A social climate that is directly harmful to the arts seems to be part of the DNA of Swedish cultural life. As early as 1781, the writer Thomas Thorild complained about Stockholm’s “constant wave of etiquette,” and fifteen years later, the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in Letters from a Journey in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1795) about how one’s “freedom of action is constantly restrained by [the Swedes’] over-acted civility” which “consists merely of tiresome forms and ceremonies.” In the 1940s, after only a few days in the Swedish capital, Simone de Beauvoir exclaimed “how can you experience anything when you have to say polite things all the time… There must be an end to it! I have to get a gun, I’m going to shoot.” Swedish cultural life – characterised by a do-good attitude and the demand to do and say what you should, to show that you are in accord – gave the French philosopher nightmares for weeks afterwards.
The remarkable thing about Swedish society is how etiquette, i.e. rules for good behaviour, gives a corrective weight to all demands for conformity. Even in today’s art world, it is not the politically correct opinions that are the problem (they are just opinions, after all), but the obsessive and self-righteous demands of politically correct people, who insist that everyone must conform to their values; the moralising tone and the narcissistic offence taken when someone breaks etiquette are dreadful weapons against sensitive entities like artworks and critics. It is an extremely narrow-minded society that wants to force us all to conform.
Today, it is clear that a new “wave of etiquette” affects art criticism, and not only in Sweden. The Danish critic Kristian Vistrup Madsen claims, in his opinion piece ‘Conversations With Friends’, that the conditions of criticism have changed as the entire art world has become “sectarian.” Madsen acknowledges that none of the major conversations during his time as a critic have been about art, but rather “who made it, who paid for it, and where it was shown.” He hesitantly refers to these conversations as art criticism, and I have no problem understanding the hesitation because, since the days of institutional art theory, it is not strange to view art as the product of a given work and its conditions of display (the design of the exhibition, for example). Indeed, a work’s status as art could even be seen as a result of its entry into the art world.
Yet, institutional theory was based on the assumption that the whole system existed to give space to the work of artists. In effect, there was an almost anthropological interest in seeing what people do of their own volition, unhindered by a society in which most people do not dispose of their time freely. As Stian Gabrielsen points out in the opinion piece ‘You Are a Target’, art today is instead defined by what is viewed as “relevant” in the present moment. This leads to a shift in power from the artists to the administration, as they are the ones who claim the right to determine what is relevant – which is always something outside the realm of art. I have even come across curators and directors of art institutions who say that it doesn’t matter whether the art they show is good or not because more relevant things are at stake!
So there is a conflict: should the administration act in the interest of art, or should art serve the interest of the administration? I believe that the Swedish critic Sinziana Ravini once gave a particularly lucid answer to this question. In a piece about anti-Semitism at Documenta 15 for the Swedish daily Aftonbladet, Ravini imagines that as the administration of art continues to grow there will soon be a commission to monitor the curators, leading to an increasingly policed art world. This “is really a shame,” she emphasises, as “there is a great risk that the result is a new category of Entartete Kunst. Whatever the case, art has always thrived on limits and bans.” Even if that were true, I don’t think we should multiply the bans in order to make art thrive. One single law would be enough: a total ban on art – outright, with heavy penalties – would truly liberate it. It wouldn’t stop interesting artists from making art, but today’s highly bureaucratised art world would disappear.
In the absence of such a ban, critics must learn to differentiate institutional discourse from art itself. We often place way too much trust in the discourse, acting like it’s the artwork that demands us to behave politely, while, in fact, it’s the administration’s imperative. A clear example was the reception of the Moderna Exhibition in 2018, the museum’s recurring presentation of Swedish contemporary art. Even before the opening, critics had already had enough of the somewhat fussy moralising pretence that pervaded the exhibition. What they missed was that it was an excellent show – well curated and with good works. What was the problem? Not the art, but the reception, which had become focused on the framing rather than the works themselves and wasn’t able to free itself from the discourse.
The situation is quite severe now, as even the administrators themselves have to acknowledge that artists are moving in a different direction. Perhaps they are also aware that everyone knows that they don’t always work in the best interest of art, but rather use art as a means to more pressing issues, or even to advance their own careers. They are keen to hide this fact, hoping that good etiquette will prevent too much scrutiny.
Sometimes, it is the artists who expose them. Fatima Moallim, who caught the public’s eye at the aforementioned Moderna Exhibition, later took a stand at the 2021 Gothenburg Biennial, which thematised Sweden’s colonial history. Since her work had nothing to to with the subject matter, she felt like she was invited to represent a group. Instead of going along with it, she exhibited a small photo of her face, like on an ID card, placed in the middle of a huge white passepartout, holding up a sign that read “I claim my right to be complex.” She told me that her work came from the frustration of being constantly treated as a representative rather than an artist, her art becoming less important than the curator’s ability to project their agenda onto her identity.
It’s worth noting that Moallim is self-taught, which means that she has not spent five years being schooled to embrace the idea that an artist should conform to the prevailing discourse. It is obvious that there are administrative interests in the production of a certain type of art that are holding both artists and critics in their grip. It may, of course, be important to promote diversity or the democratisation of art, but given how many artists there are in every conceivable group, it should not be so hard for a curator to fulfil their cultural policy obligations while at the same time finding art that is relevant to their theme. When they instead settle for finding representatives of groups, they end up drowning the art in discourse, making it almost un-viewable. They, in fact, prevent art from being seen.
The fact that artists and critics accept being pushed around by the art world is starting to resemble a Stockholm Syndrome in which we have become unhealthily dependent on those who kidnap art for their own interests. Let’s forget the art world! If we need to regulate the freedom of art in order to establish a common space around it, I suggest that we critics, instead of submitting to administrative interests, interpret works based on the need for art that we experience as human beings. That would make criticism legitimate. I should think that few of us have such unique needs that at least someone else could relate to the criticism. A small common space would then have be established, grounded in a critical relationship to the art work, beyond control, influence, or dissatisfaction.