Pietism Enrolled in Institutions

A talk with Dag Solhjell about the role of institutions in the organisation, administration and maintenance of a public discourse.





Gardar Eide Einarsson, Eivind Slettemeas, Stephan Dillemuth:
You were working on a project called "The History of the Norwegian Institution of Art". We are particularly interested in the way dissent is articulated and the kinds of structures necessary to insert criticism into the established order before it is institutionalised and officially accepted.Traditionally institutions safeguard the status quo (yes, also in the arts!), but ideally they are supposed to actively introduce change.

How do individuals unsatisfied with the status quo connect to other individuals who find themselves in a similar situation? What sort of pre -institutional structures do these groups create and how do they set out to change the idea of a public sphere?
So, for example... How were the ideas of the French Revolution introduced into Norway and were there consequences for the king's head?

Dag Solhjell: Usually the word Enlightenment is used in connection with rationalisation/scientification - but the Enlightenment also contained a strong Romantic side. Consider how emotional Diderot's famous critiques of the Salons were, for example.

A focal point in the establishment of modern art is, in my opinion, the opening of the Louvre in Paris, just before the French Revolution. This new royal institution in a royal castle assembled objects that were largely religious in their origin. In spite of this, the Louvre was left unchanged after the antireligious revolution. The revolutionaries realised that a museum transformed religious images into something else - into art. They understood that a museum functions as an efficient mechanism for secularisation - more efficient than destruction. Napoleon expanded the Louvre's collection by forcing conquered states to surrender paintings and sculptures - a great number of which were religious images. These newly consecrated (or rather deconsecrated) works were in part returned in the post-Napoleonic area. Many were not restored to the churches and cloisters they had been taken from, but were instead installed in new museums created for that occasion. So eventually most European countries started to treat religious images as art.

The same process takes place today. Artefacts gathered through anthropological expeditions to 'primitive cultures' and subsequently placed in Western museums are now being claimed 'back'. However, they are not brought back to their original use in these cultures, but to anthropological museums in the culturally transformed states.

In a sense institutional art - in fact, our concept of art - found its starting point with the French Revolution. The images were the same but the context had changed.

Q: In your book the public sphere as such is not really an issue. What, then, is your interest in it?

DS: I take a reductionist view. Art is not an anthropological constant. The concept of art as we know it today came into being in Europe in the late18th and early 19th century. It was strictly a bourgeois idea. When we talk about the public sphere we have to take the cultural changes of that period into account, like Habermas did when he studied the rise of the public liberties of that time.

Art is a way of treating objects, not a particular type of object, a lesson Duchamp taught us almost 90 years ago. This 'way' was historically and culturally constructed in the European culture of the 18th and 19th century. One can say that the concept of art is the symbolic form of objectifying and universalising the aesthetics - the taste - of the European upper middle class.

In the case of Norway, and I think of other protestant countries in Europe as well, I can see two historical origins of this modern concept of the 'aesthetic'. One is rationalistic, in the sense that art becomes the object of science, and modelled on the natural sciences. Art history and its methodology is a classificatory system, very much like the Linnean system of classification in botany, zoology and geology. Art history objectified paintings and sculpture as art.

The other historical and cultural origin is in my opinion a religious one. I have conducted a study, similar to Weber's work on the effects of the ethic of Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism, comparing the ethic of pietism and the spirit of art. I wondered if Pietism in the early 18th century could have been pivotal to the formation and content of the modern concept of art (and thereby to the concept of kitsch). I undertook a comparative study of psalms from the Danish bishop and psalmist Hans Adolf Brorson's (1694-1764) psalmody, Troens Rare Klenodium from 1739 (Brorson 1953), the German philosopher Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) Kritik der Urteilskraft from 1790 (Kant 1987, English translation 'Critique of Judgement'), and personal notes and diaries of the Norwegian expressionist painter and printmaker Edvard Munch (1858-1944).

This study suggests that the concept of art has, in part, a pietistic origin, and that the modern art world not only has an aesthetics but also an ethics - an ascetic ethics of pietistic origin. In catholic France the Jansenist movement provided Catholicism with a strong pietistic element, especially in Paris in the 18th century.

Q: Where did Pietism come from? Was it imported into Norway? How did it gain a foothold there?

DS: Pietism originated in Northern German territories in the second half of the 17th century as a reaction to a clergy more occupied with their spiritual power than with pious faith and deeds. The movement's most important centre was in Halle, with its university run on pietist principles. A parallel movement in French Catholicism was Jansenism, among whose adherents was Pascal. Pietism was introduced as a state religion in the Danish-Norwegian kingdom in 1736. Along with it confirmation became compulsory; this demanded the knowledge of writing and reading, which in turn demanded the introduction of compulsory schooling. Psalms were rewritten to say 'I' instead of 'we'.

The basic postulate of Pietism is that only the pure faith (belief) leads to salvation - and the best way to consult and show your faith was by consulting your own feelings. It meant that the proof for there being a God was to be found in oneself, not within the clergy or the religious community. The individualism of the rationalistic side of the Enlightenment went hand in hand with the individualism of pietistic and other non-orthodox spiritual movements within Northern European Christianity.

Q: How did these individualist entities organise themselves? If one can speak of an age of Enlightenment in Norway, did this involve the extensive organisation of state and society the same way it did in other countries?

DS: The proponents of the Enlightenment in Norway were the priests, who were among the first natural scientists in Norway. Like Linne, they saw God's power of creation in the infinite richness they discovered in their naturalist studies. We must remember that even Kant put the beauty of nature above the beauty of art - because God had created nature, whilst art was produced only by man.

Q: How did the Romantic period then come about in Norway? Was there a noteworthy circle of people or a particular institution that promoted these new ideas?

DS: The pietists came to seek signs of their salvation in their own feelings. According to Kant, to be taken by the beauty of nature indicates a moral inclination. If one was moved by a painting of a natural scenery one was a morally worthy person and had a right to salvation. Within the upper middle class the expression of strong sentiments and feelings when faced with beautiful or sublime nature and works of art was regarded as a sign of moral salvation. Romanticism can be regarded as secularised pietism within the upper middle class. The lower classes stuck to their religious beliefs, while the upper classes took Romanticism on as their secular ideology thereby becoming the cultural 'proprietors' of the concept of art. Pietism itself became the religion of the lower classes: the lower church, which often shows hostility towards art.

Q: Do you think Norwegian art today is still ruled by Pietism and Romanticism?

DS: I think the pietistic postulate of salvation has undergone a transformation from "only faith brings salvation", via Kant's postulate that "only pure taste gives access to beauty", then to Munch's postulate that "only an open heart gives access to art", and finally to the dominating postulate of the modern institution of art: "only the new brings artistic recognition". Faith, Taste, Open Heart and the New are analogous concepts, as are Salvation, Beauty, Art and Recognition. Artistic Recognition is, according to my theory, the equivalent of Salvation.

The art world has its own 'esoteriology' -a teaching of the road to salvation, or recognition. This way is marked with pietist signposts - among which the anti-commercial ones are the most prominent. Like pietism, art is directed towards the otherworldly.

Art historians call the style of the romantic period 'National Romanticism'. I would rather change the terms around and call it 'Romantic Nationalism'. Romanticism invented nationalism, but once it had invented it, it became nationalism. Romanticism is individualistic, but nationalism is collectivist. Romantic nationalism has made nationalism seem idyllic and innocent, and calling it national romanticism has contributed to that.

Q: Romantic Nationalism was a concept obviously strong enough to survive until today. How does art relate to nation? When was this concept invented and how?

DS: In my view, our very special ability to view something as art has not been part of any other culture. It is a European notion which has now spread all over the world, and is part of all cultures. So how do you look at an African mask in a European art museum? The same way you would look at a crucifix in the same museum - both become the same in the context of art. Thus we europeanise African artefacts - and the artefacts of every other culture. Here we might talk of a European nationalism, we romanticise other cultures, 'artify' them, and classify them under the European cultural concepts. This is what institutionalisation really means - it is responsible for the way we look at things.

Q: Does this imply that artists who want to change people's points of view have to institutionalise their point of view?

DS: No. They have to cease being artists, stop calling their work art, and escape from the institution of art. This is not an aesthetic operation, as it would seem, but an ethical one.

Q: Were Romantic National artists in Norway aware of their representative function or was their work merely appropriated for political ends?

DS: From the very start of the Norwegian art institutions in the beginning of the 19th century Norwegian art had always been narrowly connected to the political power - it has never been independent of it. This still seems to be the case. There are three partially independent art worlds in Norway - one of them is the politicised one, it operates in a co-operative relationship with governmental institutions. It is egalitarian, and its agents seek to justify their existence and their public support by offering themselves as instruments for the governmental or local cultural policy. I call this the inclusive sub-field of art, because the cultural policy of Norway is dominated by egalitarian values.

Then there is another art world that is trying to maintain its autonomy, and it is the values in this art world we think of when we talk about 'art'. It commands most of the symbolic power in the art world, and is strongly hierarchical. I call this the exclusive sub-field of art.

In the 1990's, for instance, young artists organised an art subsystem within this sub-field, with their own galleries etc., in opposition to the powerful elite of the exclusive sub-field. They were trying to create new art institutions, a new art scene, not unlike the pietist opposition to the orthodoxy of the 17th century. The artists acted as curators, gallery owners, critics; they established a Nordic and European network. To talk about Norwegian art is nonsense in this new setting. That is why a lot of Norwegian artists are better connected internationally than the governmental institutions - though the latter have 90% of the money, they only have 10% of the network. And then, of course, you have the commercial subfield.

Q: This whole scene seems to experience a drift upwards...

DS: Yes, because this 90's generation of artists is aware of the game of the art world - the ethical rules of art. They are now more and more recognised, and they are even being recruited by the institutions they once opposed. The art academies were instrumental in this development. Art theory also produced a theory of the art institution. Because the 90's generation was more local and active, severing connections with the co-operative and inclusive parts of the art world, they were more effective.

Q: Do you think there is a lack of public debate? And if so, why?

DS: To mention an example: 1200 Norwegian visual artists receive a scholarship at an average of about 60.000 Kroner every year. Only one or two art critics receive a small grant annually, they are even poorer than the artists are, but they are needed to make art a topic in the public sphere. The politically powerful artists' organisations have silenced their critics. We cannot talk about art in the public sphere without taking into account the large discrepancy in the economy of artists and critics.

Q: A grant led art economy obviously stabilises structures and one cannot expect that they destabilise themselves. Usually artists themselves work as critics so that petrified structures are criticised and changed from the roots, from the base structure. In how far do you see models of self-organisation as necessary to induce changes in society?

DS: We have a cultural policy, through which almost all art institutions in Norway are either are either governmentally owned or heavily supported by the government. New artistic initiatives are curbed within this public structure. Government funding implies control: the political, egalitarian field of art does nothing new unless there is support for it in advance.

The 90's generation did new things without economic support from the cultural budgets. Instead of arts funding, the artists lived on unemployment benefit and welfare money. Therefore these artists were exempted from indirect control via the goal-oriented, and thus artistically limiting, arts funding schemes. In the 90's most of this extra-cultural money was used to produce art, to create different effects on the art world, and to challenge the existing art structure.

Q: We are entering a Corporate Age, a new era. Can institutions as you see them speed up that process of change?

DS: Different views of art can exist next to each other - but maybe something new is coming: maybe the corporate influence on art will create a corporate art world in Norway, parallel to the political, commercial, and autonomous art worlds. Corporate values are very different from political or commercial values. The corporations ask: what is in it for me/ what kind of profile do I want?