicated to a woman, a friend and a professor, to a thinking woman who explores and reveals the role of culture and art in modern society. She exposes it in an analytical comparison to the Scandinavian experience, which is her expert field. We present it in the month we celebrate a national holiday dedicated to culture. A national holiday that is unique in the world. And our guest, Monika Žagar, is just as unique.

VB: Who is Monika Žagar?
Now, that's a difficult opening question! Do you always know who you are? We are constantly changing under influence of countless factors; from our immediate environments, to each new person we meet, from our memories to our expectations. The older I become, the more elusive it all seems to me. I am currently in a transitional period due to a death in my family and cannot say what lies at the end of this process. I am interested to see where this process will lead me, though.
Short biography: I was born in Ljubljana; I studied at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ljubljana and later at the Oslo and Aarhus universities and received a doctorate in Scandinavian Studies at the University of California in Berkeley. I am currently lecturing at the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. My first book was published in Vienna, second in Seattle and I am currently writing my third. Between books, I published several articles. I fondly remember my cooperation with the now former Razgledi magazine, when I wrote articles and editorials out of pure pleasure. I now sometimes write an occasional article for the Ampak magazine, but I am constantly pressed by administrative deadlines and my mentor work at the University.
VB: What has most significantly influenced your personal development?
Most significantly was my family environment where books and art were very important, next to a diligent and responsible approach to work. The next most influential experiences were my student years, of which my most vivid memory is that of spontaneous interaction with others and passionate debates about almost everything: alternative lifestyles, an anti-authoritative society, smoking, significance of knowledge, music, theatre and other similar subjects.

VB: What about the group that met at “Šumi”?
I feel that very little about the period of my student years and the group around “Šumi” is generally known these days and that everything concerning this group is unfairly reduced to some sort of a flower-power movement. In fact, what we dealt with were deep examinations of how to understand and make decisions about our lives, how to give them purpose internally and through democratic interactions with others. In view of the fact that the political environment at the time was repressive and brutal, I find that what we did to be almost unbelievable now.

Photo: Monika Žagar

VB: What about the rest of the world?
My development was indeed greatly influenced by living abroad; first in Scandinavia, where I realized that Yugoslavia wasn't the navel of the world and that a person who thinks differently does not have to be an enemy of the people and that an egalitarian society is achievable without ideological repression. Later, I was influenced by the Berkeley University, its openness, freedom of thought, remarkable level of knowledge, but also by its social life in clubs and bookshops and through music, events, recitals, lectures, etc.

VB: How would you define Art and Culture in your life, as words written in capital letters?
Do you mean high culture? The border between art and culture as written with capitals and in lower case letters is becoming increasingly blurred. However, I feel strongly about both categories of art and culture. After all, I lecture literature and I have to say that there are many good texts, some of which are already considered classical works, while others are perhaps more modern classical works. Writing cannot be separated from broader cultural impulses. As much as time permits, I try to attend various recitals, film festivals, events at the national gallery, the contemporary art museum, or at the blues club around the corner here in Minneapolis. The last is regularly visited by Leo Kottke, sometimes also by Neil Young. I believe the relevance of a work of art lies in the author's reflection about his or her work, the quality, thoughtfulness and creativity of the work, be it prose, plays, sonnets, films or popular music.

VB: What is the role of art and culture in the modern society?
While the role of art and culture in society has become diminished on one hand, art and culture are also broader than ever before. The canon in its traditional sense of obligatory reading or repertoire no longer exists, although its vital parts still maintain a strong presence. Art allows us to seek out spaces that are completely different from our own to reflect on, respond to, enjoy in and learn from. Since the space of art is limitless, it is highly suitable for freedom and individual development. Such a space enables us to feel our creativity and boldness. Art is noticeable and permanently present in Slovenia, which is something I greatly appreciate, but I miss culture in its broader sense: the culture of dialogue, tolerant conversation, in everyday life and in our attitude towards nature and towards animals.

VB: How do you think younger generations feel about art and culture?
MŽ: I am worried because the younger generations read very little, constantly interrupting reading or whatever else they're doing because of SMS messages, e-mails, etc. I believe that a true work of art, as well as creativity and research, require concentration and time, luxuries rarely afforded in the times we live in. This is one of the reasons I do not support the Bologna reform for it shortens the time when students, at least in principle, exercise inquisitiveness, innovativeness, desire for knowledge and research.

VB: Do art and culture also play an important role in the age of innovation, in the development of innovation ecosystems?
I have partly already answered this question with my previous answer. Yes, I believe that art provides us insight into the field of possibles, into parallel worlds so to speak. It provides us with boldness to engage ourselves in something. Art and culture help us understand what is unique, new and beautiful. They help us articulate our opinions, regardless of how different they are from that which is generally accepted. They assist us in critical judgement, so that we don’t accept everything thoughtlessly.

VB: You are an expert of Scandinavian languages and literature, especially Norwegian. Do you see any parallels between Scandinavia and Slovenia with respect to literature, novelists, poets?
This is a very broad question. Perhaps I can offer some key thoughts. There are many parallels, but also many differences. Historically, there are certain parallels between Slovenia, Norway and Finland. For centuries, Norway was politically and culturally dependent on Denmark, and to a lesser extent, on Sweden. To achieve political independence (in 1905), Norway utilised its culture, language and the efforts of its intellectuals and artists.
A master’s work comparing Slovenia and Norway was written at the Department of History at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ljubljana, mentored by prof. P. Vodopivec and assisted by prof. Grdina and myself.
This was similar in the case of Finland, which was a Swedish province for centuries and where Swedish was the official language. The issues concerning Finnish as the official and standard language and as a means for the formation of the Finnish identity galvanized the general public in the middle of the 19th century. This cultural process eventually led to political independence in 1917. In both countries, the process of gaining independence was initially started and later directed by writers and intellectuals. They are still spoken about as the fathers of the nation and great patriots.

VB: What is their situation today?
In general, Scandinavian countries significantly support their artists with a variety of mechanisms that e.g. promote writing in the native language (as opposed to translating). Some of them, e.g. the public lending remuneration scheme for libraries, have also been implemented in Slovenia. Marketing also plays its role by choosing works for broader reading audiences. Just as in Slovenia, the Scandinavian literary scene is very diverse, many works are written in different styles and with different approaches.
Norway provides extensive funding, for e.g. writers’ readings abroad, translation to foreign languages, academic workshops for Scandinavian studies lecturers abroad, scholarships, etc. Sweden provides similar funding through the Swedish Institute and there are a number of pan-Scandinavian organisations that support transnational projects. Norway is in an advantageous position in this because of its oil industry.
VB: Among other topics, your book addresses the ethical principles of art and culture, particularly with respect to how authors and their works influence society. Can a work of art be separated or distanced from the actual influence and attitude of the artist?
Every work of art has its own specific artistic language that may or may not reflect the society’s influences. The relationship between a work of art and the society is unpredictable. The influence of either of them on the other is complex and sometimes noticeable much later. In my book, I try to determine the relationship between Knut Hamsun, his value system and his support of the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War. His support of Nazism was not caused by senility as is often claimed. It stems directly from his fundamental view of the world, which among other things included contempt for intellectuals, knowledge, and the university as an institution. He was also convinced that democracy was a system that allowed too many rights to women and workers and that intuition instead of knowledge could be used for learning about the world, to interpret history and influence future. And that’s not a world away from Blut und Boden.
In his long and fruitful career, Hamsun wrote a large opus; however, his early work is very different from he wrote later in his life. Hunger, written in 1890 and translated to Slovenian in 1920’s, is an example of a work of art written as a manifest against the realist novel, for which Hamsun said with contempt that it spoke only of picnics and romantic problems and said nothing about the modern man. Hunger in this case is not a social subject; it is an allegory about artistic creation. It is a work of art without any references to the social circumstances of the time. Hamsun later changed his artistic approach and the parallels between his political views and the values he weaved into his later novels became more obvious.
VB: What about Ibsen?
Henrik Ibsen is a good example of a different attitude. He reacted to changes in his cultural and political environment more openly, at least in his middle period, in which he wrote A Doll's House and Ghosts. References to current social events in Ibsen’s plays do not interfere with his artistic charge and his social message is not rejected by anyone because he is viewed as a progressive and radical writer.

VB: What is different with Hamsun?
The critics have until recently firmly separated his art and its social moment, for the autonomy of his work enabled them to neglect Hamsun's political views as insignificant. I personally believe that a writer, particularly a Nobel Prize winner, holds an ethical responsibility for the broader society in certain historic circumstances; in other words, you cannot allow yourself to be used for propaganda purposes and give your Nobel Prize medal to Goebbels. Sometimes the questions posed by a work of art intentionally remain unanswered, which is a good thing. However, the situation is more complex if a work of art expresses support for e.g. genocide, because art is protected by its status.

VB: What is your next step? Are you writing a new book? What will be its mission?
MŽ: My next book is also dedicated to Scandinavia, although I hope it will be interesting for the rest of Europe as well. I am researching texts published by a generation of people who were adopted by Scandinavian parents. They were children from the so-called ‘Third World’ who are now citizens of Norway, Denmark, etc., and whose native language is e.g. Swedish or Finnish and also identify themselves as Scandinavian culturally and politically, yet they are constantly being asked where they’re from. They are expected to know or want to learn Korean, to be able to establish good relationships with immigrants from South America or political refugees from African countries, or to be constantly drawn ‘home’ to India. These texts address various questions about how identity is formed, what role our visual appearance has, about our stereotypical expectations and about how to be different. Furthermore, they deal with the importance of family and home, define what homeland is, etc. Very interesting reading.

Thank you for your interesting story, broad perspective and challenging thoughts. For your views and relationship towards art and culture in our modern times. Not having an opinion is dangerous. Having no energy to create and manifest yourself is hollow. I hope we can create enough team spirit to overcome both these problems. Best wishes, Violeta