After his tragic death in a car accident last week, Lars Vilks has been celebrated in Swedish opinion pages and arts sections as one of the most important artists of our time, an honour which he never received during his lifetime. This was taken furthest by Dagens Nyheter, the country’s largest daily newspaper, where the senior art critic Dan Jönsson argued that when the Swedish art history of the 2000s is written, Vilks may very well be “all that is left.”
Since then, the right-wing commentariat has been in full swing, upholding Vilks as a martyr for free speech. Meanwhile, the space for dissenting opinions has, with a few exceptions, been limited. Dagens Nyheter’s opinion pages set the tone by calling out those who refuse to unequivocally defend Vilks’s infamous work, Muhammad as a Roundabout Dog (2007), as cowards and traitors. In the left-wing newspaper ETC, Bilal Osman noted that criticising Vilks’s work is still often seen as opposing freedom of expression, rather than “manifesting it.”
It is possible that Jönsson is right, and that every Swedish artist should capitulate in the face of Vilks’s overpowering genius. A different interpretation would be to regard the hysteria surrounding his legacy as an expression of the crisis of liberalism and its increasingly desperate attempts to deal with real political conflicts by focusing on symbolic issues.
I am reminded of the animated debate about changing the name of the exhibition space The White Sea at the University of Art, Craft, and Design in Stockholm which raged earlier this spring. Then, it was anti-racism and everyone’s equal value which were presented as things that one is either for or against. Now, it is the limits of freedom of expression that are policed by controlling masters who interpret every nuance as treachery.
What is problematic about these debates is the superficial posing. The University of Art, Craft, and Design will not become less racist or more equal if student activists rename an exhibition space, and freedom of speech will not stand or fall with Vilks’s roundabout dog. Both can be seen as artistic statements which create new communities and new exclusions. What is missing is the sense of proportion which is usually maintained as long as art stays in contact with reality, i.e. before it floats off into ideological abstractions and discussions of principles.
Indeed, the dividing line in the debate doesn’t have to be drawn between the principled right-wing liberal who stands up for freedom of speech, and the leftist coward who doesn’t dare to stand up against political extremism. It can also be drawn between those who believe that art should made a tool in symbolic political struggles, and those who don’t.
Gitte Ørskou expressed as much in an article in Helsingborg’s Dagblad, where the Danish-born director explained why Moderna Museet will not acquire Muhammad as a Roundabout Dog. In a response to the paper’s art critic Thomas Millroth – who believes that Vilks’s work should be in the collection because it has reached “a large audience” and “intervened in society” – Ørskou emphasised that creating a stir in the name of art does not necessarily make something an important work of art. Vilks’s roundabout dog doesn’t show us anything we didn’t already know, she argues. On the contrary, it cements well-known conflicts and therefore does not belong in the museum’s collections. I read her as meaning that Vilks’s work simplifies rather than deepens our understanding of the relationship between art and politics. Which, to me, is precisely what the recent week’s debate has demonstrated.
One of Vilks’s most ardent supporters, Mårten Arndtzén, who is a senior art critic for Swedish Radio, thinks differently. In an opinion piece, again published in Dagens Nyheter, Arndtzén claims to have heard a “sigh of relief rustle throughout the country (or at least among Stockholm’s intelligentsia)” after Ørskou’s article. Arndtzén wants to separate freedom and social justice and believes that the latter is what is advocated in Swedish cultural policy, which Ørskou is acting in harmony with. Yet, imagining freedom without justice – e.g. a fair distribution of resources and the attendant possibilities – is part and parcel of a populist logic where, for instance, an establishment (i.e. the intelligentsia) is set against a freedom-wielding rebel (i.e. Vilks).
The same logic can lead an artist to exhibit, in the name of freedom of expression, at an arts venue governed by a radical right-wing political agenda, as Vilks recently did at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. Meanwhile, his supporters can make a big deal of how unfree Swedish cultural life is while ignoring the right-wing extremism lurking in the shadows. If I didn’t know better, I would think that Arndtzén is advocating a right-wing radicalisation of cultural policy. More likely, he just hasn’t reflected on what a real lack of freedom actually means.
As I read the umpteenth article shamelessly exploiting Vilks’s death in order to sell sob stories in the news section and political ideology on the opinion pages, it seems more and more remarkable that leading art critics support this racket by taking on the role of the artist’s devout disciples, publishing a kind of exegesis of what he did and didn’t say, what he actually meant, and so on. In a follow-up piece, Jönsson goes as far as to claim that Vilks is not only an extremely important artist, but “the only truly political contemporary artist.” To even hint at the shortfalls of the only one’s deep knowledge and pure spirit seems to make him furious!
In her article, Ørskou mentions being taken aback by the overwhelming support for Vilks’s great artistic significance among so many of the country’s most established art critics. I can understand that, as it is a rather strange opinion for anyone with some knowledge about contemporary art to hold. But in fact, it has long been obvious that many Swedish critics, particularly the older generation, have derived a large part of their art-theoretical education from Vilks’s blog, believing his theories to be the truth about how contemporary art works.
Without going into any detail, the argument is based on the notion that art magically exists in a separate sphere of society. When an artwork exceeds the boundaries of that sphere – the “art bubble,” in Jönsson’s words – it automatically becomes “political.” This idea that art becomes more real (or really political) by creating a stir results in a form of empty post-criticism for an art without content and a politics without ideology. Or without an ideology of its own, rather, as it can hardly result in anything other than passive complicity, no matter how much it wants to defend a transcendental principle of freedom. This is one reason why I’m convinced that Muhammad as a Roundabout Dog will never be regarded as an important work of art by serious critics and art historians of the future.
Vilks himself seems to have been driven by an urge to revolt against the establishment, but I doubt that he achieved more artistic freedom – except, possibly, for right-wing populists. At least if his followers succeed in getting Moderna Museet to buy his drawing. Should that happen, it would probably contribute to right-wing populism becoming more accepted as an artistic and political stance just in time for the Swedish election in 2022. Vilks himself might not have spread art hate, but many of his supporters in old and new media are now laying the foundation for it. Thankfully, there are many artists who stand for completely different values. And fortunately, the idea that they will all be erased from memory a hundred years from now is nothing but utter fantasy.