Creativity From The Land Of Ice and Snow

Via Marginal Revolution comes a study about the high levels of creativity in Iceland  where:

….1 in 10 adults in the country have published a book, why playing in a band is considered a rite of passage, and why nearly everyone knows how to knit and sew…

“You have many people who don’t realize just how creative they are. I haven’t met a single family there that doesn’t have someone in a creative occupation such as the arts, innovative and technological sciences, writing, and new forms of creativity that technology has made possible like gaming and virtual reality,” Kerr says.

Icelanders credit their culture and education system and resist the more common explanation that the environment shapes them. That said, Barbara Kerr who was conducting the study cited,

The long, dark hours of winter lead residents to spend long periods of time indoors working together and the long summer days with little darkness lead to little sleep and uninterrupted periods of creation.

“I think of that as a perfect formula for creativity,” Kerr says. “Artists often have long periods of productivity followed by down phases of collaborative critique, editing, and reflection.”

I found this idea of a creative cycle somewhat intriguing. I am curious to know if Icelanders complain of creative blocks less frequently than other cultures due to this semi-forced period of inactivity. More specifically, do the cycle of the seasons make lack of productivity more personally and socially acceptable so people don’t feel pressured to produce.

The article also mentions that schools are focused around a process of hands-on problem solving and imaginative play rather than testing. There is a greater tolerance of behavior that deviates from the norm among children, at least as compared to the United States where children might be pressed to conform to a greater degree.

The article also notes that there are a lot of opportunities for creative expression in Iceland’s cities.

Reykjavik, the major city, abounds with makerspaces where creative people can work together, coffee shops, art galleries, and musical venues. And Icelandic cities have a good deal of public art, including people employed by the government as muralists, and many who have won government funding to support their art.

Not to diminish what is going on in Iceland, I am pleased to hear about the creative vitality of the country, I wonder how much of these findings are projected expectations. Basically, haven’t the people of Iceland found a system that works for the people of Iceland?

If we did a similar study in the United States, would there be claims of greater creativity in warmer climes like Florida and Los Angeles thanks to Disney, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Or would we find greater creativity in the northern areas thanks to activity in Seattle, Portland and Broadway or the cultural traditions of Minnesota and Vermont?

If we looked at Germany we could probably generate similar claims for various reasons. Different countries have their own dynamics borne of their history, geography, etc that manifest in interesting ways, strong by some measures and deficient in others.

Don’t get me wrong, the story about Iceland’s situation makes me a little envious. Maybe there is something intrinsically inspiring about Iceland. Led Zeppelin apparently wrote “Immigrant Song” after visiting the country.

There are absolutely elements of Iceland culture and society I think we need to strive for.  There are just a lot of conclusions and statements made in the story that appear to lack sufficient support of data and careful observation to draw and any lines between cause and effect. I can’t write a post about responsibly reading and interpreting research and then engage in blind adoration two weeks later.

Again, that said, even if it is an idealized representation of Icelandic creative life, it is an ideal we probably all want to strive toward. (Creativity as a cultural value and practice, not necessarily the long dark nights.) Absent Iceland, we would probably be talking about an Icelandic situation as a goal.


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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