The Bonfire of the Vanities, or Art’s New Servitude

The debate about new anti-racist policies at the University of Art, Craft, and Design in Stockholm reveals art’s embrace of a representative civil service culture.

A painting by an unknown Florentine master depicting the execution of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, on May 22 1498. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

On 7 February 1497, a bonfire was lit for our sins in Piazza della Signoria in Florence. It was the last – and, as legend has it, the most magnificent – of the religious zealot Fra Girolamo Savonarola’s public cleansings, where sinful objects like mirrors, cosmetics, and nude, antique sculptures were thrown on the fire. It is even said that Sandro Botticelli burned several of his paintings on this “bonfire of the vanities,” as it has come to be called. Whether the artist acted out of religious conviction or to manifest a political alliance is shrouded in the obscurity of history.

A few weeks ago, a new bonfire of the vanities was lit in Sweden as Sara Kristoffersson, professor of Design History at the University of Art, Craft, and Design in Stockholm, published an opinion piece in Dagens Nyheter, which ignited media outrage about the suggestion to change the name of the school’s exhibition venue Vita havet (or “The White Sea”). Finally, it seemed, Sweden had its own event comparable to the so-called “bust-action” at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts – which culminated in the firing of Vice Chancellor Kirsten Langkilde in December – and the debate around Oslo National Academy of the Arts – which resulted in the resignation of Vice Chancellor Måns Wrange in October. Konstfack’s vice chancellor, Maria Lanz, is still in office at a school that seems fraught with internal division.     

To sum things up: The activist group Brown Island has, in dialogue with school management and with the support of forty-four professors, teachers, and PhD students, argued to change the venue’s name based on what they see as its connection to concepts such as the white cube, on the one hand, and white supremacy, on the other. Kristoffersson and a chorus of liberal and conservative opinion makers have dismissed the argument as speculative and/or historically false. The group from the University of Art, Craft, and Design has argued, in its turn, that their detractors oversimplify and/or distort the school’s extensive anti-racist efforts, which have been underway for years. Most involved seem to insist that they’d much rather discuss other, more principled and complex, issues than the name change – to which the debate nevertheless keeps circling back.

Indeed, there’s no reason to accept the premises of this debate, which is so misguided that I hardly know where to start. Firstly, there are all the right wing opinion makers with their crocodile tears over the working class, who they fear will no longer feel welcome at the University of Art, Craft, and Design due to its anti-racist policies. These professional mourners would be more credible if they had cared about the very real problem of social recruitment bias before, and had at least some idea about how the issue could be countered. Instead, they are content to suggest that institutions would become more inclusive if they engaged in less anti-racism. This assumes that the working class is 1) white, and 2) if not racist, then at least not anti-racist; assumptions which are both condescending and blatantly false. Indeed, those who assume that low-income earners are ignorant only reveal their own lack of enlightenment.  

The opposing side is also misguided in acting as if anti-racism is a specific set of opinions rather than a question of equal rights. Besides access to economic capital, social capital and networks are key factors for anyone considering pursuing an art degree (they will definitely be crucial for those who want a career after graduation). This means that, for instance, a future artist of colour who does not agree with the political analysis that forms the basis of the school’s anti-racist efforts risks being twice marginalised. White privilege and the privileging of certain opinions would then have worked together to create a twofold pattern of exclusion.

This brings us back to the bonfire of the vanities, which, contrary to what some pundits claim, was hardly lit by the heirs of the dogmatic left-wing movements of the 1970s. On the contrary, both sides of the debate are keen to draw boundaries of opinion that are safely within the framework of today’s hegemonic worldview. Indeed, the Vita havet debate is a carbon copy of the identity politics squabble that the left, specifically, has continuously warned is an attempt by political elites to undermine legitimate demands for real political change. In fact, that the debate was recently praised by the president of the Stockholm School of Economics, Lars Strannegård, makes perfect sense, since it can be used as case study for financial elites on how to handle social justice movements by ‘listening to’ and ‘including’ different voices without being forced to make any costly concessions – and without upsetting the real balance of power. Go to the board room, without passing go!  

This is precisely what I cautioned against in ‘En annan konstvärld är möjlig’ (Another Art World Is Possible) [Swedish only] in Kunstkritikk 2015. In the article, I criticised the overwhelming dominance of white people in the Swedish art world, and cautioned that BIPoC artists would only be given more space by conceding to a more consensual, policing, and representational regime of art. Consensual, because it would be more concerned with establishing communities of opinion than with challenging them. Policing, because it would be more concerned with defending borders than crossing them; which is to say, with determining what may and may not be said and shown. Representative, because it would be more concerned with monitoring who should or should not say what is being said, instead of repealing already existing social hierarchies and forms of dominance. This pretty much sums up the intervening years. 

The problem with such developments is that instead of contributing to a more heterogeneous and dynamic art scene, they risk creating new opportunities for right-thinking masters and commissars to dictate what may be said and not said, shown and not shown. Surely, such a civil service mentality is nothing less than a recipe for increased social conformism, stagnation, and new forms of oppression, which, according to what I have heard, is exactly what is happening in art academies today – even if few individuals dare to testify to the matter.

A real discussion about who has access to art education and cultural life can, as I see it, only occur when cultural workers stop identifying with the people in the boardrooms. This only contributes to a false image of the art world as a privileged middle-class sphere, when, in reality, artists are a low-paid precariat. Furthermore, we need to stop believing in fairy tales about how art can influence what society has failed to change. This only perpetuates the fantasy of art having a societal benefit in a democratic society where art should have no real influence over anything other than its own conditions. Of course, there will always be “Botticellis” who are willing to trade in art’s autonomy for political gains, but as recent events remind us they should preferably not be a prominent feature at the art schools.

How did we end up here? Well, one factor is surely the neo-bourgeois cultural policies that were introduced in Sweden during the 2010s. In many ways, they are a model for entrepreneurs rather than artists, emphasising, among other things, art’s social function over its autonomy, and stressing diversity instead of building on equality as a political principle. The first makes artists easier to control by giving them a false sense of power; the second opens up for pitting groups against each other instead of prioritising equal access to culture. As a consequence, the Swedish art world has perhaps never been so diverse, nor has it seen as much socially engaged art as it does today. Yet, I fear that this has come at the cost of a weaker defence not only of art’s autonomy, but also of the political ideal of universal equality. In effect, this development has served to promote a servile stance marked by a misguided respect for propriety and existing forms of dominance, which, as everyone knows, art should seek to abolish.

Frans Josef Petersson, Kunstkritikk’s Swedish editor.