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A Visual Perspective on Scandinavian Culture

December 21, 2017

Portrait of Benjamin Bigelow

Portrait of Benjamin Bigelow
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

American media and film has in many ways been shaped by the influences of Scandinavian cinema and visual arts. From The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to Oslo, August 31st, Scandinavian cinema has inspired new trends in western crime and thriller entertainment.

Assistant Professor Benjamin Bigelow, who began teaching in the German, Scandinavian and Dutch (GSD) department this fall, studies and teaches what makes Scandinavian cinema the driving cultural force that it is today. “Scandinavian Studies at the University of Minnesota is at a turning point and we're thrilled that Ben Bigelow has joined the department to help us build for the future,” says Charlotte Melin, chair of GSD.

“I always knew that I wanted to study literature or culture,” Bigelow says, “but traveling to Norway as an undergraduate and being taken with their culture encouraged me to pursue Scandinavian studies.”

Hailing from northern California, Bigelow earned a PhD from the University of California–Berkeley, where he studied Scandinavian languages and literatures, with a focus on film studies. Film studies provided him with a unique opportunity to draw connections back to Scandinavian culture, while doing research on early sound films.

Minnesota and Scandinavia: A Cultural Connection

Bigelow enjoys teaching at UMN, where there is a “natural Scandinavian cultural connection.” He sees elements of Scandinavian culture, such as strong family ties and tightly-knit communities, here because of Minnesota’s historical status as an immigration hub for people from Scandinavian countries. “Many of my students have a Norwegian grandpa, Swedish grandmother, or Finnish great-grandfather,” he says.

Regardless of whether someone claims Scandinavian heritage or not, Bigelow notes that “people think of Scandinavia as an idealized political and cultural ‘other.’” However, he points out, Scandinavia is not a utopia. Although it’s world-renowned for a high quality of life, Bigelow says that “it is important for individuals to become educated in Scandinavian culture and society to gain a more realistic perspective on Scandinavian countries.”

Something for Everybody

In our present visual age, studying media and the arts is a great way to gain a better understanding of and appreciation for other cultures. By teaching classes structured around Scandinavian literature and media, Bigelow offers students the opportunity to encounter and deepen their understanding of that part of the world.

Bigelow explains that this model means that his courses “have a little bit of something for everybody.” He envisions creating media courses that would capitalize on the GSD department’s strong interdisciplinary connections across the College of Liberal Arts and beyond. Disciplinary overlaps provide exciting new opportunities, such as potential cooperative courses between GSD, cultural studies and comparative literature, and other UMN departments.

For Bigelow, Scandinavian media offers a key way to explore how Scandinavian society works. “Scandinavian arts are often very critical of society,” he says, noting that they often critique politics, current cultural norms, and more. And, as students learn about how Scandinavian arts scrutinize the fabric of that society, they are also practicing how to approach books, movies, and art in general, and are thus better equipped to understand their own society and culture by exploring the art it produces.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.