Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Museums - an imagined lens into a nation?

It took me several months after my arrival into Oslo to wonder into the city's national galleries and art centres.

Admittedly, I have never been much of a museum buff, but - as a history lover - I admire and respect art's historical significance, particularly in its contribution to the formation of cultural and national identity. But before you read on, I must stress that I am no art expert.

Having already exhausted much of French art - courtesy of my museum-addict French partner - I decided to take a glimpse at Norwegian culture and history through the eyes of its museums and galleries.

What I found surprised me, and I returned home from my cultural outing with a more enchanted image of Norway and Norwegian culture. Expecting a French-style portrayal of a glorious past, a noble aristocracy, and a fairytale image of one's nation, Norwegian art demonstrated a striking humility, of a peasant struggle in the harsh Norwegian terrain, where family bonds were enforced.

Much of the 19th century Norwegian art on display depicted a poor, humble, yet traditional society whose primary challenge was survival in the difficult, but beautiful natural Norwegian landscape. Little there were of grand wars or battles against conquerors, despite the infamous tales many Norwegians will tell you of Danish and Swedish occupation.

I find it incredibly interesting how nations perceive themselves, which is often expressed in a country's celebrated art. How nations perceive themselves and their history, whether it be true or mythical, can certainly influence how such nation-states behave on the international scene.

Let's take the French vs Norwegian national art, for example.

France - through its art - likes to constantly remind the world of its glorious history as a former colonial power, a historic European power, and a great world power. It revels in its pride in an attempt to contend with long-time rivals, such as England, or Spain, or Germany. Indeed, you can't escape the overpowering sense of arrogance when one stumbles on French art. Even its impressionists, albeit 'rebels' of their time, always attempted to display French culture in a fanciful light, such as the colourful depictions of French bourgeois life on the banks of the Seine.

Norway, as I stated, portrays itself in a completely different manner. Its national art seeks to emphasise the humility of Norwegian culture, and play down any notion of a noble aristocracy. Indeed, Norwegian history doesn't partake in the same glory of fellow Europeans. For starters, Norway was not a colonial power, and spent much of the renaissance/modern era under either Danish or Swedish rule. Up until the discovery of its vast oil reserves in the mid-20th century, Norway was still a relatively poor state.

The 19th century was also the century where European nationalisms were beginning to gather momentum, and European powers were digging through its historical archives to construct a national identity. Bind this with the romanticism of the 19th century, and suddenly everyone has a rosey view of themselves.

Whether French or Norwegian art is a genuine reflection of one's culture and history is not the point here, but it's the self-perceptions such arts propagate, its important role in constructing national identity, and its contribution to the subsequent behaviour of these states.

Is France still arrogant, and Norway the humble? Well, the French still like to overemphasise their role in world politics, whereas the Norwegians have spent much of the past few decades constructing an international image of the peacemaker and humanitarian.

Did I need to go into French and Norwegian museums to know this? Most probably not, but it does highlight how powerful and manipulative art can be in constructing a nation's identity and purpose. What I realised about national, celebrated art is that the message being relayed to the viewer is not what truly is France or Norway, but what France or Norway should be, what they represent.

National art is like a distorted mirror that enhances one's rather unrevealing looks. A skewed view of one's self, or an all-out lie, it is nevertheless incredibly effective in reinforcing a believable image that unites all.

Then I think of an artificial post-colonial project like Lebanon, a country severely lacking a national identity, or any real purpose to give its existence any credence. If we were to paint a distorted image of ourselves in an attempt to construct a national identity that binds us all, what would it be? How would we see ourselves? And would it work?


Tee said...

Great post, Antoun! I see you are starting to enjoy your stay even more with your impending departure.

As to what our museums in Lebanon would look like, here is an apt example: sarcophagi encased in concrete to preserve them against destruction by the country's own citizens!

Antoun said...

Haha, what a fitting portrayal of the current state.