Norwegian culture under
international pressure

By Tore Dagre, Editor "Nytt fra Norge"


Radio and TV
  the press

Opera / Ballet


Norway is a small country, with a population of just over four million. They are scattered over a relatively large area, so the average density is only 13 inhabitants per sq. km, compared to 96 for Europe as a whole. There are no really big cities; even the capital Oslo only numbers a good 400,000. Bergen and Trondheim have 208,000 and 134,000 inhabitants respectively, and other larger towns are well under 100,000.

Norwegian, which is a Germanic language, is thus only spoken by four million people. Besides, it exists in two forms, a standard or Dano-Norwegian, and a new Norwegian based on Norwegian dialects, and the two camps have engaged in many struggles over the respective justification and status of their languages. Standard Norwegian is used by the majority. Sami, a Finno-Ugric language quite different from Norwegian, is spoken by a small minority, mostly in northernmost Norway.

Norway has the world's largest foreign trade per capita, and its prosperity and progress are completely dependent on the international approach of its industry. But because their language is only understood by Scandinavians, Norwegians have had to get used to communicating in foreign languages 7 chiefly English. The impact of English, and to some extent of Swedish, on Norwegian is so considerable as to be a cause of anxiety among the culturally aware, who are demanding that steps be taken, for instance in schools, to strengthen Norwe-gians' sense of their own language.

A modest population, scattered settlement and the language situation all present large challenges when it comes to providing a varied range of cultural activities and preserving and developing the cultural heritage.

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The problems can be illustrated in the field of radio and television. Only one Norwegian TV channel today covers the whole country, though a channel 2 has been debated and planned for years. The main cause of delay has been divided opinion over its financing: should it be public, and if not, would commercial sponsorship channel necessary funding away from other priorities, such as newspapers? In the public debate, great emphasis has been placed on the need to produce top-quality programs in Norwegian; the fear is that both the language and the culture will suffer if too many programs are simply bought in from abroad.

The second of two national radio networks came on the air a few years ago. There are also a number of independent local radio stations and a few TV stations which cover limited regions.


Daily newspapers are considered an essential commodity in Norway, in their contribution not only to the workings of democracy but also to cultural life. In relation to its population, Norway probably has Europe's highest number of dailies, with each town, as well as more sparsely settled districts, provided with a local paper.

In order to sustain such a press structure, Norway has developed a resource-consuming system of public support, in the form of subsidies towards paper, government advertising, direct grants, loan arrangements, and cheaper distribution. Certain newspapers may be receiving annual subsidies of up to NOK 20 million. In addition, the Norwegian daily press is exempt from VAT. It has been calculated that subsidies to the press as a whole account for about 20 per cent of all newspaper income.

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Norwegian literature is another sector which benefits from considerable public investment, in the form both of VAT exemption and of guaranteed purchases of new literary works, which have for almost a generation with very few exceptions had guaranteed sales of 1,000 copies for distribution to public libraries.

The impact of subsidies on literature is in dispute, one frequent argument being that guaranteed minimum editions encourage the publication of sub-standard works, not to say rubbish; this is countered by the claim that the subsidies have kept Norwegian literature awake, or indeed perhaps off its deathbed. However that may be, more Norwegian literature is certainly being published than one could otherwise expect in a language read by so few people. Many regard Norway as a pioneer, especially in children's literature.

The last half of the nineteenth century is considered to have been Norway's main period of literary greatness, when Ibsen, Bjørnson, Lie and Kielland were followed by such younger giants as Hamsun, Garborg and Kinck; but the twentieth century, too, followed up, with such names as Johan Falkberget, Sigrid Undset, Olav Duun, Gabriel Scott and Oscar Braaten. Both Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Norwegian literature has also blossomed richly since World War II. Freedom was a theme for Arnulf &Oslashverland and Tarjei Vesaas, as it had been for Ronald Fangen before the war. The novelists Kåre Holt, Sigurd Evensmo and Ragnhild Magerøy are associated with social realism. Vera Henriksen has won an enthusiastic following with her historical novels. Jens Bjørneboe's narrative verve and imagination have won international recognition.

Among those who have set their stamp on this day and age, mention should perhaps be made of Georg Johannesen, Finn Carling, Inger Hagerup, Knut Faldbakken and Herbjørg Wassmo.

There is an excellent market in Norway for memoirs, whether by leading public figures or others who have led extraordinary lives. One recent such publication is "Fra synagogen til løvebakken" (From the synagogue to lion hill) by Jo Benkow, the President of the Storting (the legislative assembly), the entrance to which is guarded by two stone lions.


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In literature's borderland we find Norwegian theatre. Its traditions, however, are not ancient: the first public theatre did not open until 1827, in Christiania, as Oslo was then known. Stage performances, on the other hand, have been traced as far back as to 1562, in Bergen.

Norway's first real dramatist, Ludvig Holberg, was in fact from Bergen, though he wrote all his comedies in Copenhagen, then the capital of Denmark-Norway. His debut as a playwright, in 1722, also marked the beginning of organized Danish theatre life. Although his plays were known and enjoyed in Norway, too, they could only be read. In the early 1700s, even the most innocent amateur production was an affront to decency in Holberg's native city and country.

This changed in time. As early as 1850, Bergen, too, acquired a theatre, when the Norwegian Theatre opened. In its present home, the National Stage, it can claim to be Norway's oldest. In the last century, it numbered both Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson among its artistic directors.

The actual National Theatre, however, is in Oslo, and celebrated its ninetieth anniversary in 1989. Its first director was Bjørnson's son Bjørn, who had European theatrical training. The National Theatre has done more than any other Norwegian theatre to create and sustain a national repertoire and to encourage new talent in Norwegian drama.

Another major theatre in Oslo is the one known today as the Norwegian Theatre, which performs plays in new Norwegian and has a high reputation and considerable cultural impact.

There are professional theatres in a number of other towns in Norway, in addition to subsidised amateur theatre groups and semi-professional ensembles. Riksteatret tours the whole country with performances throughout the year.

Serious theatre could not have existed in Norway without public subsidies, which are now so considerable that they cover most of the cost of every ticket. The figures for 1988 were NOK 383 in subsidies per ticket, against NOK 92 in own income.

The public sector also spends generously on supporting theatrical interests and activities in schools and as leisure activities. As a result, interest in theatre is growing throughout society and all over the country.


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The scope of the Norwegian film industry is limited by population and language. It is accordingly generally accepted that Norwegian film production has to be extensively subsidised if cinema-goers are to be offered a reasonable selection. Even with subsidies at their present levels, it is widely held in the industry that cinema is a poor relation in Norway.

Support for film-making activities begins at the manuscript stage. Other subsidies comprise government-guaranteed production loans, ticket subsidies, and support to cover losses. Central government is also involved in production companies and other forms of assistance to the Norwegian film industry. The resulting expenditure is considerable. In ticket subsidies alone, film producers receive grants of 55 per cent of gross box office receipts, and in the case of children's films 100 per cent.

Despite the support, Norwegian film production only averages some seven or eight full-length films per year; short films do better, with an annual average of seventy or eighty.


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Opera is relatively new to Norway. Singers with the necessary talent and interest used to have to go abroad to develop and find employment. At the beginning of this century, a number of opera companies began providing local opportunities for singers. One of them was Kirsten Flagstad, who was to become one of the world's leading interpreters of Wagner.

Kirsten Flagstad also became the first director of the Norwegian Opera when it was established in 1957. It is fully government-financed, with grants which in 1988 amounted to NOK 760 per ticket, on top of the NOK 140 paid by the spectator.


Norway only acquired its first independent professional ballet ensemble, Ny Norsk Ballett, in 1948. At that time, it had no stage of its own. In 1953, it was renamed Den Norske Ballett, and the fo1llowing year it became part of the Norwegian Opera Company, with which it merged when the opera opened in the autumn of 1958. In consequence of its integration in the opera company, the ballet ensemble is also fully government-financed.

This year, 1989, western Norway, too, acquired a ballet ensemble, with an agreement between the authorities and the Nordic Dance Company giving it a permanent base in Bergen and full public financing.


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Of the forms of music current in Norway today, folk music, with roots going back to Norse times, is easily the oldest. It is still very much alive, represents a genuine and unbroken tradition, and is attracting increasing interest today.

There was a distinct blossoming of Norwegian musical life from the mid-1700s on. In 1765, for instance, Musikselskabet Harmonien's orchestra was founded in Bergen. In uninterrupted activity to this day, it is one of the world's oldest orchestras. Known now as the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, it is like the younger Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra constantly adding to its artistic stature and international reputation. Other orchestras which have made international names for themselves include the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, which was toured widely, even giving a concert recently at La Scala, Milano, and performed with leading soloists.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the romance genre was made popular through the compositions of Halfdan Kjerulf. Rikard Nordraak underlined the importance of folk music as a source of inspiration, and thus exercised a marked influence on Edvard Grieg. Grieg made Norwegian music known abroad, and his bold harmonies and characteristic musical idiom impressed many foreign composers. National themes have inspired more recent composers, too, such as Sparre Olsen, Eivind Groven and Geirr Tveitt, not to mention the senior modern figure of Harald Sæverud. Many composers have of course worked in other veins, from Johan Svendsen to our most prominent contemporary composer, Arne Nordheim.

The first Norwegian performer to win international renown was the nineteenth-century violinist Ole Bull. Among the many prominent Norwegian musicians welcomed on world stages today are the violinist Arve Tellefsen, the pianists Eva Knardahl, Einar Steen-Nøkleberg and Håkon Austbø, and the singers Edith Thallaug, Ingrid Bjoner, Knut Skram and Ragnar Ulfung; joined more recently by such brilliant young soloists as the pianist Svein Ove Andsnes, the trumpeter Ole Edvard Antonsen, the cellist Truls Mørk and the singers Marianne Hirsti and Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz. The eminent jazz musicians Jan Garbarek (wind) and Karin Krog (vocalist) have also been highly acclaimed outside Norway.

In the world of amateur music, choirs and bands play a very large part. Many Norwegian choirs and bands have achieved very high levels of performance and have international prizes to their credit.

Norway's musical life receives substantial public support. Almost 90 per cent of operating expenses are met for five symphony orchestras and various festivals, of which the Bergen Festival is best known abroad. Grants are also given to a number of other orchestras, to a music scheme for the northernmost regions, and to other forms of musical expression and musical institutions, of which Rikskonsertene (the Norwegian State Foundation for Nationwide Promotion of Music) deserves special mention for its arrangement and production of concerts all over the country, in schools, institutions and elsewhere. In the Fiscal Budget for 1989, NOK 130 million has been allocated to musical life.


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Norwegian graphic art existed several millennia before the Christian era. Animal drawings carved in rock are permanent evidence that early Norwegians knew how to draw.

Zoomorphic ornamentation, in a vigorous style favouring beasts of prey as a motif, appears in the Viking era. Finds from the excavation of the Oseberg ship show such ornamentation in its purest form. The tradition lived on in the carved portals of the twelfth and thirteenth- century stave churches. The art of painting did not emerge in earnest until about 1250, in Bergen, where it arrived from England.

The international breakthrough achieved by Norwegian painters in the nineteenth century relates to their celebration of their native landscape. The extensive depiction of natural scenes and rustic life was pioneered by J.C. Dahl, and followed up by Hans Gude, August Cappelen, Adolph Tidemand and Lars Hertervig, among others.

Norwegian painting has flourished in the twentieth century. Edvard Munch stands out, but he had many considerable contemporaries, including Harald Sohlberg, Halfdan Egedius and Nikolai Astrup. From a more modern period, Jean Heiberg, Henrik Sørensen, Axel Revold and Per Krogh are among the leading names, as are Kai Fjell, Erling Enger, Jacob Weidemann, Odd Nerdrum, Inger Sitter and Frantz Widerberg today. Hannah Ryggen should be included for her unique tapestries.

The first art exhibition in Oslo was held in 1818. The National Gallery was founded in 1837. Norwegian artists held their own exhibition in 1882, and two years later the government took it over and turned it into an annual event.

Government support for the decoration of public buildings is given through a special fund set up in 1976, and through the Norwegian Cultural Council, which contributes to county and municipal and earlier government buildings. Funds are appropriated in the annual Fiscal Budget on the basis of the volume of public sector building activities.

Since 1968, the Cultural Council has also provided funds for the purchase of Norwegian art for distribution throughout Norway.

There are two state art galleries in Norway today, the National Gallery and the National Museum of Contemporary Art. In addition to local and municipal museums, there are also private ones like the Sonja Henie-Niels Onstad Foundations, the Art Centre at Høvikodden near Oslo. The Munch Museum in Oslo is municipal.

Run by artists themselves, institutions for the mediation of art play a special part in Norwegian cultural life. They receive government support, as does a decentralised network of fifteen artists' centres, which arrange exhibitions and contacts with the public.

Exhibitions which receive public funding are obliged to pay an exhibition fee direct to artists who exhibit works in their possession. Central government also makes an annual collective payment for public use of Norwegian graphic, photographic and applied art owned by government or government-supported institutions.


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Its small and scattered population is the main reason why Norway has established a guaranteed income scheme for artists, given to active artists whose work has maintained high qualitative standards over a period of years.

At the beginning of 1989, the scheme included 520 artists. The maximum grant is NOK 100,291. From it is deducted 65 per cent of the income the artist earned two years before the guaranteed income was granted. Artists retain their guaranteed incomes until they reach pensionable age.


Norway has a Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Its budget for cultural purposes totalled NOK 1,542 million in 1989, or about 0.5 per cent of the total Fiscal Budget of NOK 307.2 billion.

Of these cultural funds, NOK 403 million is allocated to theatre and opera purposes, 149 million to museums, 130 million to music, 128 million to films, 93 million to graphic and applied arts, and 86 million to libraries and literary purposes. Art scholarships and guaranteed incomes receive a total of NOK 75 million, and NOK 83 million is allocated to cultural buildings.

The Norwegian Cultural Council manages the Norwegian Cultural Fund, amounting in 1989 to NOK 115 million.


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Like the rest of Scandinavia, Norway has for the last two decades or so eagerly been debating a broader definition of the term culture, reflecting a widespread wish to attribute cultural value not only to the more exclusive art forms, but also to popular activities 7 among other things as a prelude to obtaining public sector support also for the latter. Examples of what this broader concept might comprise are sports, amateur choirs and study circles.

The idea of culture more broadly defined has wind in its sails, and at the local level, in counties and municipalities, cultural administrations have been built up which are doing valuable work in preparing the ground for future public investment.

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