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The Aesthetics of Welfare

Annual Review Article 2020

The Aesthetics of Welfare seeks to understand the Nordic model as an aesthetic laboratory and develop a theory of “the aesthetics of welfare”.

By Lasse Horne Kjældgaard, professor, Dr.Phil, PhD, Department of Communication and Arts, Roskilde University

“The Nordic model” is famous around the world. Since the 1930s, the welfare state has put the Nordic region on the political world map, becoming increasingly crucial to the Nordic sense of self and how the region is perceived by the outside world. 

The model represents a dream of combining individual freedom with social security that is almost as familiar and controversial as another dream from the 1930s – the American dream – and that often turns up in the political debate in many countries, in various forms and with changing values. 

The poster from Bo Widerbergs ”Mannen på taket” from 1976

The symbolic importance of the model is both clear and significant, and is in evidence nationally, regionally and internationally, and both collectively and individually. 

There is a long tradition within the social sciences of analysing the model’s political economy and the special relationships between individual, state, market and family that it creates and is based on, for example in social and labour-market policy.

The welfare state as an innovative “aesthetic” Laboratory

In recent decades, interest in the cultural premises of the welfare state and the diverse cultural and artistic idioms with which it is associated has increasingly spread within the humanistic subjects, particularly in the case of currents with international prevalence. 

Whether Nordic (furniture) design, New Nordic Cuisine, the concepts of hygge and lykke – cosiness and happiness – or Nordic Noir in book or TV form, the Nordic model is often included in the reception and marketing of these phenomena. 

It is thus well known that the Nordic welfare state constitutes a political and social experiment that has developed into a unique social model and, yes, into a global brand. 

What is less known is that it is also an innovative “aesthetic laboratory”, where art – in the broad sense – has assumed new functions and forms. It is precisely this aspect of the Nordic model that the research project The Aesthetics of Welfare wants to bring into focus. 

Whether Nordic (furniture) design, New Nordic Cuisine, the concepts of hygge and lykke – cosiness and happiness – or Nordic Noir in book or TV form, the Nordic model is often included in the reception and marketing of these phenomena

The project brings together social-science and humanistic research traditions in a monograph study of the aesthetics of welfare. The book that will emerge from the project will identify the different aesthetic ideas and energies to which the pursuit of welfare has given rise, as well as the significant aesthetic challenges the self-same project brings in its wake. 

One of the ways it will do this is by examining how certain problems, paradoxes and dilemmas accompanying the welfare project can be artistically productive or problematic. 

Another way in which it will do this is by looking at how prominent features of the Nordic model identified by comparative welfare-state research correlate with trends within Nordic literature and film in the post-war period. 

For example, this could be the special family policy and family legislation of the Nordic countries, which has led to an extremely high level of defamilialisation, to use the term coined by Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen. 

He has pointed out that the “The Nordic welfare states remain the only ones where social policy is explicitly designed to maximize women’s economic independence”. 

What does this mean as an institutional context for Nordic film and literature in the post-war period? Does this special characteristic provide a framework for understanding certain aesthetic and sociological patterns in art?

Asger Jorn’s painting ”Velfærd” from 1964.

Input for comparative welfare research

The book will pursue this line in a series of chapters that identify and analyse a number of genres and currents within international literature and film that transmute into something new and different in Scandinavia as a result of being transplanted to the Nordic welfare state. 

The comparative method used in the project will thus identify cultural mechanisms that can help explain how artistic forms are changed and adapted for new purposes. 

One example is the American procedural police crime novel, which is transformed into the sociological crime novel – or “Nordic Noir” – at the interface with the welfare state, the conditions and problems of which the genre examines. 

It is precisely this genre that has been productive in Nordic literature and has become an international export good in several media. 

Taking such examples as a starting point, The Aesthetics of Welfare seeks to understand the Nordic model as an aesthetic laboratory and develop a theory of “the aesthetics of welfare”. 

This is intended as a contribution to the emerging field of cultural studies of the Nordic model and to the further internationalisation of the field. 

But the project seeks also to provide input for comparative welfare-state research. Previous typological theories of the Nordic welfare state model have completely disregarded the central role that art and cultural policy have played in the project. 

In contrast, The Aesthetics of Welfare will consider whether this overlooked characteristic should be considered a salient feature of the Nordic model.