The imprisonment of artists and the closing of galleries by government agents are incidents we associate with North Korea, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, not a progressive Scandinavian democracy. And yet, in July of this year, an exhibition of Swedish street artist Dan Park’s collages at the Rönnquist og Rönnquist gallery in Malmö was closed by Swedish police for violating the racism paragraph of Swedish law. Nine collages were confiscated and Dan Park was arrested and charged with “incitement against an ethnic group”, according to Swedish justice. In August, Park was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison and fined 60,000 Swedish kronor. The government then destroyed the offending works of art.
Granted, Park’s collages are disgusting and offensive. “Hang on Afrofobians” shows three black men in gallows (in part a reference to the racially motivated assault of Yusupha Sallah, a Gambian-Swedish man, by immigrants from the Middle East last year), another shows a pig with the Star of David shitting on the Gaza Strip, and a third shows a catholic priest getting sucked off by a young boy. They are the work of a coarse and uninteresting mind, consumed with shock and indignation. Unfortunately, the Swedish government took the bait; they foolishly legitimized, so to speak, his conscious provocations by giving him what he apparently wanted: martyrdom (why else would he choose not to appeal the verdict?). Hence the sign with which he replied to his demonstrators in front of the gallery in July: “Entartete Kunst” – the Nazi term for degenerate art – an uncomfortable reply to those who wish to censor it.
It is disheartening to see such a pathetic blow succeed. Imprisoned, Park has become the darling of so-called freedom of expression organizations in Scandinavia (such as the Trykkefrihedsselskabet), organizations that, lofty ideals aside, always seem a little too concerned with supporting demagogues like Geert Wilders, a man whose own appetite for free speech leaves much to be desired. This too is unfortunate, because defending Park’s right to express himself freely is only half the equation; just as important the other half is defending the right to criticize him – something Park’s supporters have been reluctant to point out.
Yet locking up people to speak out – as reprehensible and ignorant as those expressions may be – betrays a lack of faith in basic democratic principles. A man like Dan Park should be publicly challenged, not thrown in jail so that he can hide behind his new status as a martyr. As Ellen Willis wrote, freedom of expression deserves special status “not because it is harmless (all controversial speech is harmful from someone’s point of view), certainly not because it is harmless. consequence (if that was the case, no one would care), but because, in general, symbolic expression, as powerful as it is, leaves a space between the communicator and the recipient, a space to challenge, retaliate with his own words and images, organize to oppose any action that the abhorred speech may incite.
In other words, by censoring Dan Park, the Swedish government is also, to some extent, censoring its critics – because one cannot respond to or criticize something that has been deemed unsuitable for public viewing. With the reassurance that they are merely protected from the harms of racist speech, Park’s “victims” have been deprived of their right to respond in kind. They too were silenced and ordered to remain victims.
It’s hard not to see this controversy as a reflection of Sweden’s insidious political culture. The growing popularity of right-wing Sverigdemokraterne, which forged ahead in last month’s election despite its status as an outcast among the country’s political elites, is a sure sign that Sweden’s official policy of brushing aside racial issues under the carpet does not work. Recently, the government announced its intention to remove all references to racism from the legislation because of its belief that, as Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag said, “different human races do not actually exist” .
However, such policies are unlikely to curb anti-immigration violence, which is still disproportionately higher in Sweden than in some of its neighboring countries. Is this what Dan Park, in his twisted way, was calling attention to? Either way, and as uncomfortable as it may be, Sweden is going to have to tackle these issues head-on. If they don’t, the wacky street performers will be the least of their worries.
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