Swedish Populists Want Folksy Art

Immediately after the Swedish election the SD anti-immigration party made a major proclamation advocating policies copied from 1930s Germany – pertaining to the public funding of the arts.

Since the end of the war, the driver of a car is no longer known as an Autoführer, “car driver” in German. He’s an Autofahrer, a “car rider”. Other words have proved impossible to rehabilitate. A prominent one is völkisch, meaning “national”, “ethnic”, in some situations “folksy”. The Nazis loved folksy culture, music with a lot of tuba and Glockenspiel, traditional songs, leather shorts, hats decorated with a boar-bristle brush. And they hated Modernism, urban themes, decadence, to the extent that Entartete Kunst, “degenerate art” has become a household word and a badge of honour in art circles. Friends of mine who are into folk music tell me that Irish folk is huge in Germany because their own musical heritage carries too much baggage. It’s too… völkisch.

Now the SD anti-immigration party advocates increased funding for what was in the 19th century perceived as Swedish folk culture: local historical societies, folk dancing groups, folk music bands, the national Heritage Board (gee, thanks guys, but no thanks) and certain museums. On the other hand, they want to strip the funding from art that intends to shock, disturb or provoke. To decide what is what, the party wants to make Swedish art policies more centralised. The goal is to herd Swedish arts in a more “constructive, positive and socially beneficient” direction.

Anyone with some knowledge about the issues at hand will recognise the whole thing from senator Jesse Helms’s attacks 20 years ago against Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and other Entartete artists. It’s a breathtakingly naïve move that demonstrates yet again that the SD and their voters have very little education, poor souls. They are after all a party for the blue-eyed, blue-collar, disappointed, rural, jobless man.

Before you all get the impression that I’m a staunch defender of free publicly funded arts, though, let me tell you that I actually agree with the SD on one point here. They mention the possibility that the market, that is, the audience, could be given more say in where public arts funding should be directed. As I have discussed here repeatedly, I’m an aesthetic relativist, recognising no universal standards for good art. Just as I think boring archaeology is bad archaeology, I think art that is enjoyable and interesting to only very few people has little value and deserves no public support.

Non-populist liberal politicians in Sweden have floated a suggestion that citizens might be given an annual punch card for art events that would allow the audience to allocate public art funding. I like that idea. A lot of currently funded stuff would likely disappear and be mourned by few. But you can be equally sure that people would not put that money into local historical societies, folk dancing groups, folk music bands, the National Heritage Board and historical museums, no matter how völkisch all this is.

Swedish press coverage is here and here. A debate piece co-written by archaeologist Lars Amreus, head of the Museum of National Antiquities, is here. And check out this hilarious Danish TV skit inspired by that country’s anti-immigration party’s stance on arts funding!

Update 3 October: The federation of Swedish local historical societies also says no thanks to the SD’s proffered funds. “The homeland of the SD is not our homeland”.

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34 thoughts on “Swedish Populists Want Folksy Art

  1. I’m rather divided. On the one hand, the loss of traditional cultural elements (in which I’d include crafts, a subject dear to my heart, as well as the more obvious arts) is a great pity. On the other hand, efforts at the preservation of such are often linked to either deeply unpleasant nationalism (including outright racism), or to an attitude that “traditional cultural practices” are above criticism as modern morality changes.


  2. There have been similar attempts by far right in the UK to annexe British folk culture, particularly music (have a look at some of my blog posts http://outlandish-knight.blogspot.com). However, over here, their attempts have been frustrated by the fact that British folk music was heavily adopted by what might be broadly characterised as the ‘hippy’ left in the 1960s meaning that the folk music world have been uniformly hostile to the BNPs advances. One has to go back to the 1930s to find a more serious flirtation between SOME elements of the traditional music/dance scene with the far right.
    Worth having a look at Rob Young’s new book ‘Electric Eden’ in connection with some of this: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/electric-eden-unearthing-britains-visionary-music-by-roby-young-2044381.html


  3. “I think art that is enjoyable and interesting to only very few people has little value and deserves no public support”

    I hope you see what this inevitably leads to, however. A problem in Sweden is that there are relatively few people there. Now, take opera, for instance. I do not know what the situation is in Sweden, but I would guess that far too few people are interested in opera for it to be sustainable without very heavy subsidizing. So this is one of the art forms that risk dying with cuts in public support.

    Fair enough, you might say. But there is at least one very uncanny upshot of this. The range of cultural expressions available to people will soon get relatively narrow (is it mistaken to assume that many of us have at least one narrow cultural interest that will suffer?) Compare Germany, for instance. There isn’t necessarily a higher percentage of the population interested in, say, opera in Germany than in Sweden (I think there is, but this is meant as an example). But in Germany the, say, 2 % who actually attend operas comprise enough people to make opera economically sustainable in Germany nonetheless.

    The point is this, the smaller number of people there is in a country, the more depleted the range cultural activities will be if left to market forces or funding based on popular demand. It’s one of the drawbacks of living in a relatively small country. I suppose Sweden would still manage better than, say, Norway under such conditions (not only are there fewer people; they are much more spread out as well). Is it a situation one would appreciate? If you lived in Germany, you would have access to all sorts of narrow or underground cultural activities, whereas if you live in Sweden, you better like pop music like everyone else?

    This isn’t an argument; just asking.


  4. They’re trying very hard to come across as Nazis aren’t they? Did some branding guru tell them there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

    As for myself, I’d like public art funding slashed across the board. Those who want avant garde or folksiness can pay for it, and the rest of us can get lower taxes.


  5. SD politicians are of course blissfully ignorant of the constant exchanges of cultural practices which makes it rather meaningless to speak of ‘national’ or even ‘regional’ culture. Most of Swedish folk music, dance and dress, for example, is easily traced as gesunkenes Kulturgut from early modern upper society, who in turn derived its tastes from ever-changing whims of francophilia, orientalism &c.

    While I loathe the view that the prime object of art and handicraft is to provoke, the opposite view – that it must not do so – is equally otiose.

    / Mattias


  6. If Germany does not subsidise e.g. kabuki theatre, there will be few kabuki houses and the tickets will be expensive. Perhaps a German kabuki fan will have to travel from Munich to Hamburg to catch a performance. In Sweden, it may not be possible to sustain a single kabuki house. But Hamburg is closer to Malmö than to Munich. Let Swedish kabuki fans travel to the nearest venue regardless of state borders. It’s a Common Market of arts as well as goods and labour.

    Furthermore, the lessened diversity G.D. describes would mainly hit art forms that are expensive to produce. People will still record music, write novels and produce plays long after all public funding dries up.


  7. I hope they come up with a points system for archaeology to help administering grants

    10 points for finding the skeleton of a chieftain
    40 points for each weapon found
    100 points for each evidence of racial superiority
    -100 points for doing systems archaeology
    -3000 points for finding evidence of gay vikings
    -10000 points for any relativism


  8. “I think art that is enjoyable and interesting to only very few people has little value and deserves no public support”

    Trouble is, no-one knows if today’s unpopular art will become tomorrow’s must-have. Think Van Gogh, totally unsupported in his time. Plenty of other examples of art recognized today as master work being dismissed as meaningless dabbles in their time. The revolutionary art is always unpopular because its tropes are unknown at the time of its creation.

    The only way to maximize the survival of the Van Gogh’s of our time is to support everything. I might argue that some demonstration of technical competence might be applied, though even that could exclude late starters.


  9. No. Just no. No. Going the populist route to art funding is the worst idea ever. Look at what kind of music people listen to, what kind of television becomes popular: whether it’s good or bad, it’s enormously homogeneous. Not only should art should never have to be economically profitable (it can be, of coursr, but it should never be a requirement) because when it has to be, it becomes BAD ART, but it should also never be ruled by the public. That’s what we have pop culture for. I assume that as a scientist, you’d never let a popular vote decide what theories to study, or what methods to use? Presumably because the public lack the necessary knowledge and information. Art is as much about education as science is, and I assume that artist find people who believe that art is all about drinking red wine and doodling is as annoying as people who think archaeology is abut being like Indiana Jones. There’s an expertise (I am certainly not part of it) and not to listen to it impoverishes society. Sometimes good art is expensive. It should be allowed to be, because like science, art forwards society.

    (I am not even going to respond to the “let them go to Munich” comment, because that on its own is a slipper slope. If people like Opera so much, let them go to Vienna, right? Or Milan? Or Sydney? The whole point of an art policy is to make good art affordable and attainable to ordinary people.)


  10. a small correction here: of course, the sentence should go: “…artists find people who believe that art is all about drinking red wine and doodling as annoying as you would find people who think archaeology is about being like Indiana Jones.” Apologies.


  11. Gaffer, I don’t accept the idea that Van Gogh’s or anybody else’s work is objectively and timelessly speaking great art that we would miss if it weren’t there. If Van Gogh had died in childhood we would be looking at somebody else’s paintings instead. And of course we can’t support everybody in any meaningful way.

    Annamato,there is no such thing as objectively good or bad art. I consider that distinction, like that between art and pop culture, to be situationally contingent. Of course I’m not suggesting that we should put public money into art that turns a healthy profit on its own.

    As a scholar, I do try to come up with projects that will appeal to people, and the funding bodies take that into account. Archaeology has no other value, unlike a cancer cure or a fusion reactor.


  12. Re big vs. small countries:

    Take the US as an example — outside of a few special urban areas, there is no fancy-pants art. The US is huge, as of this moment still has a huge economy yet all the art is pop.

    So the underlying question is whether we want to educate each other. Yes — there’s no “absolute” standard, but there really are no absolute standards anywhere. But there are relative standards — some things are relatively more complex, reference more external cultural elements, have a deeper history and so forth.

    If a society doesn’t value sophistication in communication, well, then, you’ll get Jesse Helms. He wasn’t a source — he’s a product of a society that intentionally, as a society, deprives itself of communicational subtlety and complexity.

    Shit, you can have half of the US if you want that — a lot of us would be happy to ship these people to Sweden or where ever. Maybe you can have better luck with them than we have.


  13. Now, it may be true that there’s a public voice in choosing projects, but wouldn’t you argue that you as en expert a) determines what is possible to do and, b) what methods are the best for the project in question and c) what conclusions it is possible/not possible to draw from a particular find or site? There may be public input, but not just anyone could do your job. In fact, that’s what I see science blogs raving against most: non-scientists who think they can do the scientists’ jobs.

    Good and bad art aside (I think you’re outrageously and completely wrong there, but I am not going to discuss artistic relativism because it leads nowhere), think about this in the context of democracy: one could argue that, for example, gay marriage should not be allowed if more than 50% of the population is against it. But it’s hardly that easy, and democracy about more than percentages, it’s about the equal rights of all people. Now apply this to art: it is in the interest of democracy to forward the development of a diverse selection of artistic expression. Populism will *never* lead there, if only because of the small population. So if I happen to prefer oil paintings from the expressionistic period, but only 1000 other individuals in the country share this, I will never/rarely get the chance see my preferred art in real life. Furthermore, the ban-Mapplethorpe scenario would become true pretty quick, as in my experience people don’t like to stop outside their comfort zone.


  14. Annamato, I agree with a, b and c, but I fail to see their relevance to the issue of public arts funding. Are you suggesting that the audience should meekly let the artists decide what they should buy? I disagree.

    I also support the equal rights of all people. I don’t see how supporting art that few people like has anything to do with rights though.

    As a tax payer, I don’t care much what people with very unusual tastes have to pay for their art purchases. Our public money is finite and we should use it in a way that benefits the greatest number of citizens. It’s for the good of the audience, not of the artists. Art that is appreciated by nobody is worthless.

    Not even Jesse Helms wanted to ban Mapplethorpe. He just wanted to take the guy’s public funding away. Anyway, Mapplethorpe’s estate is making loads of money and should no longer be eligible for public support for that reason.


  15. Not everyone with knowledge about what frog puts quite well “– some things are relatively more complex, reference more external cultural elements, have a deeper history” are artists. They may be politicians or lobbyists, hired experts, etc. In really defer to his argument about the poor, poor, poor selection of art available in the non-urban US: I don’t want Sweden to become like that.
    You’re coming off as more similar to SD’s policy with every comment, and saying “I don’t see how supporting art that few people like has anything to do with rights” is like saying “I don’t have kids do I won’t think I should have to pay taxes for daycare.” It’s a contraproductive position because daycare furthers society as a whole. And good, diverse (see? diverse? I want the broad AND narrow kinds of art represented) art does the same. Besides, sometimes the fact that art DOES provoke is what tells you that it’s needed, that something has been lacking or needs to be taken up for discussion. Just look at Elisabeth Ohlson’s Ecce Homo.
    I’m going to switch over to Swedish here because I’m not finding specific enough terms in English: populism utarmar konsten för att den leder till likriktning, för att allt som blir var är den lättsmälta konsten som inte väcker starka känslor, utan som alla smÃ¥gillar. Tandlös och anpassad till alla blir det liksom inget kvar. Kanske ligger det inget egenvärde i provocerande konst, men detsamma gäller fisljummen.


  16. Of course we should support a diverse range of art that the audience likes.

    If, as you suggest, the art made available to the public became “Toothless and adapted to everybody, there pretty much will be nothing left.”, I’m sure people would flock to new, more interesting artists. You seem to have a low opinion of the audience’s ability to appreciate anything more complicated than Disney’s Little Mermaid.

    I wonder if perhaps you are a struggling artist yourself, or otherwise have a heavy emotional investment in non-mass-market art? I consider myself to be in a similar position myself, though in my case it’s research into obscure humanities. And it is my opinion that neither myself nor my colleagues nor any of the world’s artists have any right to support from society in what we’ve chosen to do with our lives. We are entertainers, and if we do not entertain we should not expect to get paid.


  17. The question is whether the good of the people is the same as “give people the most popular art, right now.”

    We benefit from variety, because culture is constantly feeding on itself: the more things in the pool, the more varied things we can pull out and cross-breed and so on. That doesn’t necessarily mean we should fund opera, but it suggests that it should take a higher threshold to fund the second opera company–or the second punk band or football team–in a town than the first. (Free outdoor Shakespeare is practically its own genre around here: from one “Shakespeare in the Park” we now have additional smaller companies doing Shakespeare in other parks, and “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot,” and so on. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but do I need to be able to choose between three productions of Hamlet on the same weekend?)


  18. Hah, no, I’m not an artist at all, I’m a web developer 🙂 But I certainly have an intellectual and ideological interest in keeping art diverse. Oh, and I see where we diverge now: I don’t, and can’t, see archeology OR fine art as entertainment. It’s not. It’s debate and education, and instrumental in the understanding and improvement of society. Commercial pop art can do idle entertainment fine, thanks.

    Re: toothlessness: I suggest you take a look at the commercial television available. The problem isn’t that individuals lack sophistication, the problem is when art becomes streamlined to work with as large an audience as possible in order to obtain success and thereby funding, it becomes flat (the will to survive working against the artist’s better knowledge, if you will). What made it exciting is filed off. And I maintain that people don’t want to be challenged; *I* don’t like being challenged by art all time time. But afterward I am thankful that I was dragged to the theater/art hall/whatever and shaken up for a bit.


  19. The problem for public funding for arts is getting the balance between old/new, esoteric/accessible, meaningful/pretty right. Established conservative elites tend to go old school. A Museum full of old masters would fit them nicely. Liberal elites tend to go for outsider art, controversial and esoteric art. A wide sector of the general public still thinks dogs playing cards and Kincaid massed produce cuteness are great.

    Across the board the popularity of styles tend to be near absolutist. If Jackson Pollock is held up you’re sure to see a period when everything looks like that. The free market, with artist chasing the poplar style for money, tends to make this worse.

    None of that is a big problem except that if any one sector or methodology, like sculpture versus painting, get neglected they tend to atrophy. You can lose an entire generation of talented artists in a school if one form goes dormant. Artists work best if they have a vibrant community within their own school and style.


  20. The problem for public funding for arts is getting the balance between old/new, esoteric/accessible, meaningful/pretty right.

    There is no “right”. There is only individual taste.


  21. Of course, for a long time Sweden repressed all kinds of Sami cultural expression. I suspect that these Swedish ethnonationalists (populists) who are promoting traditional Swedish folk art have little regard for Sami folk art, songs, costume, mythology, literature etc.


  22. Going the populist route to art funding is the worst idea ever. Look at what kind of music people listen to, what kind of television becomes popular: whether it’s good or bad, it’s enormously homogeneous.

    There’s an element of agency that needs to be acknowledged here, which is not necessarily with the public. If you prefer, think of the interplay of supply and demand. For instance, since the 1960s we have watched a music industry try to work out how best to package pop music and rock and roll to appeal to the widest possible demographic. The result has been the slow elimination of support for music that does not cater so widely. To put it another way, nothing is worth so much to the music industry as radio-friendly chart music. Therefore, there’s an awful lot of it produced and it’s most of what the public gets to hear. The chances of them learning to like other stuff rely on them deliberately choosing against the main source of supply. We should not, therefore, blame the public’s taste entirely for the fact that pop music is usually trouble-free and throwaway. That’s what the suppliers are most interested in providing and so they encourage demand for that.

    Where agency lies in this is debatable, but it isn’t all with either ‘the public’s dreadful taste’ or the evil corporate monolith music industry. I assume that the same is true of art: screen-prints of Ché Guevara, or new painting by post-impressionists? And there there is also the problem that new work is much more expensive to produce than reproduction rights are to acquire. All kinds of factors other than simple populism.


  23. “They are after all a party for the blue-eyed, blue-collar, disappointed, rural, jobless man.”

    As opposed to the consciously multi-ethnic, university-educated, self-satisfied, city-dwelling, rich?

    My, I haven’t seen such a display of elitism in years.


  24. “Swedish culture” is such a hodge-podge of different elements, most of which came here as influences from abroad, that any distinction between the Swedish and the non-Swedish is completely arbitrary.

    One cannot help wonder if the SD, in their quest to support the “genuinely Swedish”, would still support folk dancing groups who dance such obvious imports as the polska and mazurka…?

    As Esaias Tegner (a truly romantic-nationalistic poet, who still understood the value of outside influences) wrote: “Blott barbarit var en gÃ¥ng fosterländskt” (Translated, less poetically: “Barbarian were our people’s real roots”)


  25. I wonder how many SD politicians are actually themselves interested in folk music & dancing. To my knowledge, folkies tend to be more like Greens and Centrists or even radical Lefties if you look mainly at the Baby Boomers.


  26. Thinker: Yet, Tegnér was expectedly ethnocentric himself. Perhaps the SD politicians would like his ‘SprÃ¥ken’ (‘The languages’): http://runeberg.org/tegner/057.html

    In this poem, Tegnér is monstrously unfair to coeval Danish poetry, which in many instances amounts to beautiful language. The reasons behind this treatment are historical and geo-political, of course.

    I suspect, however, that SD voters are typically not very well-trained in modern and classical languages, so they could probably do little more than agree with Tegnérs pompous regional pride.


  27. I’m even more radical than Martin. I don’t see why the government should spend money at art (with some exceptions). At all.


  28. I’m sure you don’t mean that there should never be paintings on the walls of government buildings. You perhaps feel that the Treasury should not act as a patron of the arts, allowing artists thus supported to sell their work elsewhere. I guess that’s a solid small-government classic liberal or libertarian position.


  29. The dopey notion that “there is no Swedish culture” is a contraproductive statement that will only serve to fuel SD-sympathies. If there is no such thing as a Swedish culture because of all the foreign influences that have been part of shaping it, are there any cultures at all on our Globe?


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