What Makes Art Racist?

A mural by Banksy accused of racism (Image courtesy of Banksy.co.uk)
A mural by Banksy accused of racism (image via banksy.co.uk)

Today, the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), a self-described “voice of the anti-racist movement in Europe,” released a statement titled, “Is art becoming the ultimate refuge of racism in Sweden and Denmark?”

The text excoriates artist Dan Park, who was convicted by a Swedish court in August of “defamation and incitement to racial hatred.” Park was sentenced to six months in prison after authorities seized nine of his posters from a Malmo gallery. One depicts anti-racism activist and politician Jallow Momodou as a runaway slave. Another shows three black men with nooses around their necks and the text, “Hang on, Afrophobians.”

Though he claims not to be racist, Park has said his posters are a satire against the political correctness of the anti-racism movement — however that works. And he has plenty of defenders. Despite the court’s ruling, a new exhibition of his work will open in Copenhagen on October 23, and the Danish Free Press Society has also been selling his work online as a protest against what it says is a violation of free speech.

ENAR’S statement reads:

Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy, in particular for artists and journalists. However, when art or freedom of expression crosses the line into incitement to or promotion of hatred, we need to set certain limits. The glorification of violence by the Swedish artist against identifiable individuals is clearly incompatible with fundamental rights. Hate speech can be perceived as an authorisation to take action and often does lead to violence.

The statement provokes many questions. Should governments be given the power to censor racist art? How do we determine whether art is or isn’t racist? What matters more: the intention of the artist or the way a work is perceived by the community and those it offends? Who gets to decide?

Answering them becomes increasingly urgent as cases — many more nuanced than Park’s — abound. Last week, a satirical mural by Banksy in a small England town was taken down after locals said it was racist. It showed five pigeons holding signs that read “Migrants not welcome” and “Go back to Africa.” Also in the UK, last month hundreds protested Brett Bailey’s allegedly “racist” Barbican show “Exhibit B,” which was inspired by late 19th-century human zoos — despite the fact that a similar exhibition in Norway earlier this year was praised in the media for shedding a light on the country’s racist past.

A photo of the Swedish minister feeding the artist some of the cake (image via friatider.se via Facebook)
A photo of Swedish Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth feeding artist Makode Linde some cake (image via friatider.se via Facebook)

Then there’s the bizarre 2012 case of the Swedish Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, who was accused of racism after being photographed while cutting a blackface cake depicting a stereotyped African woman. The cake was a (rather awful) artwork by Makode Linde protesting female genital mutilation. The artist, who is himself of African descent, posed as the head of the figure and screamed in seeming pain as Liljeroth cut the cake’s genital region. “I’m the first one to admit that it’s a disturbing picture but it’s also a disturbing subject,” he told Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian. “One of the main roles of art is to talk about these things and make people confront them in themselves.”

Addressing racism in art — real and perceived — is an incredibly sticky task. But it seems better to err on the side of free speech than censorship. Certainly, the crowd has the right to protest artworks they deem offensive (as Hyperallergic’s Mostafa Heddaya recently argued), and the art world can and should shun those whose work negatively targets a specific group, but allowing the government to make that call impedes on our democratic freedoms.

We don’t know who our future leaders will be, what ideologies they’ll hold, and whether they’ll align with our current ideals for an equal, just society. As racism rises throughout the UK and Europe, we’ll need more artists willing to speak out against it — and to do so smartly and sensitively. Though officials scrubbed it away, the evocative, understated metaphor of Banksy’s mural in Essex — an English county where racism is no stranger — achieved that. As critic Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian, “Far from being by any stretch of the imagination ‘racist’, it is – was – a witty putdown of the drab, dour vision of Britain touted by those who would push down diversity and hold back the tide of modern human movement.”

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