Curious conflict over culture

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NEWS ANALYSIS
Norway’s national elections take place September 14 and the formal campaign is about to take off. The field seems wide open at present, with the incumbent coalition government parties holding a tiny lead in the most recent public opinion polls. Voters, meanwhile, are being treated to an increasingly curious quarrel over culture that just won’t end.

Some commentators are calling the highly public debate — which has pitted some authors, intellectuals and musicians against conservative politicians and each other — a sterling example of Norwegian provincialism at its worst.

“It’s much too long since the Norwegian society’s debate was over us, it’s been at least three days,” wrote publisher and author Anders Heger in his weekly commentary in newspaper Dagsavisen. Heger pointed out that the conflict, mostly over how much public support should be devoted to the arts, can seem both political and ideological but it’s also drowning in endless accusations that the welfare state itself has failed. That’s provincial, he argues, because most of the rest of the world views “the Scandinavian model” as a success.

The culture conflict (dubbed kulturkampen in the Norwegian media) started several weeks ago after the government minister in charge of culture, Trond Giske of the Labour Party, named new members for Norsk kulturråd, the state council on culture. Siv Jensen, head of Norway’s relatively right-wing Progress Party, mocked Giske’s choices as being elitists and suggested cronyism, saying several had been invited to his 40th birthday party.

That infuriated some of Giske’s choices, especially author Erik Fosnes Hansen, who immediately registered as an official member of the Labour Party and declared war on the Progress Party. He was joined by musician Arnfinn Bjerkestrand and others who claimed that a vote for the Progress Party is a vote against culture in Norway. They’re scared stiff that the Progress Party will cut taxpayer funding to all sorts of cultural projects, and thus endanger their livelihoods.

Jensen has indicated that she thinks it’s time the government gravy train ended for cultural personalities who she all but accuses of sponging off society. Fosnes Hansen’s forces responded that Jensen and her party do the same, given her government salary and generous pension and the party’s public funding.

It all climaxed during a live radio debate last weekend when Fosnes Hansen got so angry at the Progress Party’s deputy leader, Tønsberg Mayor Per Arne Olsen, that he swore on air, wadded up some paper and threw it at Olsen. Fosnes Hansen tried to apologize, but his behavior set off a new round of letters to the editor and calls for him to basically shut up. Many calmer cultural figures, including author Ingvar Ambjørnsen, worried the entire conflict has played right in to Jensen’s hands and will backfire. Even a member of the Labour Party’s board in Oslo wrote in newspaper Aftenposten that a “cultural elite” that ridicules the Progress Party does nothing to help Labour win the election. “Most of us identify with brass bands and glee clubs, amateur theater and sports, as mass culture,” wrote Knut Roger Andersen. “Why ridicule the Progress Party’s support for that?”

The ultimate irony is that communities where the Progress Party holds political power, including Tønsberg, Os in Hordaland and even Oslo, actually have invested quite a lot in culture in recent years. Os is even building its own Kulturhus, a complex devoted to the arts.

Several artists, including opera singer Kristin Magret Brækken, have claimed that Fosnes Hansen doesn’t speak for them. Jensen, meanwhile, went on holiday and little has been heard from her the past week as she lets her troops fend off Fosnes Hansen’s assaults.

It’s all been a major warm-up to the campaign that will take off in earnest, early next month. It’s expected to also address arguably more pressing issues like health care, transportation, education and care for the elderly, not just culture.

(Story written July 21, 2009)
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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