Jonas Gahr Støre - Photo: Berit Roald, Scanpix/Statsministerens kontorThe Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, is also a minister of culture. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has spent over 95 million Norwegian Crowns during 2009 on cultural purposes. He gave his reflections as an article in the national newspaper, Morgenbladet, on 11 sept 2009

The high season for music festivals has just ended. There must be more than 10 000 such festivals all over Europe, and I have heard speak of around 500 in Norway, both large and small. During the summer I myself had the pleasure of enjoying a handful of them. During July I even managed to hold my own ‘festival’ when I hosted one of Swedish Radio’s long-established Sommar programmes presenting music and opinions.


So, what is a foreign minister doing getting involved in such events? I like being asked this question just as much as being asked why I spend time writing and reviewing books. My reply is simple: becoming involved in cultural matters and other basic matters that give life a meaning is the very purpose of politics, or a result of politics. It has been said that the purpose of foreign policy is to render domestic politics possible. Stated more directly: ensuring the framework for culture and those values that give direction to life. Norway enjoys a sufficient level of security that allows festivals to be arranged and enjoyed, with all the importance this has for a functioning civil society. For this we should be thankful. 


I am struck by two things when I think about festivals: Firstly, mutual dependence put into in practice. When I have the opportunity to watch musicians at close quarters and hear how they cooperate, how the orchestra or band plays together, I start thinking about how dependent each performer is on the others they are playing with. No other genre better portrays the art of playing together. This reminds us of the importance of a functioning relationship.


Secondly, the music and culture presented in all festivals tells us to what extent some of the most important things in life cannot be measured. We can, of course, measure the size of the audience, the income and expenses; we can count the number of beats, the decibels, the hours spent practising, the number of string and wind players; or we can count the number of rating stars awarded by reviewers. However, we cannot measure – and this is something we should be thankful for - the actual experience of hearing the music, the joy of playing and listening, the teamwork, the harmonies, respect for others’ variations, or the new nuances that arise.


Similarly, measuring the effects of cultural cooperation with countries overseas is not an easy matter. We are able to measure budget increases; for example, the fact that the government’s strengthened commitment (Kulturløftet) to the cultural sector has resulted in an increase of NOK 51.6 million in the funds allocated to the Foreign Ministry’s cultural initiatives during the last four years. This is in addition to allocations in the annual budgets, an increase of almost 50% in four years. We are able to count the increasing number of foreign journalists visiting Oslo’s Øya Festival or the Bergen International Festival and who have written enthusiastically about Norwegian music. We can count the number of newspaper pages, the centimetres of column length, the number of hits on websites, and the number of followers on Twitter. We can ascertain the number of CD’s sold or the audience sizes when Norwegian performers play overseas. We can count the number of books translated from Norwegian into other languages – this has risen from 100 to 300 in just a few years. Perhaps we could find out the number of visitors staying overnight at Norwegian hotels. Opinion polls can even tell us something about their target groups’ knowledge of Norway. But once again, how do you measure a musical experience? A good book? A new building that takes your breath away? Greater insight into another culture? Norwegian footprints left in the fields of international architecture, design, art, music, literature, theatre, and dance?


Much of Norway’s cultural cooperation with foreign countries takes place on a small scale yet is effective on a large scale. A long list exists of small and large projects involving Norwegian exhibitions, cooperation and interaction with cultural circles in other countries. We like to call this cultural exchange. This can also be expressed through the term ‘public diplomacy’, an area of activity that improves mutual understanding, establishes long-term contacts and strengthens connections over a broad field of activities. In foreign policy international cultural cooperation has precisely this function. However, culture should lead its own life and does not require to act as a tool for something else. An expression of culture will always have its own validity. It does not gain legitimacy because it can be used for something else.


At the same time culture and foreign policy do have their points of contact. I have in mind four dimensions:


Firstly, being together. Cultural cooperation with foreign countries creates a meeting place, precisely something that is often required in parts of the world ravaged by conflict; in towns, countries regions where not many opportunities or space exist to explore the possibilities of meeting. An international cultural arrangement can function like a market place, like the fountain at the centre of the market place, like the village pump where people together used to draw up water from its source to take home; where one met acquaintances, heard the news, met others from the village. Likewise a cross-border cultural arrangement provides an opportunity to get together sharing music or the theatre, not on one’s own but rather together with others, people from another culture.


Secondly, a sense of belonging. Norwegian cultural cooperation with countries overseas has indicated that we are an integral part of a larger geographical unit. Our cultural expressions are a part of the Nordic, European – yes, even of world cultural heritage. That is the reason why many international cultural festivals have been arranged in Molde, Risør, Kongsberg, Stavanger, Harstad, Bergen and other places. These act as important arenas and as a lighthouse in these towns. In addition, they demonstrate that we are a part of both the European and global cultural map. We can hear West African rhythms at a festival in Førde, ancient Chinese strains in Bergen and see modern Russian theatre in Oslo. And so we begin thinking – we are part of something larger, and it’s happening here in our town.


This points us in the direction of a third dimension:  diversity and the importance of new impulses. Many kinds of music – really art and culture as a whole – have been multicultural in nature and in motion at all times. Jazz could never have come into existence and developed without a continuous mixing of people and music in different geographical listening posts. Bringing new external cultural impulses to a fairly homogenous country like Norway is a necessity of life just as it is for Norwegian cultural performers and creative powers to be able to frequently travel abroad. As a result they get the chance to hear new things, learn, play together with overseas colleagues, and appear in front of new audiences. The one-sided cultivation of a so-called national culture, or whatever you wish to call it, is just a side-track. Culture’s mediums of expression are universal, such as music, dance and the visual arts – a shared global language that crosses all linguistic borders. Everybody speaks music fluently in the world of musical geography.


Finally, culture builds the bridges we badly need. We allow ourselves to be fascinated by the dialogue we often witness between musicians, filmmakers, artists, and authors – and even by the very dialogue between performers and their audiences. Many examples exist of cultural arenas being capable of establishing and maintaining contact when fixed attitudes – political, ethnic, religious or inter-generational - would otherwise create barriers. Culture is capable of taking up universal ideals, human rights, and it can reduce distances, rebuild trusts and highlight our common identity. On the other hand Khalid Salimi, head of the Mela Festival, has stated that we have to stop saying that we are building bridges and rather realise that we are living on the same island.


Just as with music we need to find the keynote. To use one of today’s concepts: we can do ourselves a service by adopting a living international cultural life at a time when people are not only asking what they can live on, but also what they should be living for and how we are going to coexist well – in Norway and in a global society. In other words:  a matter for foreign policy.

Translated from Norwegian

Found at:


AuthorCato Litangen