The Sacrosanct Art: On Art and Religion, the Rise of Populism and the Changing Media Landscape

Editors Notes:

Parts of this article have been previously published under the title “Scandal Success—The Political Economy of the Art Scandal”. In Nina  Möntmann (ed.). Scandalous. A Reader on Art & Ethics. Berlin/New York, NY: Sternberg Press. 2013. pp. 88-105.

The public discourse of the last years has been characterised by increased social, political and cultural polarisation in Sweden, as well as in other parts of the world. This development is due to a combination of a number of factors, such as the recent economic crisis, widening income gaps, increasing migration flows, rising populism and racism and lastly, the changes of the media landscape with the rapid growth of social and alternative media. This polarisation has also become apparent in the public debate on art, which has never occupied as much space in the public sphere in Sweden as it has in the last two decades due to a series of art controversies—or as the media often prefer to label the events—art scandals. Most media attention has no doubt been directed to art that, in provocative ways, has dealt with religion.

As a cultural, social and political phenomenon, art scandals are a relatively neglected area in art history as well as in other fields of research.1 Most of the studies that have focused on scandals more generally, for instance political and media scandals, indicate that the source can generally be traced to a transgression of norms in some way.2 Even though, on the whole, scandals challenge some degree of consensus, since the mid-nineteenth century visual art has occupied a unique position, as transgression of norms has played a central role in it. And as an institutionalised element within the concept of art, today artistic provocation is encouraged and has acquired the function of both renewing art and altering the internal hierarchies between practitioners as well as others active in the field.

Art scandals share most characteristics with other categories of scandals, such as political and media scandals: the offending of fixed social values, norms, or moral codes; the event by which the norm is transgressed must be known to more than the parties involved, as scandal can only arise in the glare of publicity; people must be indignant and shocked, and action must be taken by entities interested in criticizing the event publicly.3

The kind of norm transgression that gives rise to scandal is, of course, dependent on the cultural and socio-political context in which it occurs. In several countries where religion plays an important role, the major art controversies in recent decades have involved blasphemy and sex, often in combination. In more secular and liberal parts of the world, such as the Scandinavian countries, blasphemy or sex on their own seldom give rise to scandal, as long as references to these areas do not transcend the heteronormative matrix and merely concern the majority society. In Sweden, major political scandals in the last decade have rather been caused by financial irregularities and misuse of the taxpayers’ money, as the issue of money is considered more of a taboo than sex in Sweden.4 And this is also symptomatic for many earlier art scandals in Sweden, where several of the controversies were not caused by the transgression of a norm itself, but by the fact that the violation of norms was paid for by the taxpayers in being produced, funded, or exhibited in public institutional frameworks.5

A typical art scandal scenario in Sweden has for decades often followed the same pattern. A controversy originates through the indignation of some of the local population in the area in which a work of art has been shown, which would then be reported by the local media with a small note in the middle of a newspaper. The cultural world would routinely defend the controversial artwork, and the local politicians, especially those involved with cultural policy, would be very cautious about involving themselves in the public debate.

This has been true for many years in Sweden, but during the last decade this situation has changed. In Sweden, as in a number of European countries, it has been possible to discern a shift in the attitude of politicians to culture in general and to contemporary art in particular. Naturally, every elected politician is entitled to have views on individual works of art and to discuss them—like any other citizen. But the Swedish art controversies since the millennium have not dealt with aesthetic judgements, but with moral condemnation and the ensuing demands for exhibitions to be closed, cultural funding withdrawn, and the dismissal of leading members of the staffs of cultural institutions and academies of art involved. In the few cases in which politicians have criticised works of art on the grounds that they break the law, this has been based solely on sensational media reporting long before any internal inquiry has been made, prosecutions initiated, any actual crime has been demonstrated, or sentences been passed. And the critical politicians have not only come from so called populist, or even conservative parties, but also from established parties in the middle of the political spectrum. In several cases, the criticism expressed by a leading politician has not consisted of spontaneous remarks but strategically considered public statements and articles in the major daily papers or established political blogs and forums.6

Art is vulnerable in the sense that it is—and certainly has been historically—an easy target for politicians to exploit. This is why the arm’s length principle is stated in the Swedish law. Why then, have some leading politicians started to break with that principle, by applying the same rhetorical strategies against contemporary art as used by the same populist parties that they otherwise are taking pains to distance themselves from?

We would argue that there are several reasons for this development. The first is the change of the political landscape. Sweden had not seen the same development of right-wing populist parties as in other European countries until the last decade. This delay is explained by the dominant position occupied by socio-economic questions about welfare, employment, and economics in the Swedish political debate.7 But, during the last decade there has been a shift in the political discourse, in which socio-cultural issues such as culture, national identity, and traditional family values have also acquired importance. This development is partly the result of the inclusion of the socially conservative Christian Democrat Party in the Swedish liberal-conservative coalition government in 2006-2014, as well as the entry of the xenophobic party Swedish Democrats into the Swedish Parliament in 2010. Both parties have adopted a profile in which socio-cultural values have become the main issues on their political agenda. The huge success of the Swedish Democrats, which in the polls of 2017 have become the third and most recently the second largest party in Sweden, has led to a development where also some of the established political parties are adopting a more nationalistic oriented rhetoric, for example by using concepts such as “Swedish values” in their party program, speeches, and rhetoric.8

The rise of populist parties has in Nordic countries, such as Denmark and Norway, also led to a development where some of the established parties have adapted their politics and rhetoric. Similar tendencies have also recently been seen in Sweden. The term “populism” is here not used to signify a certain type of movement or ideology on the extreme right, as it often is by the news media. In accordance with scholars on populism such as Ernesto Laclau and Yves Surel, the term is instead used to describe a political and rhetorical strategy that can be used across the entire political spectrum and that unites a number of disparate movements from Right to Left.9 One of the characteristics of the political logic of populism is a form of division into opposition and identification, in which populists attempt to create identification with the “people” and position themselves in opposition to an enemy—“those who are not like us” —which could be either political, technocratic, intellectual, or cultural “elites”, or minorities such as immigrants or homosexuals.10

There may be the same kinds of reasons for the frequency of art scandals in Sweden in recent years as for the rise in moral political scandals. The transgression of moral norms, as has already been pointed out, lies in the very nature of art scandals. Art scandals are structured in the same way as political scandals in the media. They have a clear, cliffhanger “story,” with a beginning, middle, and an end—but they can be taken up again and angled differently. If the changes of the political landscape offer one reason for the growth of populism in Sweden as well as the rest of Europe, then the transformation of the media landscape naturally offers another.11

In a period of crisis for the established media in combination with a reorientation of values in the political discourse, the rhetoric of the news media is increasingly driven by emotions, polarised, and exaggerated—it becomes melodramatic, which involves a shift from logos to pathos. Opinions and feelings take priority over facts, which has resulted in an increase in opinion articles by commentators, columnists, and celebrity writers at the expense of the more costly investigative and fact-based journalism. Opinions do not call for facts to be checked or sources to be confirmed. Audience-focused research on the media has consequently also linked media stories to the genre that embodies emotion and excess—melodrama—and its unerring capacity to adapt to the techniques of the different media.12 Empirical studies have also shown that the general public remembers a scandal because of its gradual development into a coherent, exciting, and dramatic “story” that is simple to headline and has a clear point.13 Almost all art scandals match the characteristics of melodrama: they deal with moral values; they are presented emotionally and as embodiments of some form of opposition between a victim (for instance, the taxpayers) and a perpetrator (the artistic elite); the events take the form of a series of spectacular actions, heated outbursts, threats, vandalism, complaints to the police, cancelled exhibitions. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media and Internet forums enable a scandal to be augmented and transposed, and the reverberations of its origination passed on to other media, both nationally and globally. The scandal spirals, it does not rise and fall.14

The values at stake in an art scandal have also shifted. For a long time most art controversies involved basically the same moral issues as political scandals. An artwork accused of religious blasphemy would hardly create any headlines. Not any longer. Some of the art controversies that have attracted most media attention in Sweden during the last two decades, have in some aspect or another dealt with religion. The first major controversy occurred in 1998 when the exhibition Ecce Homo, by the Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin, was shown at the cathedral in Uppsala and subsequently toured among churches in Sweden. The exhibition, which contained twelve photographs portraying people from the LGBTQ community in biblical situations was accused of desecration. The exhibition was to a large extent defended by columnists in the major newspapers with reference to the principle of freedom of expression. This standpoint was at first glance rather uncontroversial, since many of the protesters were white, Lutheran Christians, which is the largest religion and was the state religion in Sweden until 2000, and the protests were by many commentators also interpreted as homophobic. The situation was, however, a bit more complex since the exhibition also caused some critical debate within the Christian church and the LGBTQ community.15

Eight years later, another artwork was accused of blasphemy, in this case, derogation of Islam. It involved the drawing Muhammed som rondellhund [Muhammad as a roundabout dog] by the Swedish artist Lars Vilks. However, the ethical equation was here even more complicated and the commentaries on the controversy were consequently more divided.16 While some of the commentators defended Vilks’s right to offend Islam with reference to the principle of freedom of speech, others argued that even if Vilks has this right, and any threats against him are therefore totally unacceptable, it was still ethically unnecessary to provoke a rather oppressed minority group in Sweden, especially if you are a male, white and (former) art professor with the publicly declared objective to challenge political correctness in the art world of Stockholm.17 A left-right dimension has become gradually visible in the public debate about the artwork, where the defenders of the drawing are to a large extent coming from the liberal-right, while the critics tend to be leaning to the left.18 The controversy became even more politicised after Vilks received the active support of several far right groups and organisations, accepted the invitation to speak at “Islam critical” conferences, and made some critical comments on Islam, which some commentators have interpreted as islamophobic. What made the discussion about art that is accused of offending Islam even more complex is that it also includes aspects of the escalating fear of terrorism, especially after the terror attacks in Denmark in the Mohammad drawings controversy, in Paris with the killings of twelve people in the building of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and the attacks on Vilks, the latest of which resulted in the death of one civilian and three wounded policemen. These terror threats and attacks have furthermore led to a more cautious attitude from some leaders of cultural institutions as well as some editors of news media.

Ten years ago the sociologist Ari Adut described art scandals in liberal democracies as generally “low stake affairs” that concern a limited circle and seldom lead to legal penalties or social sanctions.19 This no longer applies in Sweden, nor in many other countries. Individual works of art have provided front-page stories and have at times been featured in television and radio news programmes. Leading journalists, academics, lawyers, spokespeople for various religious denominations, and politicians have debated ethical, legal, and political aspects of artworks. Social media have seen lively controversies with heated blogs, Twitter storms and Facebook campaigns for and against works of art. Individual works have been reported to the police, threats have been made against artists and exhibitions, and even terrorist attacks have been aimed at an artist.

In Sweden, one of the most secular countries in the world, art controversies that involve religion have become an exceptionally socially and politically sensitive issue. These situations are in many cases ethically complex since there is often not just one ethical principle at stake, but multiple, which can also be in ethical conflict with each other. This can in its turn result in a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario: the art scandal as an ethical kaleidoscope, where just one twist in either direction will totally change the ethical view. Or as an ideological litmus test that exposes less visible ideological cracks and frictions in society.


In Sweden, as in a number of European countries, it has been possible to discern a shift in the attitude of politicians to culture in general and to contemporary art in particular. Every elected politician is entitled to have views on individual works of art and to discuss them—like any other citizen. But Swedish art controversies since the millennium have not dealt with aesthetic judgments but moral condemnation and the ensuing demands for exhibitions to be closed, cultural funding withdrawn, and the dismissal of leading members of staff of cultural institutions and academies of art. In this article Wrange and Karlsson argue that art scandals are an “ethical kaleidoscope”, particularly as they are seen to transgress religious mores in a secular regime.