The imprisonment of artists and the shutting down 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 the Swedish street artist Dan Park’s collages at the Rönnquist og Rönnquist gallery in Malmö was shut down by Swedish police for violating the racism paragraph of Swedish law. Nine collages were confiscated and Dan Park was arrested and accused of “incitement against an ethnic group,” according to the Swedish courts. In August, Park was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison and fined 60,000 Swedish kroner. The government then destroyed the offending art works.
To be sure, Park’s collages are disgusting and offensive. “Hang on Afrofobians” shows three black men in gallows (partly a reference to the racially motivated assault of Yusupha Sallah, a the Gambian-Swedish man, by Middle Eastern immigrants last year), another shows a pig with the star of David shitting on the Gaza strip, and a third shows a Catholic priest getting a blowjob from a young boy. They are the work of a boorish and uninteresting mind itching for shock and outrage. Sadly, the Swedish government took the bait; they foolishly legitimized, so to speak, his knowing provocations by giving him what he seemingly wanted: martyrdom (why else would he choose not to appeal the verdict?). Hence the placard he answered his protesters with outside the gallery in July: “Entartete Kunst” — the Nazi term for degenerate art — an uncomfortable rejoinder to those wishing to censure him.
It is discouraging to see such a pathetic stunt succeed. Imprisoned, Park has become a darling of so-called free speech organizations in Scandinavia (such as the Danish Trykkefrihedsselskabet), organizations that, lofty ideals aside, always seem a little too anxious to support demagogues like Geert Wilders, a man whose own appetite for freedom of expression leaves something to be desired. This, too, is regrettable, because defending Park’s right to express himself freely is only half the equation; upholding the right to criticize him constitutes the other, equally significant half — something Park’s supporters have been reluctant to point out.
Still, locking people up for expressing themselves — as objectionable 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 newfound martyr-status. As Ellen Willis wrote, freedom of expression deserves special status “not because it is harmless (all controversial speech is harmful from someone’s standpoint), certainly not because it is inconsequential (if it were, no one would care), but because, in general, symbolic expression, however forceful, leaves a space between communicator and recipient, a space for contesting, fighting back with one’s own words and images, organizing to oppose whatever action the abhorred speech may incite.”
In other words, by censuring Dan Park the Swedish government is also, to an extent, censuring his critics — since one cannot respond to or criticize something that has been deemed unfit for public viewing. With the assurance that they are simply being protected against the harm of racist speech, Park’s “victims” have been robbed of their right to respond in kind. They, too, have been silenced, and told to remain victims.
It’s difficult not to see this controversy as reflective of Sweden’s insidious political culture. The increasing popularity of the right-wing Sverigdemokraterne, who surged ahead in last month’s elections despite their pariah-status among the country’s political elites, is a sure sign that Sweden’s official policy of sweeping issues of race under the carpet is not working. Recently, the government announced plans to remove all mention of racism from legislation due to their belief that, as Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag put it, “different human races actually do not exist.”
Such policies are unlikely to curb anti-immigration violence, however, 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? Whatever the case, and however uncomfortable it may be, Sweden is going to have to confront these issues head-on. If they don’t, crackpot street artists will be the least of their worries.