The Killing of a King
How Identity Politics in the Art World Caught the Attention of Danish Conservatives
The phenomenon “Identity Politics” is sweeping through Western countries in a pace of surprising intensity, and the art world seems especially suited to harbor it. In part because the art world identifies itself with being in opposition, rebellious and non-conformist. But also because of the otherwise healthy distance put in place between the political sphere, which provides most of the funding, and the distribution and spending of the money. It is a democratic value that the art world should be autonomous as far as possible. This autonomy combined with access to financial resources may nurture movements that can, under certain circumstances, be both anti-democratic and hostile towards art. For a long time, the IP movement in the Danish art world seemed not to face resistance anywhere. But in one special occasion its followers went one step too far and unleashed a counter reaction.
Identity Politics (IP) has grown to become the overarching designation for a specter of initiatives pointing at moral flaws in modern democratic societies and seeking to correct them. Inequalities and injustices are explained by historical narratives, as a kind of inherited sins. Actually, the historical aspect is in some cases the sole foundation for the claims. In some instances, it may seem as if IP is a court where Western history and present society is accused, sentenced and punished in one single act. IP can be understood as both a parallel moral articulation and political force, broke loose from conventional norms and the political party structure of parliamentarism.
The basic mechanism of IP is to claim that there is an unbreakable relation between a person’s world views and the identity of the person. The individual is first considered being one with his or her views, ideas, preferences and so on. Adding to this IP also claims the individual is enclosed in his or her group’s historical past. Thus, a person descendant from slaves and a person descendant from holders of slaves are treated differently, even though centuries may have passed since the days of the respective ancestors.
The model can be applied on basically any political topic or utterance. What you say is what you are, and what you are is fixed by a group and its history.
From the outset of IP one can freely overrule another person’s views or utterances based on the historical scheme. This is the foundation of a binary division of the world between “the white” and the “non-white”. This scheme transforms into “majority” versus “minority”, where being “white” automatically places a person in “the majority”. Minority groups are understood as suppressed and exposed to injustices simply by being designated as minority groups. A quick solution to this problem would be to abandon the group-thinking terminology and reinstate the individual as its own representative. But that is the foundation of the liberal democratic order which IP is revolting against.
It may sound sympathetic in itself fighting for more freedom for suppressed people. And precisely such a struggle created modern democracies. But what is also characteristic for IP actors is they have no mandate from any of the minority groups they claim to be acting on behalf of. Nobody voted for them, nobody asked them to speak for them. IP actors operate outside the political sphere in terms of representation. And, not to forget: The IP movement’s quest for historical justice does not apply to present injustices in countries outside the West. They will not fight against the mistreating of people in OIC-countries, North Korea or any tyrannical dictatorship.
IP actors are “social entrepreneurs”. They act in a fundamentally opportunistic way. When someone opposes their claims or views, they treat opposition in itself as a confirmation they are right. They exploit the following discussion to expose their opponents to a range of measures of social control. Public accusations, intimidation though network, common friends, employers, etc. IP actors projects hostility, divisions and moral superiority in a blend we usually associate with radical or religious sects.
When we in Scandinavia experienced the first encounter with this phenomenon, in 2018-19, it was named “call out culture”, a social novelty imported from American universities. It soon developed into “cancel culture” using “deplatforming” of artists, writers and speakers as the most common strategy.
In practical trades like business, industry and healthcare there will be little time for the IP activity. But in the media, humanities and the art world it has found itself a huge audience. This fundamental selection between the hard and soft sections of society has meant that conservative circles in the West were utterly disinterested in it to begin with. Many conservatives were already distanced to the art world, feeling estranged by conceptual art and the constant and unhinged moralism against “capitalism”.
Thus, in a double sense IP for a long time was left on the fringes or wholly outside the scope of the political right wing – even though, or partly because, conservatives are the primary target of the most common IP verbal assaults.
In all of the Scandinavian countries the movement have had the same explosive success in the art world. All three main governmental art schools are, as for January 2021, without a headmaster after IP revolts has taken place and caused their departure. The leaders of the institutions appear to have been taken off guard. Moral indignation is nothing new in the art world, on the contrary, the more radical the marrier; thus, for decades Marxist and communist aspirations, apology, romanticism of violence and agitation was dominant among writers, musicians and painters alike. Dissenters were frozen out. No debate on the normative positions were accepted. The artist became a living anti-capitalist slogan.
On one occasion, however, the movement’s sway over the art world in Denmark came to a sudden halt. The Royal Academy of Fine arts in Copenhagen in recent years began offering a curriculum not only dedicated to art, but also to “anti-colonialism”. One teacher of such a course was Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld (b. 1981). In the autumn of 2020 she was running a course on the historical roots of the art academy itself. The institution – a castle on the most prominent address in Copenhagen, The King’s New Plaza Number 1 - was built as a gift to King Frederik the Fifth (1723 – 1766). At that time Danish merchantmen ran a triangular trade sending slaves from Africa to the West-Indies, where they produced sugar, which was sent to Copenhagen and exported. Hence, the course claimed, the art academy was built on money earned on slavery. The institutional structures of the academy – in the most general sense - were portrayed as being one with “structures of a slave economy”. The academy itself became a symbol of slavery.
Together with her students the teacher formed the group “Anonymous Artists”. They wrote a manifest claiming the need to destroy a number of art works at the academy and in the city as such. Their first target was a sculpture – a bust – of the King Frederik V himself, which used to be located in a ballroom of the castle where the academy is situated. The bust had already been used symbolically during a BLM event in the late summer of 2020. It was then covered in a black garbage bag. Dismounted and covered in the plastic bag the bust was then, a few weeks after the BLM event, carried 300 meters to the harbor. It was placed on the quay just where the ships from the West-indies used to dock three hundred years ago. On the opposite quay there is placed a 7 meters tall, temporary sculpture in black painted polystyrene called “I Am Queen Mary” (Jeanette Ehlers and La Vaughn Belle, 2018). “Queen Mary” is a legendary figure claimed to be the female leader of a slave rebellion in the Danish West-Indian colony in 1765. The sculpture is modelled after a famous portrait of Huey P. Newton, a former leader of The Black Panther Party (1942-1989) in the US. Placed across the water from the black sculpture of “I Am Queen Mary” and with reference to the merchant ships loaded with sugar from the colonies during his reign, the bust of King Frederik V was destroyed. The group posted a video showing someone kick it into the water, where it cracked up as it hit the surface, and the king’s head broke loose from the torso. The video was posted on a homepage for art in Copenhagen together with the manifest.
The episode caused an outcry from conservatives and centrist politicians alike. The state agency which owns the sculpture reported the theft and destruction to the police, and so did two conservative politicians, belonging to two different parties. Condemnations were expressed from all over the political specter. After a few days the teacher was identified by a newspaper and chose to go public and claim the full responsibility. She gave interviews defending and explaining the happening. But historians rebuked her historical narrative connecting the art institution to slavery, and the public were concerned about the maltreatment of public property. The teacher defended her actions saying the sculpture was not really stolen, as it was salvaged from the seabed; and though the sculpture was returned completely destroyed she claimed it was only “rematerialized”, which drew public laughter and inspired numerous parodies and memes. She also claimed the happening was legitimized by the need for a public debate on racism in Denmark. Which is already, of course, one of the most debated topics in the public sphere in Denmark as in other Western countries and has been so for decades.
After going public the teacher was dismissed. Fearing other works where threatened, the state agency who formally owns the historical art works at the academy salvaged them in a swift operation, bringing them “to a safe place”.
The threat of more destruction of art works also gave rise to associations to the Taliban and IS, who destroys historical artefacts as part of their totalitarian ideology. The debate didn’t die. In the end the cultural minister fired the headmaster of the institution and promised a thorough reconstruction of it.
This became the conclusion of a long process of IP radicalization at the art academy. Half a year earlier, in the spring of 2020, newspaper articles had already exposed a hardcore IP group of about 20 students at the academy. The group seemed to rein over both teachers and other students, attacking the curriculum (too much talk about art, not enough talk about colonialism) and their fellow students’ choice of words and topics. For instance, a first grader, a female student, presented a video work and used the word ‘paralyzed’ in the presentation. She had been ‘paralyzed by sorrow’ at some point a few years earlier, following the death of her boyfriend. The video piece she had created was related to that terrible experience. Her IP fellow students then exposed her to verbal abuse for being “racist against people with disabilities”. As a consequence of the deteriorating social environment on the institution teams of psychologists and lawyers were hired to round things up. Students were encouraged to send anonymous complaints. Teachers became victims of processes where they were not told what they were accused of, or by who. Unable to defend themselves they were just sent for months on leave.
After the firing of both the teacher and the headmaster an article appeared in a magazine published by the University of Copenhagen. The article warned against IP also threatening scientific freedom in the field of research. And on top of all this liberalist and conservative politicians are openly discussing IP threats against freedom of speech. Which in sum tells us that in all the soft areas of society, where the IP movement found a safe haven, the tide seems to be turning against it.
The story of the bust carries one final and fascinating twist. The teacher’s surname is noble, and thus can be traced back in history. It was discovered, to her own surprise, she claimed, that one of her ancestors were at some point the governor of the West-Indian colony the activists say financed the creation of the art academy. Public registers from the time shows that he owned his own slaves. The original idea, that the art institution was related to structures of slavery was rebuked by historians. But it turned out her own family was related to it instead. And so the happening can be interpreted in yet new and intriguing ways, as a story of dealing with the past on a personal level with society as a scene where this drama is unfolded.
As for now the debacle has reached a dead end in Copenhagen. Except for the interference by nature. Just after Christmas 2020 a winter storm tore the head off the “Queen Mary” statue. In a poetic sense the two monuments fought each other out. But there are plans for casting a bronze version of that sculpture, the first (governmental) funding already being in place. And so, the fighting can be expected to start all over again.
Jon Eirik Lundberg, born in Oslo, Norway, on May 1st 1974. Lundberg has a Masters degree in Philosophy from the University of Copenhagen, is a writer of novels and poetry, a composer of folk songs and the founder and current leader of Laesoe Art Hall. The art hall presents contemporary art, arranges a literature festival and is also a publisher of books connected to the exhibitions. Laesoe Art Hall became known to the broader Danish public when it in 2019 arranged an exhibition of "political art” with works ranging thematically all over the political specter. After that experience Lundberg has written a book and several articles for Danish newspapers on the problems connected to the troublesome proces of presenting artworks some people consider “controversial”.