Terror, Fun and Today's Museum
Per Bjarne Boym in Conversation with Gardar Eide Einarsson and Stephan Dillemuth


The National Museum for Contemporary Art (Museum for Samtidskunst) in Oslo is located in a building that formerly housed the National Bank of Norway. Its director, Per Bjarne Boym, was a Maoist in the late 1960's. We were curious to talk to him about the debates of those days, and the changes that took place after 'the long march through the institutions' had begun. We sit in Mr Boym's office.


SD: These are indeed lovely chairs!

PBB: Michelangelo Pistoletto used some of them in the early 1990's to make a work of art. He added mirrors and arranged them in an installation. The newspapers made a big fuss about it when the museum bought the piece for about 900,000 Kroner.

GEE: The so-called debate is just about on that level. It says a lot about the art public in Norway.

PBB: I don't think there is anything new about this situation. Looking back to the start of modern art life in Norway - 1763 when Matthias Blumental came to Bergen to do an honorary portal for the visit of the king - you'll find that there have always been reactions to artists. And I think this is necessary. Art creates a debate about how to deal with changes. Some people are more open and innovative than others. And it becomes a question of how strong this disturbed reaction can be.

SD: Yes, the question is how sophisticated this kind of confrontation can either be or become. But in this case, it is on a very low level... I would not call it a public debate; it just pretends to be one. In fact, I'd like to see a more professional discussion, where colleagues dissent and fight... As the director of a museum, can you participate in those discussions, down there, where the artists live?

PBB: The museum has always been a part of it, but there are certain limits as to how deeply the museum can get involved with certain issues. Being a director puts something of a restraint on you.

SD: Is there something like a public mission, something like a responsibility to the public?

PBB: There are some rules for the museum that say that our task is to create interest in, and knowledge about, art.

SD: An educational and pedagogical mission…

PBB: Yes. It says: interest, experience and knowledge. We have a word called "formidling" It is hard to translate into the English - it means something like mediation.

SD: In your current exhibition you show the museum's acquisitions from over the last 6 years. It looks as if you were trying to reflect what's happening in Norway and mix it with historical and international trends. There are a lot of people out there waiting to be collected. I guess you have a lot of critics...

PBB: Yes, we have. But in one way I think that we have done a decent job, so I think we are heading in the right direction. As I say in the catalogue - this moment defines for me a situation where you can take something off your shoulders.
After the French hegemony in the 1950's, international art wasn't collected by any Norwegian museum any more. This museum opened in 1990 and we have been working over 10 years to close this gap. Some people said that a museum like ours should not cope with history, because it is too expensive, too complicated, the material will be bad and only of a second-hand order. They say we should concentrate on the present, the young ones and do something really interesting there.

SD: But that was not your personal decision…

PBB: We also have a historical agenda that someone has set for us - our museum deals with history after 1945. So we have to work on the whole historical area - but I think that now we can have a more relaxed attitude towards the last 50 years.

SD: To what extent is the museum's mission just to archive a public discussion that has already happened, or to what extent can it insert something new into the debate?

PBB: This archiving function, or this making interpretations of these experiences must also be seen as a contribution to the debate of today.
What is specific to the museum in comparison with any art institution is that it is a historical institution, that we are working with history to solve problems. We have to be specialists in this field - we are part of the discussions about this slice of history by producing exhibitions, writing articles or talking. I think this is also part of the contemporary debate.

SD: Do you have to collect anything you don't like?

PBB: Yes. I am part of a team and there is a majority rule for decisions. The museum is not a one-man/woman voice.

SD: The museum is a political instrument. The huge garbage pile of culture in time is sifted through and divided into valuable and non-valuable. It is the place where cultural value is finally made and anchored in history. Can the museum represent all-important cultural production, which is often at the margins, and project it onto the screen of ONE big national public sphere?

PBB: The museum in general does not exist. You can maintain that every thing, every organisation is more or less a political instrument, but at the same time you have to acknowledge that every thing, every organisation is more or less something else. The raison d'être for a museum of art from the last half a century may not be political, but rather in the sphere of "refinement", of more precise, more adequate expressions/communications of life experiences. This quest for "refinement" in expression, which includes developing or breaking with specific traditions, exists with or without a museum. A museum can be a reservoir and a legitimating of such a quest.
A museum of this kind is not the place where cultural values are made and anchored in history. A museum of this kind is one of many arenas that offer a space for creation of cultural values. This kind of museum takes part in the historical discussions/struggles in order to have the right to say, "this is important, this is good, this is interesting".
Not any single museum, nor any other institution for that matter, can represent all-important cultural production. The "margins" will always posit a challenge of their own when you are in a centre. The same way as the "centres" do when you are in the real margins.
I think that the museums of so-called contemporary art today address themselves towards a more international or multinational audience than before. The idea of one big national public sphere is losing ground.

GEE: You have been part of the Norwegian public debate for many years - do you see any current changes in the public?

PBB: I think the interest in art has risen, because of the changes I lived through from the 1960's up until now. I think those changes in society make art more accessible to a broader public, and by public, I mean people who are looking for art exhibitions and art works, people who have an active attitude.

SD: What idea of a public did you have in the late 1960's when you were a Maoist?

PBB: I was orientated towards the working-class public. I was very interested in the communication lines between the industrial workers and the democratically orientated intelligentsia. I wrote my art historical thesis on the labour movement and the visual arts in the 1930's in Norway, the subtitle was: "Was there an emerging socialist art movement?" Being myself a working-class boy in the process of becoming an art historian, I found the Maoist idea of the importance for the actors in the art scene of learning to know the working-class public a very inspiring and challenging idea. I think my interest in the rest of the public was limited.

SD: What happened to the great optimism of those days? Anything seemed possible...

PBB: Some of the changes that came out of the late 1960's are, in my eyes, very positive. Today, for example, within the Menighetsfakultetet (an academic school for priests), the most conservative stronghold of Christianity, there is a discussion about homosexuality - it's incredible.
Also, we had very strong Nazism and racism in the 1960's ...it still is strong, but the situation seems to be much better than it was in the 1960's.

SD: Maybe it is my romantic view, but it appears to me as if the discussions in the late 1960's were anchored in a bigger movement. How many people in Norway today are engaged in an intellectually challenging public discussion? Maybe 1000?

PBB: I think the debate was much more heated. When the Henie Onstad centre opened in 1968, presenting American art on a broad scale for the first time in Norway... I guess you all know about the actions out there… Willibald Storn dropped his pants in a discussion, to show his arse to one of the panellists there. That was how heated the debate was. This is why it attracted more people. But I would say that really interesting, open-minded ideas are stronger today than they were in the 1960's. Look at the art scene for instance - in the 1960's you could count politically or just broader/democratically engaged artists on one hand. Now you have 10's and 100's of them coming out of the art academies.

SD: But the situation does not seem much better. More than ever, it appears to me, the economy rules over everything.

PBB: Yes, the changes are not that fundamental. What happened in the world of ideas in the 1960's was a short cut from a very general description of society to some sort of general recipe as to how to counteract.
I think in the 1960's you got a lot of strong, simple theories like "Monopoly Capital" which tried to define a certain stage of capitalism. It was a special situation, where a grid of theorists fitted together very nicely and gave easy answers to the questions. But the understanding of theory as a recipe book was a wrong one.
The theoretical movement from the 1960's and 1970's looked at the individual as something that was just part of the general. In my eyes, and I think that is very important for the arts, the individual is always something else than the general. There is always room for action.

SD: And for escape…

PBB: If you want to escape you can try….

SD: The private as the political was an attack also on the simplicity of the explanation of capitalism. But now it seems as if capitalism accommodated that critique… The privatisation of the public sphere... is that a new strategy?

PBB: You treat capitalism as if it was a person, or an animistic entity, as if it had a soul or a life for itself. The idea of capitalism as a system is very abused. The word is used on a daily basis but few give a proper definition of it.

SD: We can also talk about people who took an active part in the 1960's revolution, and who now are sitting in their chairs as managers, supporting the arts, knowing that this creates a good image for their corporate politics.

PBB: When you talk about the corporate situation in Norway, you have Hydro and Statoil…. they collect art and use it in their offices, and that is it. Only recently have some companies started to show off with their collection, like Storebrand. You have maybe 10 companies that act like that.

SD: And the museum? Does it have to claim more authority and seriousness, like the state TV channels do when they compete against the private TV stations and their entertaining trashy programmes?

PBB: After the Jenny Holzer presentation, which we did in the museum, and outside in the cities of Oslo and Lillehammer, the company Telenor engaged her for their new headquarters at Fornebu.

SD: Is the museum a forerunner then?

PBB: No, we do not really compete, because they all have different agendas to us. However, most of the company profiles touch fields that we work with as well and, to our disadvantage, the prices on the market go up and that creates a difficult situation for our collection. But the market for artists is bigger.

SD: You do not make a big difference between what you want and what they want?

PBB: You can't just say that because they are rich or because they are part of a certain economy, they automatically have a bad taste or a bad judgement. You have to examine the concrete manifestation and take a stand towards that.

GEE: Maybe it depends where the manifestation is made? Maybe the context dominates the content; maybe something got lost on the way from the studio to corporate presentation? From the simple theories to the more…

PBB: Yes, I think that the optimism got lost. In the 1980's, when the ideological hegemony of the 1970's was broken down, it seemed like a liberating effect - but at the same time there arose a kind of cynicism, defeatism and hopelessness. I felt that in the 1990's, a certain kind of optimistic energy came back again - this flavour of possibilities: there is room for action…and it's fun and perhaps it also has some prospectus…

SD: That was the early 1990's, but it soon became clear that every artistic critique would be sucked up immediately in order to stabilise the predominant economy. I would like to go back to this question of economy…
I guess that the critique of global economy is a challenging intellectual task. But the place where this task is negotiated, the public sphere, has recently been sold, that is, privatised. So where and how can we negotiate?

PBB: In this stage of capitalism, we might find communication happening on a level which we didn't have before. It is difficult to understand that things that are both terrible and good happen. The industrial history of Germany or England - the rawest part of history - is terrible - it is manslaughter and genocide in the 16th/17th and especially the 18th centuries. But it created a situation where the medieval mind disappeared. From my point of view that is very good. But at the same time it was terror.

SD: The terror is still around, as we sit at the end of the 20th century and count up how often ideas have been re-hashed over and over again. I can call it digestion when it is done in a smart and reflective way. If not, then I have to call it overheated and sultry expressionism, the typical spawn of the fin-de-siècle: - Biennials everywhere, gigantic coffee table books everywhere... a whole new industry for this kind of art…

PBB: …celebrating art. But when you look at artists like Bjarne Melgaard and Tracey Emin - I guess you would call them 'overheated expressionists' - and in a way they are talking a very unclear language, but they are talking. They are showing things that otherwise would stay hidden.

SD: Yes, they show that we are having the same 'Salon Art' as we had at the turn of last century - a sultry melange of eroticism and death…

PBB: But they are not only bourgeois problems, they are proletarian problems, if you are talking about class.

SD: ...as if nothing had happened in the last 100 years.

PBB: A lot of things happened! That is why you must look closer and you'll find the situation to be quite different. You'll find that they are dealing with the same sphere - personality, sexuality, identity - but the formulations are quite different.
I find it interesting... but we shouldn't be exchanging personal opinions here…

SD: True, I would argue for an idea of art that is more aware of its possibilities... to be continued at another time. But a last question about your show of the museum's acquisitions, where you have these accompanying statistics on the wall. Who made them ...Hans Haacke? ...Andrea Fraser?

PBB: I made them. Of course. I thought it was a nice way to present our results in a statistical manner. These discussions about women, about young or older artists, about locality, are very important but complicated discussions - numbers are important but they are not easy to understand, there is no easy way out of them.

SD: Is it important for you that this is a state museum?

PBB: No.

SD: If it were a museum run by Coca-Cola, it would not be different?

PBB: If Coca-Cola gave me the possibility to work without any commitments, then I would give my reports to Coca-Cola and show the director around. The problem starts when the owner of an art institution starts to interfere with the people that are running it - no matter if it is Coca-Cola or the Norwegian state. The fact that they try to get involved is bad. There were beautiful state institutions in Germany in the 30's, too. Didn't help them…

SD: True. Back then, the institutions were taken, now they are giving themselves away. But consider this: supporting and financing (the so-called 'autonomy' of) contemporary art creates a positive image for those who support and finance. In the case of the state, the positive image falls upon the idea of a self-administered society (which has an interest in mirroring its cultural production). In the case of Coca Cola, it legitimises (and glorifies) a hegemonic economy that is interested in a community only because they are consumers of their product. Coca Cola in this case would try to give those communities the cultural support that they might need for cultural identification, but only if they identify with the product as well. That is the Culture-Coke-Cocktail.

PBB: The state you are talking about is only an ideal, and the autonomy of the institution is relative. It depends on what kind of state it really is and sometimes one is tired of those limitations. Of course the same applies to corporations.
To work with someone is always a concrete judgement and evaluation of the situation. It all depends what kind of "King" you serve.

SD: But basically you put your own integrity and relative autonomy as the highest principle…

PBB: An ideal situation would be to find a government or a company that shares your attitudes and has an unlimited amount of money, then it becomes a collaboration…

SD: But in terms of "collaboration" with a government, company or whatever, the institution could also act like a needle that punctures something here and there; even if it remains dependent on those it is pricking.

PBB: History is full of those cases…

SD: Will they still be necessary in the future?

PBB: Of course! Militancy also belongs in the arts.

GEE & SD: Thank you very much indeed.