Something rotten in the state of Denmark? An analysis of the Canon of Danish Art and Culture

This text by Aideen McCole won our most recent competition for critical writing by an undergraduate (details here).
In 2006, Denmark’s Ministry of Culture, in a project spearheaded in 2004 by then Minister for Culture Brian Mikkelsen, published the Canon of Danish Art and Culture (Kulturkanon). The Canon of Danish Art and Culture has listed twelve examples of outstanding work in each of nine categories. Initially the project aimed to look at seven categories: architecture, visual arts, design and craft, performing arts, literature, music and film. As the Canon developed, music was split into two categories, popular music and classical music, and a category for children’s culture was also included. An overall chairperson, Jørn Lund, Director of the Society for Danish Language and Literature, was appointed to coordinate the chairs of the seven committees.
According to the Ministry, the publication is intended to:

• contribute to a lively cultural debate by acting as a yardstick for quality – a yardstick that will obviously be constantly challenged and discussed

• give citizens an easy introduction to Danish art and culture and hopefully also inspire them to immerse themselves further in the individual art forms

• present a competent, qualified suggestion of the elements of Denmark's cultural heritage that are valuable, of good quality and worth preserving for their descendants

• make Danes more aware of who they are and give them more information on the cultural history of which they are a part

• give Danes reference points and awareness of what is special about Danes and Denmark in an ever more globalised world

• strengthen the sense of community by showing key parts of Denmark’s common historical possessions.

Brian Mikkelsen, in a public speech, implied that the purpose of the Canon was to define what ‘Danishness’ is in comparison to other cultures, using Islam as a specific example of a culture he perhaps considered inferior to his own. The comment, which naturally caused some offence given Denmark’s uneasy climate regarding Muslim immigrants (not to mention the 'Mohammed' crisis of 2005), was quickly retracted, as it put the whole Canon project in jeopardy, with a number of committee members threatening to pull out. Nevertheless, the project went ahead, and the publication is now available in book and DVD form, in Danish, and can be seen online in Danish and English. It has also been the inspiration for revised resources for schools’ cultural curriculum, developed by the Danish Ministry of Education.
caption: Verner Panton, Pantonstol, 1960. image held here
On first encounter, the Canon of Danish Art and Culture (listed in full on is interesting in terms of its inclusions, and perhaps more interesting in terms of its exclusions. For instance, most of the obvious Danish cultural superstars are included, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, the existentialist groundbreaker Either – Or by Søren Kierkegaard, Poul Henningsen’s lamp system, still a popular product being distributed by Louis Poulsen, and the Lego brick. But surprisingly, there is no Egg Chair, Arne Jacobsen’s iconic, omnipresent 1950s chair, designed for the Radisson SAS Hotel in Copenhagen. Perhaps designer and architect Jacobsen, included in the Canon of Architecture for the Århus City Hall, could not also be included in the Canon of Design and Crafts? Instead of the Egg Chair, we have a chair by Verner Panton; an ironic choice, when considering Panton’s need to look beyond Denmark for his first steps into the design world (his work was too radical for conservative 1960s Denmark). Same for Jørn Utzon: his Sydney Opera House is included in the Canon of Architecture, but he seemed to always consider himself international, rather than Danish. Surprising exclusions from the Canon of Visual Arts are painter Per Kirkeby and installation artist Olafur Eliasson, two of the biggest names in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Danish art, respectively. And perhaps most unusual of all, the Canon of Design and Crafts contains no Hans Wegner furniture. Could that have been an oversight, or a deliberate exclusion?
Egg chair
caption: Arne Jacobson, Egg chair, 1956. image held here
As interesting (or perplexing) as the inclusions in and exclusions from the Canon are, a step further back provides an even more fascinating view. What is twenty-first-century Denmark doing with a Cultural Canon? Why does the Ministry of Culture feel the need to map out Denmark’s culture in this way? The reasons listed above may seem noble, but are they really enough to justify such a project? Though the reasons given by the Ministry for the project may be acceptable, and though this may only be a government publication (not often given a lot of importance, and perhaps not substantially impinging on day-to-day life), the premise of this article / investigation is that, rather than in its inclusions and exclusions, the real area of interest in the Canon of Danish Art and Culture is in its broader implications. The existence of such a publication brings up a number of issues: to include certain works in a Canon means excluding others. To include certain works in a canon means excluding others, and thus certain assertions (or assumptions) about the value of a cultural product are made. And is canonising really the way we should chart cultural history nowadays? How about the nationalist implications of a publication such as this: is cementing some sort of ‘Danishness’ a valid pursuit in contemporary society?
The Danish Ministry of Culture’s decision to formulate and publish a cultural canon is an interesting one when considered in terms of contemporary Art History and the critical theory surrounding the field of Art History. Within traditional Art History, traditional Literary History, and History of Design and Architecture, the canon was of utmost importance. It was through the formulation of, and reference to, a canon that art historians and the audience that art historians served made sense of things, and ordered an otherwise chaotic cultural world into a series of important works and critical junctures. But Art History is changing; it is a field of study now being studied itself, and that has implications for such things as a canon.
The word ‘canon’, as it is used today with reference to works of art, builds on these ideas of aesthetic ‘value’ and ‘one standard’. When people speak of ‘the canon of art’, they usually mean a body of works that have passed a (potentially ambiguous) test of value. Despite its inherent ambiguity, the idea of a canon has assumed the air of spurious precision: it has come to mean a body of works deemed to be of indisputable quality within a particular culture. Equally, traditional design history and history of architecture have compiled similar canons (though perhaps more implicitly). Anyone familiar with, for example, twentieth-century design and architecture will be familiar with a common set of names and examples within that history (ironically, many of them will be Danish in origin). To some, a canon acts as a structure through which we can read art, literature and culture in an informed and educated manner. It is through the use of a canon that we are given parameters, standards, and fixed points of value: “there can be no knowledge of the Beautiful or the Ugly without the knowledge of the canon, without knowledge of the model ... there is nothing absolute in these ideas [without it]” (Diderot and D’Alambert, 1988, p 196, translated in Nelson and Shiff, 2003, p 288). A canon can educate us, giving us a map, or guideline, showing us what could be considered good, great, or even ‘the best’ in culture. We can use a canon to enrich our understanding of the works included, and from this starting point we can expand our knowledge of art, literature, and culture. But an equal and opposite result of a canon is the hermetic seal it creates around its contents. It exalts them, and raises them above all the other cultural products in a society. Equally, a canon can shape or determine our reading of excluded works. Is that a positive result for a canon? As Art History itself becomes a subject for examination in contemporary critical theory, so too does the nature of the canon.
The purpose of the Canon of Danish Art and Culture has been contested to a certain degree. Although at the outset the publication seems to be one intended as something of a cultural celebration and an education tool, the Canon could easily be read as a construct to establish or strengthen a national identity. The Canon of Danish Art and Culture creates, or reinforces, a sense of ‘Danishness’, as opposed to something more local, or something more international or, for that matter, something more multicultural. As a result, the Canon makes for an interesting discussion on modernist identity politics in a postmodern society.
Frederik V
caption: J.FJ. Saly, Frederik V, 1771, Amalienborg Square. Image held here
An overriding theme in the discussion surrounding identity is our use of the opposite or the ‘other’ in defining ourselves. Identity is a relational concept concerned with categories of self-identification and social ascription. What we think of as our identity is dependent on what we think we are not. Consequently, identity, as well as race and ethnicity, is best understood as a process of boundary formation and differentiation (Barker, 2000, 195). However, Stuart Hall has brought an interesting theory to the discussion of identity in the form of identity as representation. Though they seem to invoke an origin in a historical past with which they continue to correspond, identities are actually about questions of using history, language and culture “in the process of becoming rather than being”: not who we are or where we came from so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves (Hall, 1996, p 4). This notion of identity as representation is perhaps most relevant to the Canon of Danish Art and Culture, as it constructs an identity for Denmark not by what Denmark is not, but by what has represented Denmark in the past, ie its art and culture.
Published in print in Danish only, the Canon provides a snapshot of Danish culture in the Danish language for Danish citizens. Some of the motives of the Ministry of Culture, outlined above, do have strong nationalist undertones (and in some cases overtones), and that has not been lost on the people in Denmark. In a paper presented at the CIMUSET conference in Brazil in 2006, curator and vice director of the Danish Museum of Electricity Jytte Thorndahl makes some interesting arguments regarding the need for ‘Danishness’ in the Canon. According to Thorndahl, in order to celebrate the ‘Danishness’ of the cultural products in the canon, the context the work was made in, a context that was often highly international, was completely ignored. She highlights the American funding that made the Gedser Experimental Windmill possible, the engineering advancements made by Thomas Edison and Nikolas Tesla that led to the PH lamp system, and the possibility of an Irish influence on the design and construction of the Skuldelev Viking ship (Thorndahl, 2006). But rather than see Denmark’s culture as living and breathing alongside other cultures, as something influenced by and influencing international trends, the Canon singles it out, and looks at it in an isolated vacuum.
Viking ships
caption: reconstructed Skuldelev Viking ships no. 3 and 5. image held here
Let’s bring the previously discussed issues of national identity and canonisation to their logical conclusion – where do these seemingly outdated practices sit in contemporary, postmodern society? Postmodernism, the era of widespread fragmentation, has brought with it an undermining of many of the things previously held dear in society. Nationalism has come under fire, and the grand narratives of modernist society are no longer held with the same reverence as before. By looking at what postmodernism is, or can be, the Canon’s uneasy position in contemporary society will be established. Consequently the following question will be asked: can the modernist nationalism of the Danish government and the grand narrative of the Canon of Danish Art and Culture be reconciled with postmodernism?
Britain’s Independent on Sunday several years ago asked a number of celebrities to define the nature of postmodernism. Few could attempt an answer, but the then Head of BBC Music and Arts defined postmodernism as being “a rather glib way of saying flexibility; of saying that hierarchies aren’t what they used to be, that you can mix and match hierarchies of culture” (quoted in Watson, 2001, pg 54). The Canon of Danish Art and Culture provides little in the line of flexibility. It is a grand narrative, long dismissed by cultural theorists such as Lyotard and Baudrillard – it mimics a religious text in its finality and conclusiveness. It maps out the most saintly of all Danish cultural products, telling us the Gospel according to former Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen. With teams of prophets such as designer Louise Campbell, artist Bjørn Nørgaard, architect Lars Juel Thiis and many others with divine powers of selection, Mikkelsen constructed the commandments of culture, originally with seven sacraments of the arts. The sacred text has been preached to convert the pagans and philistines, those who previously haven’t worshipped at the altar of Danish culture and unite Denmark in a common cultural church. The language used here may seem over the top, but then, to some, the creation of a cultural canon may also seem over the top. Such a seemingly all-encompassing, ultimate, conclusive text seems deserving of literally being set in stone, ready to weather any cultural developments or changes in society. But global society right here and now is very different than it was in the Sixties and Seventies, when French philosophy became so concerned with it.
The Promised land
caption: Bjørn Nørgaard,The Promised land. image held here
The global economy has seemingly reached something of a peak, and we are now at the point of ‘make or break’, as our global economy slows down and society is altered because of it. We can’t continue the growth and development we’ve had so far, and we are potentially at a point where we stand Janus-faced in society: moving backwards and forwards at the same time. Society and culture has reached a point of inevitable change, so what does this mean for postmodernism? Will we look for the grand narrative again, as a way of mapping out an otherwise confusing cultural time? Will the Danish Cultural Canon be the first of many texts we will use to anchor us in a cultural storm?
With society and philosophy’s development into the age of postmodernism that now is so normal to us, along came a break-down and disintegration of many of the former cornerstones of modern life. Grand narratives are (or at least should be, in the eyes of postmodern theorists) no more, and antiquated notions of nationalism should be cast aside. The Canon of Danish Art and Culture, as an ultimate, irrefutable text and as an expression of staunch nationalism, is outdated in a postmodern society. But society is in a state of flux, and perhaps what we need when everything is disintegrating and nothing is static is a canon: something concrete, definitive, and solid. Nonetheless, with its limited inclusions taken out of historical and international contexts, and its association with an unhealthy right-wing nationalism, could the Canon be something rotten in the state of Denmark?
Aideen McCole is studying History of Art and Design and Craft Design (BA) in NCAD.
Weblinks: - official website for the Canon - Ministry of Culture's introduction to the Canon project
Nelson, Robert and Shiff, Richard (2003), Critical Terms for Art History, Second Edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Barker, Chris (2000), Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice, London: Sage Publications
Du Gay, Paul and Stuart Hall (eds) (1996), Questions of Cultural Identity, Sage Publications, London.
Thorndahl, Jytte (2006), Canonising Cultural Products: For What Purpose?, paper given at CIMUSET conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; available:
Watson, Nigel (2001), 'Postmodernism and Lifestyles (or: You Are What You Buy)' in The Routledge Companion of Postmodernism, by Stuart Sim (ed), Routledge, London