Freedom for Whom?

The Danish government’s bill to counteract Quran burnings sacrifices art’s autonomy, ambiguity, and freedom.

Bjørn Nørgaard and Lene Adler Petersen, The Expulsion from the Temple / Female Christ, 1969. Performance at the Copenhagen Stock Exchange, 29 May 1969. Photo: John Davidsen.

When I first heard about the government’s new bill in the end of August, it was presented as a “pin-prick operation” intended to prevent public burnings of the Quran. I thought: “All right, I can live with that kind of legislative intervention.”

However, the actual bill now proposed is not the pinprick operation we were promised, but a sweeping blow that cuts deep into artistic freedom. The Danish art scene is finally realising this – for example, the Academy Council and the organisation Danish Visual Artists have spoken out against the bill this week – but why has it taken so long to arrive at that point? For weeks, journalists have tried to rally not only the artists, but also the directors of museums and art galleries. Where are you? Why aren’t you speaking up? Why this silence?

Amidst chores such as changing nappies and planning the semesters for the coming academic year, I pondered whether it is really fair to demand that any given artist should voice a public opinion. I myself did not particularly want to enter into the discussion. At the same time, it was striking to note how the Danish art world, which for a decade has legitimised its moral positions with slogans such as “silence is violence,” suddenly appeared unusually silent, unusually apolitical, and unusually busy.

The bill on the “Prohibition of improper treatment of objects with significant religious significance for a religious community” begins by accounting for why the proposed change to Danish legislation is put forward: it is prompted by the repeated Quran burnings and the heightened threat of terrorist attacks against Denmark which has followed in its wake. It then elaborates on the actual ban against “improper treatment of objects of significant religious significance for a religious community.”

I must admit to being shocked and angered when I reached the following passage: “In order to avoid circumvention by staging a situation where the object being treated improperly is not an actual object of significant religious significance, but an object designed in such a way that it appears to be an object of significant religious significance, it is proposed that the prohibition should also include such an object.”

This means that the prohibition not only applies to the actual object of significant religious significance (such as a crucifix, a Quran, or any other object of significance to any other religious community), but also to objects shaped or devised in such a way that they appear to be such an object of significant religious significance. The ban thus strikes directly at the artistic and critical processing of religious symbols, which is why any future position critical of religion will not only be highly precarious, but incur the risk of prosecution and a penalty of up to two years in prison.

I immediately picked out three highly blasphemous works by the American artist Lee Lozano shown in the exhibition The Ultimate Metaphor Is A Mirror at Kunstforeningen Gl. Strand last year, posted them on Facebook and wrote: “Here are some examples of works that could be censored in the future. My choice of Lozano and that particular exhibition was no accident.”

In my capacity as an educator at an art academy, I had invested more than usual energy in that exhibition. I had arranged a guided tour for the students, ploughed my way through three books about her work, read several articles online, and spent most of an entire working week preparing a two-hour lecture on the significance of her overall artistic endeavours. Why?

Because Lozano’s work puts forth a fierce and explosive cultural critique of those facets of the United States that are founded on moral absolutism and which therefore perceive God and weapons as two sides of the same coin, resulting in an incredible amount of religiously motivated violence. Because she is a key figure for anyone wishing to understand the experimental art scene of 1960s USA. Because, in many ways, she is more complex and interesting than her male colleagues who continue to eclipse her in the annals of art history. In other words, there is still scope for discovery and interpretation, still work to be done, and her rich and diverse oeuvre is a fantastic starting point for learning and criticism. The idea that parts of her body of work should suddenly be banned was a completely appalling thought, but also strangely absurd. Banned in Denmark?

I highlight this example because it is extremely important for the debate to make it clear that empty racist provocations intended to mock, demean, and hurt other people are by no means the only utterances that will be affected by this bill. It is a real and far-reaching intervention into the overall field of artistic activity. Not a pinprick operation, but a fell swoop, an axe blow. In this case, it would deal a severe blow to an artist’s reception history.

A comment on my post on Facebook subsequently alerted me to the fact that I might have misunderstood the text of the bill, and that matters might not be as bad as I claimed. Because the legal text actually made exceptions for, among other things, drawings. Relieved – if slightly embarrassed at not having done my homework more thoroughly – I went back to the text. But further reading revealed that, sadly, the text only became even more far-reaching and even more catastrophically problematic.

Unofficially translated from the original Danish, it says: “The provision will not include depictions, reproductions or imitations of objects with significant religious significance in the form of, for example, drawings, paintings, pictures, models or the like, unless it is an imitation or similar reproduction which cannot immediately be distinguished from the actual object of significant religious significance.”

The crucial part is what comes after the word “unless,” because who will decide – and how – whether the object in question is “an imitation or similar reproduction which cannot immediately be distinguished from the actual object of significant religious significance?”

In Christian orthodoxy, there is no firm set of guidelines for the precise design of a crucifix. It can vary greatly in size and be made of all kinds of materials, for example, clay, wood, or metal. There is no “original” at all, only variations on and imitations of the original cross on which Christ was crucified. In the case of the crucifix, the “object of significant religious significance” is a symbol, and this in itself makes for a strangely arbitrary law that would seemingly allow Lozano’s drawings, but if she had chosen to represent the same subject in clay, wood, metal, or as part of a performance, then these works of art would, according to the text of the bill, fall within the scope of the ban.

“When assessing whether a given object appears like an object with significant religious significance for a religious community, emphasis will thus be placed on whether the object lends itself to being mistaken for said religious object by those who witness the improper treatment, or the outside world in general,” the bill goes on to say. 

Now let us imagine an artist who, on the basis of their sexual orientation, has been persecuted, humiliated, and tortured by religious police. This artist now wishes to create, in Denmark, a performance which includes “objects of significant religious significance” from the religious community in question. Because the artist wishes to exhibit the utterly offensive fact that the religious police actually use “objects of significant religious significance” to justify their torture. If I were this performance artist, I would, based on the text of this proposed law, be rather more anxious than usual about who might be watching my performance and whether those watching might misinterpret or construe my actions in such a way that I would be prosecuted afterwards.

So what, then, is understood by improper/inappropriate treatment? The bill says: “This means actions whereby these objects are destroyed in a derogatory or defamatory manner or are otherwise physically treated in a derogatory or defamatory manner. The proposed provision will, depending on the circumstances, include any improper treatment, including burning, soiling, and stomping on or kicking the object, or that the object is destroyed by, for example, tearing it, cutting into it or the like. This will also include cases where the object is stabbed with a knife.”

The fact that works and actions by Hermann Nitsch, Dieter Roth, Lene Adler Petersen & Bjørn Nørgaard, Marina Abramovic, Pussy Riot, Andres Serrano, Augusta Atla, Jens Jørgen Thorsen, Helmut Newton, Ai Weiwei and a large number of musicians and fashion designers are at risk of being censored is one thing. Another aspect of the issue is that any artist who now wants to express criticism of religion in their work must now think very carefully to avoid risking a fine or imprisonment for up to two years.

If a religious community feels offended by an artistic statement based on a particular single reading of an ambiguous work, who is responsible for the offence? The creator of the work? Or can the offence be self-inflicted? After all, fundamentalist religion is notoriously bad at understanding art because it does not recognise art’s fundamental premises: ambiguity, criticism, satire, meta-layers, irony, paradoxes, ambivalence, unstable positions of expression, etc. Accommodating offended religious communities with legal provisions in hand thus involves great danger of concurrently denying art its own tradition and professional approach, and it strikes against and denies the ambiguity of the works of art. Doing so is to give priority to the unambiguous over the ambiguous, the black-and-white over the nuanced. The true victim here will be art’s professional autonomy, its ambiguity, and its freedom.

Not only is this an emphatic encroachment on artistic freedom. It also compromises the humanistic principle of giving a voice to victims of totalitarian forms of government that justify their exercise of power by pointing to religion.

There are cases where silence is actually violence – where censorship serves the wrongdoer and the victims are left in the lurch. The government’s bill is, in principle, such a case. This is an incredibly bad time to be unprincipled.

– Ferdinand Ahm Krag (b. 1977) graduated from The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 2006. Since 2018 he has been employed as a professor in painting at the same institution.

Lee Lozano, Untitled, 1963. Pencil on paper.