Originally appeared in Danish in Paletten, Gothenborg 1963. Taken from Situationist Times No.5, 1964
Mind and Sense
I have been asked whether there is anything Nordic in art to keep watch over, but how is it possible at all to keep watch over the Nordic in art? A Dane has once expressed it : "Always think of it, never speak about it". For fifteen years I have turned this question over and over in my mind as to whether I should speak of Nordic art or not, for I know that this very speaking at the same time sacrifices something; is a sacrifice, perhaps, of the best, the chief element.
Thus the question of there being anything Nordic in art to keep watch over, meant to me whether or not it was better to leave everything alone. But then the politicians in Norway and Denmark demanded that we should give up our sovereignty and enter into a union of "European" states. This made the secret a burden, because foreigners do not appreciate that watch is kept over everything in Scandinavia, because it is done discreetly without words. That this discretion had even convinced our politicians, indeed, even our people, that they had nothing to answer, caused a complete change in the situation. Today the question has been reversed. Today we say: Can our art defend the Nordic against extermination? If this is possible, we ought to mobilize it from time immemorial to the present day, for it is the only means we possess to show what we are and always have wanted to be. Even we have to sacrifice the whole of our artistic past by throwing it on the public alter, the sacrifice is not too great.
I do not know how much Scandinavian art is worth in other people's eyes on the day they really get to know it. Today it does not exist in the cosmo-political art life. It's all the same to me. The only essential thing is that people learn to understand that there is no mistaking it, that it is as it is, and that it is as we are. Thus it is not today a question of keeping watch over Nordic art, but of throwing it into the scale, of opening chests and drawers and buying our liberty by means of it.
I have started organising the publication of 21 volumes about Nordic ancient art, medieval art, and folk art, together with the most eminent specialists of Scandinavia in an international edition. I can do no more, but indeed, then a solid background will have been created for all the rest which will follow.
To keep watch over Nordic art thus actually means to keep it down and only to make it grow unnoticed underground. But why should we do so? Because Nordic art is dangerous art - perhaps the only art which can be rightly characterized as dangerous, because it concentrates all its power in ourselves. It is not an art which concentrates on the enjoyment of the immediate emotivity of sense perceptions. Nor is it an art which speaks to the objective understanding through a clear and conscious set of symbols. The Danish author Jacob Knudsen seems to have hit upon the essential element when he says that Nordic art has mind, is the expression of the mind and influences the mind more than the senses and the understanding.
The distinction between the concepts of the mind and senses is in itself a conscious division allowing a cultivation of this distinction. In other languages, in which this division is unknown, people make shift with romantic words like feeling and sentiment. But if the mind has anything to do with sentiment, then it is, indeed, something much more radical and profound than sentimentality, something sharper and harder; a world in which only we ourselves seem to feel at home, a world which makes other afraid, indeed ourselves, too, occasionally, and not without reason. No doubt Nordic art is the only art, at any rate in Europe, which sounds the depths in the dimensions of the mind. It is an art which must be taken seriously or left alone, but which cannot be taken quite seriously because it may fluctuate from the most reckless frivolity to the most distorted, brooding melancholy, and no reasonable man can take any of these states seriously.
The artist who in this sense, since my earliest youth, has appealed most to me is Gustaf Froding. This is hardly a coincidence, for it is probably in signing and music that the Scandinavian mind has sought its strongest expression. I think also here of Grundtvig. Nothing, perhaps, gives a clearer picture of the artistic, spiritual, and Scandinavian failure of the Danish Folk High-School than the fact that singing has no longer its place there. I have myself ascertained this. When I offered to give a talk at Askov Folk High-School about this subject, my offer was rejected, because they had not the time, as they had invited an American Jazz band to entertain the students, and of course they could not miss that.
In his account of the Teuton's origins, their manners, customs and tribes, Tacitus writes that there is a kind of heroic lay from whose consonance one could augur the issue of the coming battle. This consonance is called bardilus, and Tacitus's account is probably the first report on the attempt at producing polyphonic musical harmonies. As the tones organised themselves along the rows of the warriors, the listener could decide whether there was a possibility of victory or defeat according to whether there was harmony or not. This singing, he says, is, as it were, one of valour rather than voice. Tacitus is not the only Roman historian who tells about the panic which the singing of the Teutons instilled in the Roman soldiers, and also among other narratives, in those of the victory of the Goths over the Roman armies these songs play a prominent part. Tacitus explains the technique in the following way: What they aim at most is a harsh tone and hoarse murmur, and so they put their shield before their mouths, in order to make the voice swell fuller and deeper as it echoes back. This is undeniably a somewhat more interesting explanation of the singing of the bards and of the story of the Berserkers biting their shields than the stupidities otherwise heard about them. It must lead directly to a study of the medieval English traditions of consonance in church choirs.
From English sources we know that it was the Vikings who taught Europe part-singing. This is not to be wondered at, considering the descriptions given by Tacitus and other Roman chroniclers. The chief element for the understanding of the naturalness of this Scandinavian tendency towards harmonic musical polyphony or multiplicity of meanings, is, however, to be found in the fundamental polyphony or polysemy of our linguistic expression itself, in contrast to the unambiguous and clearly oriented or, as they say, discursive character of the Latin language. This difference is clearly apparent if we compare the meaning of the concepts which in the South and in our countries are contrasted with the chaotic and absurd. In the North it is termed meaning, and in Latin usage is named sense. The dictionaries interpret these two concepts a identical. A somewhat closer analysis, however, will reveal how dangerous and mistaken such an identification must be. Meaning has something to do with mind, and is not an expression of clear sense perception like the word sense. The German say sinnvoll and wahnsinn and sinnlos. But what is sinnlos is not distracted nor what is termed nonsense, for nonsense may have mind and meaning, even several meanings, indeed become poetry, through its very symbolical ambiguity or ambivalence. What the French term sens, can have only one meaning, or, to be more precise, one direction, for sens means direction, orientation, as meaning does not. Sens denotes something objective, but nothing can have a meaning if it is not a meaning for or with oneself, that is a subjective meaning. A meaning may be implicit, a sens is to be understood, is an expression of the very understanding.
Meaning may be ambivalent. Sens may be at most equivoque. If we talk about the meaning of art, we mean its signification. If we talk about the sens of art, we mean its orientation, its direction. Harmonic polyphony is non-sens, is non-orientated, but in the highest degree has meaning. I cannot help thinking of this, when in Paris the Scandinavians' mutual aversions are so often mentioned, their reluctance to being merged in a Great Power, ad the pleasure they find in annoying, teasing and taunting each other. If a polyphonic orientation is wanted, the tones must be separated while at the same time they are interwoven, and therefore the image of the unity of Scandinavia as represented in the Middle Ages by means of the picture of interwoven strings seems to me as natural as LENIN'S LINKING TOGETHER OF THE EASTERN EUROPEAN STATES, on the Greek-Olympian principle according to which THE CHAIN IS NEVER STRONGER THAN ITS WEAKEST LINK. These two principles of union, the Scandinavian and the Byzantine, again differ fundamentally from the Roman principle, according to which the FASCES OR BUNDLE OF MUTUALLY INDEPENDENT UNITS ARE ONLY TIED TOGETHER BY ANOTHER ELEMENT WHICH FORMS A STRONG RING THAT CAN BE UNTIED AND KNOTTED AGAIN, and whose type is found again in the Stars And Stripes of the American flag. We are really here faced with three topologically basic types, three constructive methods, which mutually and absolutely exclude one another, in so precise a way that it can even be expressed mathematically, although no one can say that one type is better than another. They obtain their value just by virtue of their dissimilarity. This by no means signifies that these three principles of construction are exclusively used within each of the three cultural areas; on the contrary, the important thing is the final result. But the development of this complex has already, in an ingenious way, been treated by the founder of the modern study of the use of form in architecture and style: Erik Lundberg. As to the poetical form of ambivalence, reference may be made to William Empson's "Seven Types Of Ambiguity", and in the case of pictorial art, to my article about the "ambiguity in the interpretation of pictorial art" from 1946. As regards the view of cultural structure in general, reference may be made to the Norwegian Guttorm Gjessing's writings.
The reason why I thus maintain that our artistic tradition today is the only thing which clearly seems to be able to defend what is Nordic, then, is that I think this pictorial tradition, throughout its development, shows this Nordic special characteristic whose specific character I have defined here, and the consequences of which I have pointed out. For as a matter of fact, any structure, in order to be able to develop, is bound to a taboo which cannot be broken, a door which must never be opened, if one does not want the whole castle to tumble down in ruins and become a pile of rubble.
The French know that the DISCURSIVE SYSTEM, THE SPOOLING OR LABYRINTHINE SYSTEM, demands that one never crosses one's track, which, on the contrary, is necessary in any interweaving, where, on the other hand, the whole is unravelled if one follows the lead of the labyrinth rule. For this reason there is a fundamental contrast between Nordic and Latin pictorial tradition. In Nordic art the picture exists before the word. The word illustrates the picture, as in the husdrapa of the Viking Age, which was varying poetical improvisations on the same pictures. The pictures here are the theme. The words are the variations. In the Latin tradition things are exactly the reverse. The word is the origin. The word or concept gives the clearly established motif or idea, and pictorial art then may vary this theme as it likes in the still life or in figure studies, and then orient the style according to constantly varying fashions. In the iconographical Byzantine tradition, on the other hand, the picture has a completely invariable, absolute and untouchable, independent value, which only allows changes of the pictorial world if the world-picture of the whole community is overturned. Thus, all at once the old pictures lose all their value.
Today's question, then, is not our art itself, but the necessity of demonstrating the peculiar way in which we observe and appreciate art. The works of art reflect in their form this artistic experience, which, as such, is only a reflection of the way in which we experience and respond altogether. Unfortunately this is something which we can no longer permit ourselves to overlook, as it has opponents, but sooner or later it will become recognised.
The fact that the character of art in Scandinavia is implied in the influence of the state of mind, from laughter to weeping, from weeping to mortal rage, makes us understand how dangerous this art is, because we can be tyrannized by a cynic who has art in his power. Much has been said about this fantastic demonry. This is the reason for the severe demands on the artist to bear the responsibility of the states of mind he produces, by at any rate vouching for them, by recognising them in himself. This psychic strain in the artist is what in so many cases breaks up his mind and gives our culture this reputation for madness. It is the risk which one does not run if only one disclaims the wealth of meaning implied in perceived nonsense, that is, if one adopts the Latin form of art. This risk is still smaller in Byzantine art. But the attitude of the people cannot be changed. It is this psychic demand on artist as well as onlooker which makes the so-called expressionist art so hated among worshippers of beauty and among formalists. Johannes V. Jensen referred this tradition to shamanism; I think he was right.
The importance of this cultivation and artistic control of the mind's wealth is perhaps most clearly seen in Swedenborg's influence of Balzac and in the literary work of Scandinavia on the whole. The reason for this is most evident in Grundtvig, who in order to maintain his Christian basis, accepted the word as the original, and only liberated the word from dead literature. The fact that this demand for a Folk High-School based on the living word failed to such a degree that Jeppe Aakjaer could pronounce the judgment: "From living men's dead speech I learnt nothing, from dead men's living speech I learnt everything. Long live the dead", this failure, as shown by my analysis, is due to the word in Scandinavia obtaining its life from music and from pictorial art, these arts here being the original ones in relation to literature. The error is that the Folk High-School has always excluded these arts from their centres. - Let others, then, advance their opinion on the matter, if, indeed, they have any.