Ten months ago, I resigned my job on one of Britain’s oldest music magazines, left the apartment in London I’d spent five years renovating and came to live in Denmark. I’d been visiting the country on-and-off for a while, sent here to report on arts events by newspapers and magazines at home. Increasingly I came to believe that in Denmark the arts were valued, were thriving, were fearless and were making a genuine difference to people’s lives while creating a strong impression abroad. From its egalitarian modern opera house to the reckless and indiscriminate creativity of Distortion, I felt this country – from my limited experience – had it right.
And I wanted to report on it. In an age where dubious religion has been replaced with the soulless pursuit of money, I felt the world could learn from Denmark’s creative ferocity and the communicative and soulful nourishment it fostered. As foreigners asked themselves why this little country was continually rated the happiest in the world, here was a chance to point to its enlightened legislative attitude towards culture and education.
A year later, those sentiments feel a little naïve, even embarrassing. In that time, Denmark’s international reputation among progressive individuals has plummeted, mostly due to the government’s decision to legalise stealing from refugees. But that act of cynicism is the tip of an iceberg.
Largely concealed from international attention are the huge cuts to Danish welfare and education sytems that are models of accessibility and economic delivery, as well as weakened environmental policies. Add to that a colossal reduction in funding for arts and culture that connect people – including immigrants like me – to what it means to be alive.
Offering a safe, dignified home to fellow human beings is a matter life and death. How can that be compared to art? There are a few reasons. Firstly, as a proportion of government spending, culture is tiny. Secondly, it pays off financially in tax-receipts and job creation. And thirdly, it’s not about either of those things. It’s about placing value on something other than economic gain, on experiences that help us think, share, question, respect and love – that make sense of our welcoming of refugees in the first place. Even the neoliberal government in Britain increased its culture budget in 2015, stating that to do otherwise would be ‘a false economy’.
Not so in Denmark, where spending on culture is to be reduced by 600 million kroner. The Royal Theatre has had its budget cut by 35 million (that, after major cuts in 2011). The net effect for the theatre, among other things, is the impending loss of 14 positions in its orchestra. Arts organisations in the region are on their knees, unable to do more than the bare minimum (outreach work, experimental projects and cross-cultural collaborations are usually the first to be ditched). Ticket prices will be hiked to help cover the shortfall, taking performances out of the reach of many. Before long, an entire generation of Danes will become strangers to creativity. Denmark will slip into international invisibility, no longer delivering Lars von Triers, Kasper Holtens or Møs to do great work on a world stage and inspire other Danes to follow them.
Not long ago I saw the opera Lohengrin here in Copenhagen. I can hardly describe how radiantly beautiful the orchestra sounded with the right number of musicians. As an opera critic, I was able to report to my editors in New York and London that the show was a good one. As a human being, I was shell-shocked by the story, how well it had been told and what bearing it might have on my own existence. Opera can be difficult and it has a bad reputation. But in Copenhagen, in a modern theatre with a more down-to-earth audience, opera is as good as it gets. If I invited my mates from language school along to see Lohengrin, I know they’d be moved and changed by it. Government subsidy means – for the moment – that they’d also be able to afford the 125 kroner the cheapest seats cost.
Time will tell whether Denmark’s great arts institutions will find the funding they need to survive, and whether they can continue to combine excellence and openness. Many foreigners admire Denmark because it always seemed to place value on those ephemeral things. If that changes, Denmark will have sold its soul, joining the world’s crushing corporate conveyer belt. Even worse: I’d have to move to Norway. M