Police confiscate works by Dan Park outside the Rönnquist og Rönnquist gallery, Malmö, Sweden (via sydsvenskan.se)

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.

A collage by Dan Park (via obv.org.uk)

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.

Artist Dan Park stands with a placard outside the Rönnquist og Rönnquist gallery (via sydsvenskan.se)

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.

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Morten Høi Jensen

Morten Høi Jensen is a freelance book critic. His writing has appeared in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Millions.

14 replies on “Sentenced: Swedish Artist Dan Park “Incited Against an Ethnic Group””

    1. I have connections with both D-Intl, Park and the gallerist Rönnquist and can easily and promptly connect you with all of them so you can ask them those questions directly. Let me know if you are interested.

    2. My interpretation of Dan Park’s work is that he identifies taboos in society and ridicules and makes fun of them, most often in a provocative way. The more sensitive the taboo, the more he makes fun of it.

      I do not think that Park’s personal opinions matter. If he is a bigoted person, does that fact disqualify him from being an artist? I am somewhat conservative, but I can still appreciate art by far-left socialists or far-right conservatives. The artist’s personal opinions should not direct my opinion of his work.

      The last few years have seen a repressive turn when it comes to the overall discusison climate and an increased focus on supposed racism in Swedish society. That is probably partly a result of the populist anti-immigration party Sweden Democrats coming into the parliament in the 2010 election. Media has become obsessed with nazis and the “growing threat of racism”.

      I remember reading an interview with Park, perhaps it was on Dispatch international, where he pointed that exact thing out.

      As far as I understand, there were posters about the exhibition and it was also written about in social media. The police must have acted upon this information.

      My favorite art by Dan Park is this one (it says “world’s best dad” in Swedish):

    3. He is ambigious and his work can be interpreted differently depending on your mindset as racist or anti-racist. The police acted on the orders of the General Attorney and arrested DP at the gallery. He was then sentenced to six months in jail. The gallery owner was also arrested , but then released and fined to I do not know what.The veridct also says that all printed copies of his work is to be destroyed and obliterated from the earth.

      The mainstream media does not discuss such matters at all i Sweden . If it comes up all academics, journalists politicians simple agree, that he is “not an artist”, the work is not “art” and that he is a racist, end of discussion. In neigbor country Denmark, , it is discussed and there will be an exhibition in Copenhagen with som of his work.

      Each and every book in public libraries where the word “negro” or “gypsy” is mentioned are removed from the open shelves and hidden in closed storage. . All mainstream media daily publishes stories from different ethnic groups arguing seriously that “the whole Swedish Society is racist”, One minister in the governement has idolized IS murderers as “freedom fighters”, another claimed that “it is white middle-aged men who are responsible for all global warming”.

      It is a total Mass Hysteria of sick political correctness, and anybody who asks questions or does not agree is fired from their job immediately .

      1. My avatar and nick says everything about how I feel like living in Sweden today: like living in a novel by Franz Kafka.

      2. It seems like Churchill’s prediction that “facism will retunr in the guise of the anti facists” is becoming more and more true each day.

        Why is it not considered as shameful to be an extreme left winger as an extreme right winger? Both deny individuals their liberty and autonomy and make them tools of the oppressive state.

        I hope that Europe will come to understand the damage that left wing thought has done to it over the past centrury and reject it fullyy in favour of a rational moderatism.

  1. Dan Park´s work is always ambigious and can be interpreted as racist or anti-racist . Not great art, in my book. What is likewise absurd is that the Swedish Court has decided that all printed copies shall be “destroyed” . Like in the book “Fahrenheit 451”.

    1. The so called “anti-racists” in Sweden are actually the true racists, as Swedish “anti-racists” are obsessed with skin color and promote the idea that people should be treated differently depending of skin color, in short racism.

      1. Of course.

        Equality should be something that is very simple to implement – apply the rule that all get treated equally under law and rewarded in accordance with their merit.

        Equality also needs to be paired with liberty and individual freedoms, together with accepting the principle of freedom of speech and criticism. I get very angry when I see someone talk of “equality” when they really mean “I want to control you and stop you from doing and saying things I don’t like.”

        Laws need to be kept to the minimum necessary to keep order.

  2. The Swedish left has lost it freaking mind. Everybody in Sweden is being run over by a small elite of narcissistic do-gooders. These people are disgusting and they’re ruining Sweden.

  3. Thank you Morten for a balanced article on a truly difficult subject. Dan Parks luck run out when he placed out swastikas at a synagouge some years ago, after that no one in art etablishment can or will support him and his actions. If you like Dan produce racist slurs against both blacks, jews and does design jobs for the Swedish nazi party you certinly will have problems with both the public opinion and justice in Sweden and I can not see no wrong in that. I personally must say that the case of Mr Parks is a tough one but in the end prison may have been the only alternative, it sometimes can be a little hard to be a racist in Sweden!

  4. Debate climate in Sweden is extremely censored when it comes to areas such as Islam and immigration. People with the wrong opinions can actually lose their job, be excluded from public associations or their union. They can also publicly be shamed in the press even though they are not politically active. There are many such examples. Islam has a strong role in Sweden today which affect the Swedish culture. It is actually also the case that the works of the artist Lars Vilks can not be sold at auction in Sweden. His dogs are the most international wellknown Contemporary Swedish art today. Despite that they are not of interest for any Swedish museum or any auction house. The value of them are relative high and many people have interest of seeing them. They had been exhibited two times in Sweden and both times his art was sold out within 20-30 minutes. The auction houses are afraid of the muslims, and therefore they had decided not to sell anything that can provoke them and unfortunately this also is the case of all public forums. The muslim population in Sweden is growing extremely fast and they had already affected many laws and opinions in Sweden, among those areas art is one. The future of Sweden as a democratic country and it’s traditional freedom of speech is actually under great threat.

  5. Before we begin: Park sounds like an asshole and a profoundly uninteresting artist. What’s significant about the resulting debate, here represented by the post itself and the resulting comments, is the utter failure of public discourse in Scandinavia to intelligently address issues of race, immigration and “otherness”. We don’t get it, it makes us uncomfortable, we want it to go away.

    Most of the comments here reveal an alarming subtext of racism and entitlement based on ethnicity / class, as well as discomfort at being asked to understand the situation of the “other” (whether constructed through skin color, religion or cultural background). Hiding behind free speech, dismay at political correctness or the suggestion that racism is exaggerated? Pure cowardice. And yes, racist.

    That said:

    Regardless of whether Park is a blathering attention-seeking idiot or a sinister Nazi sympathizer, the key issue here is hate speech. This well-established legal concept is not mentioned anywhere in this article, curious given that it’s the direct reason why Park’s actions could be ruled as not covered by free speech laws and even constitute a criminal act.

    However: I don’t think Park deserves jail time, and I definitely don’t think the state should have the authority to destroy artworks. Beyond bestowing martyrdom and coming way too close to the horror image of book burning, it’s just wrong. Unless “published”, those objects would not be illegal to own. It’s the act of publishing and disseminating them that can be prohibited.

    Still, under the hate speech law, shutting down his exhibition and fining both the artist and the gallery for promoting hate speech seems pretty reasonable. Artistic license should not extend to cover shit like placing Zyklon B canisters and Swastikas outside synagogues.

    ps. Removing the concept race from the law or the public discourse is just moronic, and sadly a classic case of Scandinavian logic. White people love to think they’re post-racial. But we’d do well to remember that the concept of eugenics originated in Scandinavia, and that both Norway and Sweden are guilty of forcible sterilization of “undesirables” as recently as the 1970’s.

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