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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Swedish Election Results

Sweden held a general election yesterday, and it did not go the way myself and other lefties would have liked. Parliament has 349 seats, and 175 is thus a majority. Before the election, the various right-wing and centrist parties held 178 seats. Now they hold 192. But the conservative voters have not only become relatively more numerous: they have also diversified in their sympathies, propelling the brown fringe of the right-wing block into Parliament in the shape of a new populist anti-immigration party, the Swedish Democrats.

The Swedish conservatives are basically like the US Democrats. Their leader Fredrik Reinfeldt endorsed Obama before the US election. So not even they want anything to do with the anti-immigration party. This means that the right-wing block has effectively lost a few seats to a party that exists outside and to the right of the two main blocks in Parliament. Of those 192 right-wing seats, only 172 will actually be allowed to take part in government, leaving 157 to the leftie-green block.

There has been some concern that this might give the anti-immigration party undue influence since theoretically they might threaten to block governmental decisions they don’t like by voting with the opposition (157+20=177). But that would mean that they had to vote with the lefties, which is highly unlikely on most contentious issues.

Meanwhile, Reinfeldt is rumoured to be negotiating a deal with the Greens in order to eliminate any possibility of anti-immigration party shenanigans.

I’m a bit disgusted that ~6% of the electorate voted for the anti-immigration party. They’re bigger than the Christian Democrats and the Former Commies now. We had a similar party in Parliament during the 1991-94 period, and they made fools of themselves through inexperience and general stupid thuggishness. At the first opportunity, the voters unceremoniously threw them out. I expect no less for the Swedish Democrats.

As for my home municipality of Nacka, there was little change: most significantly the Soc-Dems that I voted for lost a quarter of their seats to other parties. The only real reasons for me to rejoice somewhat after this election is that my housing estate’s participation was significantly less crap than usual (though it did us no apparent good), and that the anti-immigration party remains unrepresented in our municipal hall.

Update 23 September: After various recounts and checks the final result of the election is right-wing block 173 seats, leftie block 156 seats, anti-immigration party 20 seats.

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Two Queenly Careers

Through my reading I was reminded of two Scandinavian early-12th century queens whose careers are pretty amazing. Though originally probably unrelated, they became kin by marriage in several ways.

~1085. Margareta Ingesdotter born, daughter of King Inge I of Sweden. (Birth year unrecorded.)

~1100. Ulvhild HÃ¥konsdotter born, daughter of the Norwegian nobleman HÃ¥kon Finnsson of the Thjotta family. (Birth year likewise unrecorded.)

1101. As part of a peace agreement between the Kings of Sweden and Norway, Margareta marries King Magnus III “Barefoot” Olavsson of Norway. Thus her cognomen Fredkulla, “peace wench”.

1105. Margareta marries King Niels Svensson of Denmark. (Magnus having died two years previously).

~1115. Ulvhild marries King Inge II of Sweden, first cousin of Margareta and nephew of Inge I.

1130. Margareta dies. Ulvhild marries King Niels. (Inge II having died c. seven years previously).

1134. Niels dies. Ulvhild marries King Sverker I Cornubesson of Sweden. Ulvhild and Sverker have at least five children over the following years, of whom their son Karl eventually also becomes King of Sweden.

1143. Ulvhild and Sverker support the foundation of Alvastra monastery, one of Scandinavia’s first Cistercian foundations.

1148. Ulvhild dies.

Early Scandy historians tended to describe these women as a kind of prestigious fecund statuary that was traded to and fro among the era’s elite-male lineages. In modern scholarship, they are seen more as political agents in their own right, though the source material for their lives and actions is extremely sparse.

Ulvhild is particularly remarkable as she managed to become queen of Sweden, Denmark and then Sweden again. Her contacts, influence, wealth and experience were in all likelihood instrumental in making Sverker a successful king and the first member of a (not very long-lived) royal dynasty.

One thing that really gets me about these people is how briefly they lived, how little education they had and how young they were when they did the deeds that wrote them into history. Margareta and Ulvhild were younger than many history undergrads when each of them married her second king.

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Lukewarm Normative Scandy Atheism

i-d06cda766f646baae81ee7eab7b18794-society_without_god.pngBecause of blogging and my involvement in the skeptical pro-science movement, in recent years I have come into close contact with Americans as never before in my adult life. More than half of Aard’s readers are in the US. It’s almost like when I met my wife and suddenly learned lots about China.

A couple of things recur in people’s commentary here, largely on religious and political issues. My outlook is clearly quite exotic to many Americans. I view mainstream US politics as half of a full political spectrum, where voters really only get to choose between two different brands of conservative. And I can’t quite understand the passionate relationship Americans have to religion, regardless of their individual beliefs. Because most Scandinavians don’t care about religion.

Some may think that Scandinavians are hostile to religion. That’s actually not true: we’re indifferent to it. What my countrymen tend to be hostile against is passionate views on religious issues. A Swede will typically react with great discomfort if you tell him you really believe in Jesus – and equally so if you tell him you really disbelieve in Jesus. It is considered bad manners and/or a little crazy to even bring the subject up.

This disorientating meeting between religiously charged US culture and quietly secular Scandinavian culture is beautifully captured in Californian sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s 2008 book Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. He spent 14 months in Scandinavia, mainly in Aarhus, Denmark, interviewing people about their religious attitudes and family history. And although Zuckerman is a secular Jew with no supernatural beliefs of his own, he was clearly blown away by the complete indifference to religion that he encountered. The typical attitudes he met with were, according to his own descriptions,

  • Reluctance or reticence to talk about religion
  • Benign indifference
  • Utter obliviousness

One story told to Zuckerman is particularly illuminating. Upon being asked if any of his friends were “real Christians”, a man who works as a prosecutor in the city court of Aarhus first said no, but then added:

“…actually one of our friends up there, and that surprised me a lot, we’ve known them for some years and suddenly one night we had a few drinks and then he said to me, ‘I have a confession to make.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, and then he told me that he believed in God. And I was quite surprised. I never thought in my whole life that … well, he was getting pretty loaded, you know, and then he had this urge to tell me. … I never expected anybody to tell me something like that. That was – I almost fell down off the chair. I said – [pantomimes an expression of shock] – and I didn’t know how to react, and then he said to me, ‘I hope you don’t feel I’m a bad person.’ So he said that to me and I said, ‘Oh, of course, you can believe whatever you want as long as you respect me,’ I said to him. But it was something he had kept for a long time, and finally he got the mood, you know, and it was after a few bottles of red wine, you know. It was a confession … ‘Now we are so good friends, I can tell you this because this is my inner secret’, you know.” (pp. 53-54)

This cultural context explains why I’m not very interested in the fire-and-brimstone atheist writings of e.g. Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. I agree with them about almost everything. I would never grant religious truth-claims any special status above and apart from issues like whether there’s milk in the fridge. It’s just that where I am, their mode of expression is completely out of proportion as their issues are non-issues here. I have many US contacts on Facebook that have added me to their rosters because of the blog and my modest visibility in skeptical media, and I’m just amazed at how focused their attention is on atheism. Some of them post several public items a day on the subject. And of course, if I was feeling daily pressure from society to believe in the invisible pink unicorn or be damned and shunned, then it would be a much bigger deal to me that I don’t believe that such a beast exists. But really, a denial of the divinity of Jesus is about as novel and interesting to me as pointing out that the Pope has a funny hat.

Zuckerman’s book held few surprises to me as a Scandy native. I’m not really part of the target audience. But to any American with an interest in secularism, I highly recommend it. It’s short, solidly researched and referenced, well-written and engaging. People without my professional bias are unlikely to be bothered by the somewhat weak historical section. Regardless of your personal religious or irreligious orientation, as an American you’re likely to find the picture Zuckerman paints quite fascinating: an image of the world’s safest, most affluent and most democratic societies where freedom from religion is the norm.

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Beautiful Vendel Period Jewellery

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I’m happy and relieved. A 73-page paper that I put a lot of work and travel into and submitted almost five years ago has finally been published. In his essays, Stephen Jay Gould often refers to his “technical work”, which largely concerns Cerion land snails and is most likely not read by very many people. Aard is my attempt to do the essay side of what Gould did. The new paper “Domed oblong brooches of Vendel Period Scandinavia. Ørsnes types N & O and similar brooches, including transitional types surviving into the Early Viking Period”, though, is definitely a piece of my technical work.

The most iconic Viking Period jewellery type is the tortoise brooch. They’re big clunky things worn pairwise on your clavicles, fastening a dress with built-in suspenders over your shoulders. A number of standardised types were mass-produced during the 9th and 10th centuries, reflecting Viking Period Scandinavia’s beginning urbanisation and the concomitant changes in how craft and trade was organised. The standard work on tortoise brooches is Ingmar Jansson’s 1985 PhD thesis Ovala spännbucklor.

Far less well known are the 8th century ancestors of the tortoise brooches, belonging to the Late Vendel Period. Much smaller domed oblong brooches in fact show up already about AD 700 and develop a bewildering variety of styles and design that lasts a few decades into the 9th century before standardisation takes over completely. They’re lovely, almost every one of them unique. There has been no concerted study of them – until now.

I finished my own PhD thesis on social symbolism in Gotlandic burials of the 1st Millennium AD toward the end of 2002. The preceding year I had been to the Sachsensymposium in Lund and seen the amazing metal detector finds from UppÃ¥kra. That project’s leaders were handing out artefact categories for study to various scholars, and I signed up for two brooch groups: the 6th-7th century snake-shaped ones and the 8th century domed oblong ones. I did this for two main reasons: I wanted to get into the metal-detectors & elite-settlement field of research and I hoped to establish a new university affiliation in Lund after my viva. Note the sociology of science aspect.

I began data collection on the two brooch groups in September 2002. My 25-page paper on the snake brooches was swiftly completed and published in late 2003. But the domed oblong ones took more time: there’s a greater number of them and they’re spread over a much larger area. For the second paper I ended up travelling to Lund, Copenhagen, Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, Tromsø, Uppsala, Helsinki, Mariehamn and Ribe. I photographed and measured hundreds of brooches and read reams of obscure literature.

I have mixed feelings about this paper now. From a scientific point of view, I’m very proud of it. It is solidly empirical work with good statistics, I think my arguments are clear, there are two properly done seriation chronologies in it, and at the end is a detailed catalogue that will be useful to students of 8th century Scandinavia indefinitely. Rundkvist 2010 will be the one-stop-shopping reference for this kind of jewellery. I wish more research archaeologists were doing this sort of thing with their research time instead of being such… humanities writers.

From a career-strategical point of view, however, I have to say that it was a failure. The two brooch papers took 2½ years to write and were for all intents and purposes my post-doc project. I chose a type of investigation that is not common or fashionable these days, because it suited my scholarly ideals and it was encouraged by a well-funded research project with friendly directors at another university. But as it turned out, the longer paper took five years to appear because one of the directors fell gravely ill for a time. And the work did not open doors for me as I had hoped. I still have no affiliation with a Scandy university. Instead Exeter and then Chester in England have taken me on as visiting researcher.

Anyway. I never counted on writing an entire book on Östergötland’s elite settlements of the 1st Millennium before the domed oblong brooch paper was published. I had no idea that by the time the paper appeared, I would have finished up my 1st Millennium projects and turned to Bronze Age studies. But now it’s out, on paper and on-line, and I am much relieved.


Rundkvist, M. 2010. Domed oblong brooches of Vendel Period Scandinavia Ørsnes types N & O and similar brooches, including transitional types surviving into the Early Viking Period. Hårdh, B. (ed.). Från romartida skalpeller till senvikingatida urnesspännen. Nya materialstudier från Uppåkra. Uppåkrastudier 11. Dept of Archaeology, University of Lund.

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Futile Land Reclamation

As part of the reading course I’ve set myself on Bronze Age sacrificial finds, wetland archaeology and landscape studies, I’m reading a new book whose title translates as “Swedish bog cultivation. Agriculture, peat use and landscape change from 1750 to 2000”. It’s about various ways that Swedes have tried to make use of wetland in the past centuries. The sites I’m studying are mostly in wetlands, and mostly they have been identified when finds have surfaced during the kind of projects the book covers. Its main focus is on the Swedish Bog Cultivation Society, that operated from 1886 to 1939.

It’s tragicomical reading, really. Because regardless of whether people were trying to drain and cultivate bogs, or if they were digging for peat and trying to process and sell it, there was a major disconnect between their high hopes and the actual outcome. Generally, these huge projects were undertaken, making huge dents into the ecology, for no long-term practical gain. And it took ages for them to realise their collective mistake.

The peat fuel couldn’t compete financially with imported coal. The reclaimed lands proved unproductive. The drained areas wouldn’t stay drained, because as the peat oxidised and compacted, the land would sink back down into the lowered water table. For 200 years there was just this enormous unfounded optimism about bogs on the part of big landowners. They had a completely erroneous vision and the capital to realise it. Middle- and small-size farmers generally opposed the projects because they didn’t have any extra capital and stood to lose a lot of wetland pasture to the drainage efforts. But really poor tenant farmers also did a lot of small-scale land reclamation: not because they had any grand vision but because they had more labour than land.

So much toil. So much destruction of the environment and the archaeological record. And all pretty much for nothing.


Svensk Mosskultur. Odling, torvanvändning och landskapets förändring 1750-2000. Ed. Leif Runefelt. Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry. Stockholm 2008.

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Rutabaga

i-5829652f66bd6fa183ab85e0f11b4a54-rutabaga.jpgEverybody knows that English has borrowed the words ombudsman and smorgasbord from Swedish. But did you know that rutabaga is another Swedish loan? And that it was borrowed from a rural Swedish dialect, not standard Swedish?

“Rutabaga” is an American word for the kind of turnip known to Englishmen and Australians as swede. Indeed, the plant hybrid probably once arose in Sweden. In standard Swedish, though, it’s called kÃ¥lrot, “cabbage root” — which is botanically speaking exactly what it is. “Rut-” in “rutabaga” is simply rot, “root”. Bagge (“-baga”) means “ram”, and my speculation is that the big mean turnip was compared affectionately to the bigger meaner kind of sheep. But standard Swedish wouldn’t put that extra -a- between rot and bagge. Unsourced statements around the web suggest that the word rotabagge originated in Västergötland province.

I rarely eat rutabaga. When I do, it’s diced with other veggies in broth soup, or mashed with potatoes to produce the wonderfully sweet and orange rotmos. Or rutamus, as I guess Americans would call it.

I was inspired to write about this by Norm Sherman’s sobering and chilling gangster lyric for his song “Rutabaga“. Their words were all splurred when they sloke!

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Theological Carolling

The autumn-term closing ceremony in Swedish schools is traditionally held in a church. The country was solidly (if lukewarmly) Christian until quite recently, and Christmas is of course nominally a Christian holiday. But Muslim immigrants have become more numerous from the 80s on, the Swedish Church separated from the state in 2000, and so it is no longer uncontroversial to bring entire school classes to church.

My son’s school, when informing us parents about the ceremony planned for last week, emphasised that though the whole thing would take place in a church, no Christian message would be delivered. This was in my opinion pretty wimpy of the vicar, but such unobtrusiveness is typical of the dwindling Swedish Church. Its theology has long been getting increasingly vague and all-encompassing for fear of scaring any potential members off.

I went there to hear my kid sing, and the promise was held. The vicar in her funny ceremonial robes gave a little speech about lighting candles for this and that, but no mention was made of sin or saviour, heaven or sky guy, manger or star. No spoken mention, that is. Because although a few Swedish Christmas carols have lyrics about eating and drinking (“Hey, old gnomes, fill up yer glasses and let’s be merry”), most are loudly Christian. So we weren’t told about Jesus: instead we all sang about him.

“And across city and countryside tonight
Travel the joyful tidings of Christmas
That born is Our Lord Jesus Christ
Our Saviour and God”

“The heavens resound with words of joy:
Christ has come to Earth,
The Saviour is born unto you”

I wasn’t angry or anything, the singing just felt a little incongruous. It’s not such a big deal: I’ve taught my kids that the mythical figures religious people pray to are simply fictional characters like Mickey Mouse. And I guess any kids from my son’s school with orthodox Muslim parents simply wouldn’t be there for the ceremony. But I wonder what the Christmas carols of 50 years hence will be like. Most of the current ones are already 100 years old or more and largely incomprehensible because of their poetic and archaic language.

Svenska Dagbladet has a big feature story about the changing conditions of the Swedish Church.

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Medieval Genius Sculptor Vaporised

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Names are one of the things that separate historical and archaeological thinking from each other. History is full of people of whom little is known beyond their names and perhaps a royal or ecclesiastical title, yet still they are considered to be historical personages. Meanwhile, a dead person found in a nameless prehistoric grave can never attain the same historical stature regardless of the objects preserved with the body and the scientific data extracted from the bones.

This fixation with names was once a characteristic of art historians as well. One of the differences between Medieval and Renaissance art is that in the latter era, much more art can be attributed to named artists. But still, there are a few named Medieval ones too. And they have acted as magnets for attribution of anonymous masterpieces.

Medieval art in Sweden is largely synonymous with church art, of which we have unusually large amounts preserved because our Reformation was not strongly iconoclastic. And there are two huge names: Albertus Pictor (that is, “Albert the painter”, born ~1440 1480) from Immenhausen in Germany and Bernt Notke from Lübeck, also in Germany (born ~1435). Both were painters, both died in 1509, both have left signed preserved pieces of work, and the vibrant style of Albert and his workshop is unmistakeable. I recently learned that though he oversaw the frescoes in more than 30 churches, he died at about age 29. He painted those churches at the typical age of an art history undergrad!

But Bernt Notke, it turns out, is a different kind of guy entirely. Reading the new book by one of Sweden’s best Medieval art historians, Peter TÃ¥ngeberg (whom I like to call an archaeologist of sculpture, which is intended as a compliment), I learned that Notke is one of those attribution magnets. And a hollow one to boot.

One of Sweden’s finest pieces of Medieval art is St. George and the Dragon in Stockholm cathedral. It is an anonymous work. In 1901/06 influential art historian Johnny Roosval attributed it to Bernt Notke. This attribution stuck: it’s part of a good Swedish education to “know” that Notke sculpted St. George. And since that time, innumerable fine anonymous pieces of art have been attributed to the genius behind St. George — Notke.

But, TÃ¥ngeberg points out, there are in fact only three pieces of work that are known to be Notke’s either through signatures or church archives. They are a triumphal crucifix in Lübeck Cathedral from 1477, a reredos (altarskÃ¥p) in Århus cathedral from 1479 and a reredos in Tallinn’s All Saints’ Church from 1483. And when you look at them you find some interesting facts.

  1. Notke’s three works are very dissimilar from each other and must have been made by a group of artisans under his direction. (Hardly surprising, as Notke never claimed to be a sculptor.) This means that it is impossible to identify and characterise Notke’s style.
  2. All three works are rather mediocre pieces, far below the level of mastery seen in St. George in Stockholm.

Peter Tångeberg masterfully shows that St. George was not made by Notke or any other artist from Lübeck. Its only real parallels are found in painted religious sculpture from the Burgundian area in the southern Netherlands, where extremely little art of this period survives. In fact, a previously discounted 17th century author reports that the sculpture was ordered from Antwerp.

In any case, there is no longer any good reason to put a name to the people who created St. George and the Dragon. And the genius Bernt Notke, a central figure in North European art history, has simply evaporated, poor fellow.

Update same evening: Forget everything I said about Albert’s age. All wrong! Thanks for setting me straight, Ismene.

Check out Peter TÃ¥ngeberg’s paper on re-worked Madonna sculptures with updated faces. And read his new book, Wahrheit und Mythos — Bernt Notke und die Stockholmer St.-Georgs-Gruppe. Even if you don’t read German, get it for the pictures.

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Gay Men Allowed to Donate Blood (in Theory)

AIDS was discovered in gay men and the virus is more easily transmitted through anal than vaginal intercourse. For this reason, gay men (defined as “men who have sex with men”) have long been forbidden to donate blood in Sweden. Likewise, people who go to bed with a new hetero partner must wait three months before donating blood again.

Now the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare has decided to change the rules. A bit. Gay men are now allowed to donate blood. If the last time they had sex with a man was more than a year ago. So you’re only allowed to donate blood if you’re gay in the abstract, not in practice.

I don’t know what to think here. The changed rules are certainly more symbolic than practical in effect. But the virus is much more common among gay men than among heteros. And among blood donors who have showed up as positive in HIV screening, gay men are also strongly over-represented. (But they’re not allowed to donate in the first place, so I don’t know where those data come from.)

Still, regardless of who has it more and who has it less, the virus is very uncommon overall in Sweden, and those infected get good treatment that keeps their infectiousness way, way down. I don’t know what’s the bigger risk here: people dying from lack of donated blood or people contracting HIV from an infected blood bag.

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