Marking histories, defacing violence. Danish colonialism before and after the sinking of the bust of Frederick V.
At the end of October, a bust of Frederick V, King of Denmark (1746-1766), was removed from the ceremonial hall of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and sunk into the nearby Copenhagen harbour. The purpose of the action was made clear in a video documenting the action, signed by “Anonymous Visual Artists”:
By sinking Frederick V into the canal, we want to articulate the ways in which the colonial era is made invisible, but still has direct consequences for minority people inside and outside the Academy.1
The video, published along with a statement by the group, articulates some of the concrete ties between the Royal Academy and Danish colonialism. The Royal Academy, located on the Nyhavn harbour in central Copenhagen, was founded in 1754, during Frederick V’s reign, with the King as the main sponsor. It was a period through which the Monarchy of Denmark participated in the transatlantic slave trade and held colonies in Ghana, the Virgin Islands and on the Indian subcontinent. Nyhavn is located close to Frederiksstaden, an historic area of central Copenhagen named after Frederick V with the royal palace as its central building complex. In the center of the courtyard of the royal palace stands Jacques-François-Joseph Saly’s equestrian statue of Frederick V, which the bust in the ceremonial hall was a preparatory study for – a twentieth century copy of the preparatory study, to be more precise.2
The Anonymous Visual Artists clearly presented the action as an artistic and decolonial political happening and explicitly expressed a desire to revisit and rearticulate Denmark’s colonial history. Despite this, the action was widely condemned, either as an attempt to erase history – a form of iconoclasm – or even as an “attempt at a violent takeover at the centre of society.”3 Throughout the weeks following the action, leading art institutions joined conservative politicians and liberal and right-wing media in an attempt to silence the happening and the questions that the Anonymous Visual Artists wanted to raise in the Danish public sphere. For example, one of the major daily newspapers called for Katrine Dirkinck-Holmfeld – who led the Institute of Art, Writing and Research at the Royal Academy before she was asked to leave the position after taking responsibility for the bust-action – to be locked up.4
As a consequence, the action was presented in the public debate as something almost abject, as a flawed artwork with misguided politics, rather than being seen as a contribution to the history and future of the Royal Academy and the Danish art scene. The question of why the Anonymous Visual Artists’ distortion of the royal framework of the ‘Royal’ Academy was so thoroughly rejected is one of the things that has brought us together when writing this text. In our view, the action is not a form of iconoclasm, but of defacement; it evokes a prehistory of a face, bringing “insides outside, unearthing knowledge, and revealing mystery.”5 In the defacement of a monument like the bust of Frederick V, the social relations that enabled it, and which it is still surrounded by at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, were made manifest. This, in turn, distorted the imagined or constructed relations that the bust symbolically upheld, as it stood on its plinth overlooking the ceremonial hall of the Royal Academy. As the Royal Academy traditionally opens each fall semester in this space, all new students and staff are “welcomed” by this image of the former monarch. It is an image that upholds certain relations and overshadows and erases others.6 We need to speak of both.
The adamant non-institutionalisation of the action – its condemnation by the Academy Council and the Danish art world at large – allows for other instances, such as the law, to define the action beyond the sphere of art and debate. While a police investigation of the action is ongoing, the Danish Ministry of Culture is also investigating whether or not to impose control on the teaching at the Academy and have recently effectively fired its rector, Kirsten Langkilde, for disagreeing with the ministry about “how to solve the challenges at the Academy.” Challenges, which the Minister of Culture, Joy Mogensen, has formerly said may have to do with “problems with identity politics.”7
So, curiously enough, the Anonymous Visual Artists behind the defacement of Frederick V – which “took place in solidarity with all the artists, students and people all over the world who have had to live with the aftermath of Danish colonialism”8 – are now being met with some of the same punitive measures that are being used to uphold racist and exclusionary policies seen elsewhere in Danish society. This marks a clear relation between juridical constructs and historic imperatives around aesthetics, geniality and the concept of art, on which the Royal Academy was founded and still operates. In recent years, several laws have been implemented in Denmark, which massively reinforce the detention and deportation regime, and severely curtail even the most basic rights, predominantly for people migrating and fleeing to Denmark and their descendants with so-called ‘Non-Western’ background.
When reflecting on the racism of the Danish welfare state of today – currently implemented by the governing Social Democrats, who hold a considerable parliamentary majority – it seems clear that the legacy of Frederick V’s colonial kingdom is anything other than the distant past it is presented as in the Danish public sphere. On the contrary, the bust very much manifests a material relation lasting to this day. And it is this relation that the Anonymous Visual Artists attempted to make visible by looking behind the bust itself. In this respect, the demonizing of the action seems most of all to be a kind of anti-anti-racism – a cancellation of a critique – based, perhaps, on a fear of the conversations, subjectivities and forms of resistance that the action might inspire.
The institution, the city and the nation
Since its installation, the face of Frederick V has been overlooking the ceremonial hall of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts as a constant reminder of his historical and current impact. As mentioned, this also implies an ignorance, and refusal, of the material relations that the position of the bust of the King entails. It appears as the symbol of a surveillance of artistic education, year after year taking place under the watchful gaze of the sovereign. Today, the same kind of surveillance is carried out by the social democratic government and the welfare state that fund the Royal Academy and is persecuting the Anonymous Visual Artists behind the action. In the wake of the action, BIPOC students at the Royal Academy were targeted publicly as responsible for the action itself and for what the media coined as the heart of the problem: “An identity political culture at the Academy.”9
We want to stress that the encounter with the modern parliamentary face of the sovereign is not equal for all, as Danish colonial heritage is more immediately present for persons facing racism in their daily lives. We also want to emphasise that by distorting the supposedly neutral position of the bust, reproduced each day by its uncontested installation, the group of Anonymous Visual Artists asserted the prevalence of neocolonial relations in today’s Denmark, as well as in the colonial legacy of the Western concept of art, dominant in the cancellation of the action by its reactionary respondents. Moreover, the group of artists made it clear that it is not possible to separate the history of art and art education from the history of colonial violence that upheld its development in modernity, or indeed from the present manifestations of racist and sexist repression at work within and outside of the field of art.
The medial and political response to the action: a repression of antiracist voices
After news of the action broke, a media spectacle unfolded; right-wing politicians, as well as the Academy Council, reported the action to the police. During the weeks that followed, journalists from conservative media outlets contacted BIPOC students at the Academy on a daily basis and turned up unannounced at the Royal Academy.10 Already before the action, the conservative periodical Weekendavisen was running a smear campaign against the supposed identity politics at the Academy, which over the year resulted in the persecution of students.11 The naming of four students in connection with the sinking of the bust is especially opprobrious. Danish artist Bjørn Nørgaard,12 publicly accused the Anonymous Visual Artists of using “Daesh methods”, namely, iconoclasm.13
Although comparisons with Daesh are patently absurd at the level of artistic practice, they assume far greater coherence when placed within the context of the Islamophobia which has been nurtured in Denmark over the last twenty years. The purpose of invoking Daesh is not only to discredit the action but to racialize and stigmatize the Anonymous Visual Artists.
The virulence of the press response can be gauged by Tom Jensen’s editorial in Berlingske.14 In his text, Jensen demanded that Katrine Dirkinck-Holmfeld and the Anonymous Visual Artists ought to be put in handcuffs and locked up. Echoes of Trump’s “Lock her up! Lock her up!”15 resound.16 As editor of Berlingske, Jensen is speaking to the white middle class with the same malevolence as Donald Trump.
The police followed hot on the heels of the journalists, showing up unannounced at the Royal Academy, questioning the staff and getting the surveillance videos from the moment of the action. According to sources at the Royal Academy, the staff were asked to identify the persons captured by the cameras.
The Repression of antiracism in Denmark
As recent public reactions prove, the belligerence shown towards the anonymous action quickly became an attack on a supposed culture of radical identity politics as such. This is also why the bust action is politically important, as its reception reveals the underlying fear amongst parts of the Fourth Estate who have structural interests – both in narrow commercial terms (selling newspapers) and more broadly in defending the institutions of civil society – in perpetuating the racist arena of Danish public discourse.
We are not sure whether the clamour, panic and hatefulness of the response in the Fourth Estate is simply the last cries of a generation, receding before new perspectives, or an example of the hefty repression of even mild expressions of dissent. On the one hand, the virulence of the response, the completely disproportionate attack on the Anonymous Visual Artists, was clearly driven, at least in part, by fear – a kind of shock reaction to the ‘threat’ presented by the action, in which the invitation to public reflection on local colonial history and the structures of racism that pervade society today was clamped down on immediately. It became a way of shutting down the voices that are rendering visible the structural racism that dominates the foundation of art institutions and universities, historically and today.
To understand this, the context that allows for such immense suppression of voices – instead of absorbing them and silencing them by mere institutionalisation – is important to discuss in a larger context. This contextualisation may help us understand why the action by the Anonymous Artists was not hailed in the same manner as the destruction of statues of colonialism around the world in the summer only a few months earlier. In the summer of 2020 the Danish Black Lives Matter protests were also met with obloquy and derogation. While the Danish media were respectful, or ignorant, of the protests overseas, as well as the destruction of statues of colonialism, a severe harassment of the Danish protests was taking place simultaneously. This twofold response has to do with the self-image of the local context that was set in motion by the action.
The Danish Black Lives Matter demonstrations were targeted as a public health threat because of the Covid-19 pandemic; people participating in the demonstrations were recommended to get a test for Covid-19, and the media started what can best be described as a witch hunt against the spokesperson for Black Lives Matter in Denmark, Bwalya Sørensen.17 We understand this as the same kind of cancellation of critique as was directed toward the group of Anonymous Visual Artists following the bust action.
Institutionalised segregation: Immigration laws and “ghetto” legislation
The recent cancellations of neocolonial critiques of the current state of Denmark, suggest that anti-racist resistance continues to be excoriated as a powerful, sectarian force in the country. Resistance is racialised, marginalised and derogated. This is in line with the severe tightening of migration policies in recent decades: Restrictions on family reunification, heightening of the requirements to obtain a permanent residence permit or Danish citizenship and worsening living conditions for people seeking asylum in Denmark are among the changes.
Legislation passed in 2015 permitted the state to confiscate valuables and cash from asylum seekers, and the so-called Paradigm Shift in 2019, which among other initiatives replaced the word “integration” with “repatriation” in the Danish Aliens Act, are among the most symbolic, and also very effective laws, in terms of the consequences for the daily lives of people seeking refuge in Denmark.18 In Denmark, as well as in its neighbouring Scandinavian and European countries, temporariness is the overall framework for newcomers, for whom the possibility of deportation is a constantly present threat.
In her opening statement to parliament in October 2020, prime minister Mette Frederiksen announced a proposal according to which the police may prohibit any persons to be present within certain areas in which antisocial or “intimidating” behaviour has been reported for a limited time period. According to her own introduction to the injunction, it targets suburban parts of cities like Copenhagen, where “boys and young men gather and create insecurity.” Any violations of the ban would result firstly in a fine of 10.000 DKK, and, secondly, 30 days in jail.19
To further manifest its targeting of already stigmatized groups in today’s Denmark, the proposed prohibition will allow the police to confiscate people’s ‘expensive jackets,’ ‘watches and accessories’ and mobile phones on the spot if the fine cannot be payed. The presumption that certain people should carry objects such as these illuminates the real interest behind the proposal: to target young men of colour. Following Frederiksen’s speech, a resident of Mjølnerparken, one of the areas of Copenhagen targeted as “ghettos”, told one of us that her young son had stopped wearing his winter jacket, as he was afraid to get stopped without reason by the police and have it confiscated.
Since 2002, Danish citizens have been separated statistically into two categories: ‘Westerners’ and ‘non -Western’ immigrants and descendants.20 ‘Non-Westerners’ here become the negative counterpart or ‘left-over product’ of ‘Western’. A young person born and raised in Denmark with Danish citizenship may be categorised as ‘non-Western.’21 This statistical invention is used to distinguish neighbourhoods in terms of public housing, justify legal punishment and determine the right to social support, and is a clear example of the neocolonial legacy that dominates both public discourse and legal regulations in present day Denmark.
In early December 2020, the Minister of Integration, Social Democrat Mattias Tesfaye, introduced a new statistical category, ‘MENAPT.’ This category explicitly targets countries with predominantly Muslim populations.22 The “non-Western” category is particularly important in the construction of the so-called ghetto laws in Denmark. Denmark is the only country in the world that uses the term “ghetto” as a way to target areas with a predominantly “non-white” population. Since 2010 ‘ghetto lists’ have been published every December 1st, designating certain public housing areas as “vulnerable residential areas” and “ghetto” areas.
In 2018, the legislation targeting “ghetto” areas was severely sharpened, taking a more directly discriminatory turn, making the racist intentions of the law excruciatingly obvious.23 As a consequence of the 2018 “ghetto” laws, a public housing area with more than a 1,000 residents is categorised as a ghetto area, if two or more of certain specific criteria, concerning employment, income, education and crime rates, are fulfilled – and if the proportion of residents who are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from non-Western countries exceeds 50 percent.24
Ethnicity is therefore the decisive factor in determining whether or not housing complexes are designated as a “ghetto” by the Danish state. Once an area is categorised as a “ghetto”, the share of publicly rented family housing must be reduced by 60 percent (primarily sold off or torn down). As a consequence of this, more than 11,000 people are being, or will be, forcefully evicted from their homes.25 Many more are denied access to public housing. In twenty-first century Denmark, people can be evicted from their homes because of the colour of their skin. Racism is enshrined in Danish law.
These changes to legislation in recent Danish history makes clear that the main objective is the comfort and peace of mind of Denmark’s white middle and working classes implemented by means of a violent expropriation of racialized minorities. This makes it clear that the reaction to the happening at the Royal Academy does not come out of the blue. It appeared and blossomed within the context of the social democratic welfare state that strengthens itself at the cost of its marginalised minorities. No doubt the fear and loathing expressed in many of the responses is genuine and spontaneous, but it has been nurtured and constructed within Danish politics over the last decades. Fear and structurally ingrained responses are not, of course, mutually exclusive; the vitriol in the press is both an effect of, and a bearing element within, the structure of state racism.
An absorptive institution and colonial violence today
While the reactionary response forces students and staff at the Royal Academy to personify the supposed threat to Danish society posed by the bust action and a “culture of radical identity politics” run wild at the Royal Academy, future students, staff and scholars are met with a clear message: that the action is completely unacceptable and is a matter for the police. By striking down on the happening, instead of opening up for a critical reflection of its institutional heritage, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts disconnects and erases a history of exploitation and violence that a group of current students are asking to be addressed, as they experience the ramifications of this history in their daily lives.
As we see it, the condemnation of the Anonymous Visual Artists by The Royal Academy of Fine Arts reveals its dependence on and complicity with the reproduction of the politics and values of the (currently Social Democrat) government and the nation state. This means that any autonomy of artistic and academic activities are of secondary importance. It thus functions as an absorptive institution, dominated by a historical dependence on denial and mystification. This kind of institution disables an institutional critique that in fact would allow for its continuing existence, at least in any meaningful sense as a place for education in the visual arts, and thus, in a way, decapitates itself.
By refusing to let the critique immanent to the action by the Anonymous Visual Artists resonate, the Royal Academy and its heritage is instead made museal. For the same reason, its objects are treated as essential historical artefacts. As a consequence, the Ministry of Culture and the Royal Academy have insisted upon a narrative of transgression and weaponised identity.
This kind of negation – the historical denial of the Royal Academy’s colonial history, and its present power – can be seen as possessive, insofar as it occupies and attempts to own the question of Danish colonial heritage that it rejects and refuses. It is a possessive negation of a relational defacing – the bringing to the present of jurisdictional accumulative roots and relations – which appears as a direct action against the marking of violence. By calling the sinking of the bust vulgar or savage – notions used to exclude people from the modern epistemological condition – the Anonymous Visual Artists are repressed and rejected. They are portrayed as if they belong outside of the civilised, jurisdictional world. This is also evident in the MENAPT and non-Western categories, and in the refusal to listen or respond to what was said in the action – as if it was communicated in an unknown language, simply noise.
The creation of the stereotype of the savage others through racialising statistical categories corresponds to the aesthetic theory established at the time of the Royal Academy’s founding. To distinguish the educated ‘human’ from the desiring, emotional ‘savage’ was central, for example, to a post-Kantian understanding of art institutions as autonomous and is still a cornerstone of the notion of artwork (and the nation state) as we know it today. It is essential to take this history into account when reflecting on the debate on the bust’s history and value.
As for today, the economic value of the bust, according to which the measurements of the law are given, is not yet made public. As it was a plaster copy its economic value can’t be significant. The bust was destroyed by the salt water in the harbour, and will be replaced by a re-casted copy. As the destroyed bust was a reproducible copy – a fact that emerged after the debate around the action exploded. Yet both the media outrage and the legal measurements against the action were a result of the knee-jerk assumption that the bust was an original study from the 1750s.
The reactionary response to the bust-action functioned as the self-erasure of recent history, for the sake of avoiding the self-exposure of the present intended by the defacing of the bust. Keeping focus on the images of the bust salvaged from the harbour, half decomposed by salt water, the responses went short-circuit in their insistence on negating negations, thus affirming their own lack of language. It simply came out as a saturated and self-reproducing silence. Sensationalism about the purported destruction of national cultural heritage and the distortion of the (economic) value of the bust have, generally speaking, occluded the far more urgent question of the destruction of living bodies – both historically and during the present – and the cultural legacy of this violence. Who has the right to frame actions as violent? Which violence remains invisible, which becomes a spectacle?
The action: an intervention in the colonial history of art
In the light of the trajectory of Danish politics and the public response around the action described above, we understand the action at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen as a defacing of violence, and the response to it can be understood as a reactionary facing. Only reading the happening at ‘face value’ (as the destruction of a supposedly irreplaceable item of national cultural heritage), its initial references and relations (the prevalence of colonial relations within Danish society and throughout its institutions) were rapidly blurred. This blurring also conceals the difference between the concept of defacement and the concept of iconoclasm, as discussed before.
Far from razing the image of Frederick V from the Danish cultural landscape however, the sovereign remains prevalent on Danish facades, in the names of neighborhoods and cities, and in canonical literature. There is no way to escape the name Frederick in Denmark, as much as it is impossible to escape the name Karl in Sweden. Interestingly, a Swedish man was recently charged with serious vandalism for placing an antifa sticker on the frame of a copy of Swedish artist Gustaf Cederström’s 1878 painting Bringing Home the Body of King Charles XII of Sweden, a nationalist symbol until this day. Marking the relation between the image of the king and its use and circulation today, the man defaced the image rather than ‘cancelling’ it.26
Extending the caption, expanding the context of an image or frame of references around an artwork, is a crucial task for academics and writers, curators and artists, today. Norwegian contemporary artist Hanni Kamaly has recently been retracing overseen or hidden material relations between artworks and their makers, funders and commissioners. Most recently she has mapped the history of a 1903 statue at the Thiel Gallery in Stockholm, figuring an unnamed person entitled “Lappen,” which can be translated as “the ‘lapp’” – a derogatory term for a Sámi person.27 The name of the person sitting for the sculpture is Per Kuhmoinen, and it was from his photograph – taken by artist Borg Mesh – that artist Christian Eriksson developed the sculpture in question.
Besides insisting on Per Kuhmoinen’s name, beyond the racial stereotype that his sculpture continues to uphold with its current caption, Kamaly also unveils the relation between national artists like Eriksson and the upsurge of racial biology in Sweden during the early 1900s:
Both Mesch and Eriksson participated in Svenska folktypsutställningen in 1919, an important precursor to the founding of the state institute of race biology, Uppsala. The exhibition was arranged by Lundborg to showcase the work and research behind race biology. It was a crucial factor in gaining public support and funding for the first State Institute of Race Biology in the world.28
Making the relations between the institution of art, nationalism and its potential fascism clear, Kamaly has continued to distort the presumed innocence of several neo-classical sculptures in Sweden, as part of guided city tours, entitled Markings. Taking her audience between public sculptures in Malmö and Gothenburg, Kamaly tells of the logistical, relational and economic stories behind the public sculptures. At the moment, we don’t know if she will get the chance to make her ‘markings’ more permanent, by adding signs or additional information to these artworks – so that their intervention in public space does not have to be upheld by her physical and mental labour.
When reflecting on such a possibility, we wonder if Kamaly’s labour should be supported and extended within institutions, or outside of these. Namely, whose labour should be dedicated to this very pressing need? Is it a job for the institutions themselves, the practitioners within its field, or a question for the broader population?
Further down the harbour front – not far from where the bust was sunk – stands the sculpture I Am Queen Mary.29 A collaborative work by Virgin Islands artist La Vaughn Belle and Danish artist Jeanette Ehlers, I Am Queen Mary was unveiled in 2017 to mark the sale of the Virgin Islands to the US in 1917, and was installed in front of the West India Warehouse, the place where goods from the Danish colonies in the Virgin Islands would be stored. Today, the lower floors of the Warehouse hold the Royal Cast Collection. The cast collection, itself testament to European ideals of white humanism, is currently threatened with closure. According to art historian Nina Cramer, I am Queen Mary is “the first monument in Denmark to establish a commemorative space around the country’s lasting colonial impact in the Virgin Islands and resistance against it”.30 On December 27, the monument was severely damaged in a storm, and work on securing funding for a bronze version of the is still ongoing.31 The question is: do we need more monuments in the classical sense of the term, or how do we want to integrate the knowledge of a violent past and relate it to the violence underpinning our society today? The state’s partial support for the monument is naturally dubious, insofar as can be seen as an attempt to draw a line under Denmark’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. I Am Queen Mary can be seen to counteract any such manipulative intention, in part by incorporating the bodies of the artists in the main figure, emphasizing the history of enslavement and colonial domination as lived histories, which in no sense can be consigned to the past.
There is a huge contrast between the critical reflection on Danish colonial history painstakingly constructed around I am Queen Mary and the scholarly work on access to colonial archives (as well as reflection on what colonial archives consist of) in the Archives That Matter project, and the way in which the bust action was quickly and ignorantly discredited throughout the mainstream media reaction.32 The sinking of the bust can also be seen as an attempt to construct a space in which the ongoing legacy of Danish colonialism can be acknowledged and the possibility of institutions not dominated by whiteness discussed. That it has been met with such a great degree of repression tells of the general unwillingness to confront the present effects of colonialism reflected and reproduced within Danish institutions.
The labour of the Anonymous Visual Artists: Gaining access to expression.
The action carried out by the group of anonymous artists was initiated on a background of lack of debate and awareness in the surrounding society. Put differently, it was an action that could easily have been initiated or supported by the Royal Academy itself. Yet, the question is whether it ever will be possible for an institution like the Royal Academy to enter such a process of decolonisation. Could we imagine the Academy Council revising their collection of sculptures and paintings – for example by supporting artists or other actors to intervene in and critique colonial heritage? Could this be the beginning of a sustained critique of the structure of the Royal Academy, a structure that is based heavily on an authoritarian and Eurocentric worldview? Do we trust the Royal Academy to be able to do so, and if so, how?
In line with anthropologist Michael Taussig’s writing on acts of defacement, we believe that the sinking of the bust was not only a way to shed light on ignored or repressed parts of history, but also to create space for these parts of history to be discussed. For Taussig, an act of defacement can be a reaction to lacking possibilities for expression – possibilities that defacement extends by simply transgressing rigid societal norms and limits.33 When discussing the happening in Copenhagen, one needs to properly ask what the action expresses, and how these expressions are received in terms of translation and resonance. What speech is at play? From Taussig we learn that: “such speech is advancing over, yet cut short by, a shifting silence. It is a speech hollowed out by itself, so to speak, working on the secret that works on it.”34
“Working on the secret that works on it” is indeed what Hanni Kamaly, Katrine Dirknick-Holmfeld, Jeanette Ehlers, La Vaughn Belle and the Anonymous Visual Artists in Copenhagen are doing. The question of working on, and of giving another function to this ‘secret’, makes clear that this is not an erasure of history, but a way of working on it, by making repressed histories visible, casting them in a new light. Taussig writes: “With defacement, the statue moves from an excess of invisibility to an excess of visibility.”35
The video documenting the sinking of the bust, published along with the statement from the group of Anonymous Artists on idoart.dk, was an essential part of the action: it brings forth the imagery that is made to appear in the act of defacing Frederick V. Here’s a short recap: After removing the bust from its plinth and carrying it out to the pier, the Anonymous Visual Artists let it stand there for a while, while the gaze of the camera pointed to the opposite side of the quay. Here stands the sculpture Freedom by Ghanaian artist Bright Bimpong, a torso of an unnamed freedom fighter on St. Croix – part of the Virgin Islands, which were colonised by Denmark until 1917, when the islands were sold to the US, in the midst of the First World War. Blowing a conch shell and raising her knife, Freedom signals the uprising against Danish colonial power.
In this context, it is reprehensible that the epistemic negotiation that the action implies – the renegotiation of history; the re-functioning of a hitherto one-sided visibility – is reduced by the media and art commentators as imported academic discourses of ‘identity politics’ and ‘political correctness’ from the US. By this it was implied that these discourses were foreign and unable to address racism in the Danish society, because racism according to these commentators do not really exist in a Danish context. This occurred pretty much without contestation, and from our point of view, this reaction is fueled by years of the co-optation of the discourse of the freedom of speech and expression by the political right in Denmark. Within a xenophobic and chauvinist framework this means the freedom and the right to silence others’ words.
A transgressive institution and the action as destitutive
The difference between a transgressive institution and a destitutive action is crucial here. While a destitutive action surpasses institutional regulations and limitations – such as taking the right to sink the bust in the Copenhagen harbour – the transgressive institution rather functions in terms of the right to free speech, which in the hypermediated public sphere of today, exemplified in the media spectacle around the bust-action, includes the weaponization of freedom of speech in order to decrease others’ possibilities to express themselves.
Freedom of speech has been the leitmotif of the right for decades in Denmark and elsewhere. Legal rights like the freedom of expression often functions as a kind of Trojan horse, in which structural, not to say overt, racism is normalised and expounded in the public sphere. Where we see the sinking of the bust as an invitation to collective re-evaluation of language, of forms of subjectivity, collective action and the colonial past and present, the current discourse of freedom of speech, of “artistic freedom”, functions above all to retrench and conceal the status quo.
The status quo also brings us to the concept of destitution – the negative of ‘institution’. Here it is essential to remember that the institutional framework of the Royal Academy was not torn down by the sinking of the king’s bust, rather its transgressive politics (namely, the fact that the bust of Frederick V was installed in the first place) is contested. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney discuss this matter in relation to the concept of abolition – which has been widely used recently against the state-funded institution of the police. For Moten and Harney, abolition is central to the future life of any university, art academy and individual researcher.36 We could also include every artist.
In line with Moten’s and Harney’s arguments, abolition carries the emancipatory potential of the collective actions that take place within and against institutions beyond these institutions themselves. Yet this future life must also be understood in line with the troublesome and tenacious notion of the ‘autonomy’ of art. We encounter this parochial notion persistently, both in mainstream literature and art, as well as in critical institutional praxis, ever since the time of the founding of the Royal Academy. We also see how the art’s purported autonomy has been used to discredit the bust-action as non-art. As the work of the artists mentioned above helps make clear, the very idea of such autonomy is inherently dependent on the colonial, historical relations made manifest by the happening. It is also such relations that the sinking of the bust made tangible.
We understand the extremely defensive behavior of the institution as a reflex to the continued concealment of colonial relations as they constantly emerge in the fabric of everyday life. This behavior appears like a pervasive anxiety towards losing power and influence. It is similar to psychosis signifying, first and foremost, the long-standing crisis of the Eurocentric idea of ‘the bourgeois public sphere.’ The idea of a bourgeois public sphere is central to the idea of the modern nation state, first and foremost in Europe, based on decades and centuries of exploitation and extraction of wealth from the former colonies of the Global South. The public sphere is a gated community based on the existence of institutionally affiliated, critical commentators, and their supposed autonomy from capital and state interest. It also includes the assimilatory inclusion of certain public voices, but also the exclusion of others due to class, gender and race. While the sexual and racial regime of the European national state has always been present in late modern countries such as Denmark, the last decades of deconstruction and outsourcing also puts those who are not affected by racism and sexism to the test.
This internal crisis of the bourgeois public sphere has resulted, as manifested in the case of this Danish debate, in extremely defensive and reactionary voices from critics, journalists and other public commentators, against the self-inflicted destruction of their ‘freedom’. This defensive rhetoric is frequently manifested in the form of reactionary outrages against minorities and critical left-wing commentators. In the case of the bust-action it was the Anonymous Visual Artists and their challenge of the Danish nation’s colonial heritage that was attacked without restraint. Not even in a condition to encourage a diversity of conversation on this issue, the bourgeois public sphere strikes back, displaying its weakness and reactionary nature by flexing its muscles. We call it a psychosis since the reactions were so fierce, but it also clearly ingrained in the very structure of the public sphere itself. It is a fear that only listens to certain individuals (omnipresent and conspicuous), rejecting the collective anonymity of the group of artists as a valid form of subjectivity. Deprived of a voice, the Anonymous Visual Artists right to express themselves was never considered. They were silenced. This is a means to erase the critical voices of Danish colonial history, and its presence throughout Danish institutions.
Conclusion: What then?
The public reception that dominated the weeks following the action consequently disabled any discussion of the legacy of Denmark’s colonial past and its ongoing effects. This spectacle must be understood in connection with the Danish social-democratic nation state and the patterns we have alluded to in the legislation of the past decades: Tightening the control on migration and the exclusion of racialized minorities in Denmark. The scene of the public sphere was set, so to speak, for a reactionary and oppressive response to the Anonymous Visual Artists.
It is important to mention that the action has also been supported by many people – just like we wish to do with this text. Yet, we see a tendency in much of the support expressed toward the action that is in some ways confused. By either distinguishing art from contemporary politics, or by speaking of colonial heritage as an historical matter, while ignoring the racist present only possible due to the colonial heritage.
The collective anonymity of the group of visual artists behind the action at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts disrupts binaries of presence and absence, transparency and opacity. This is what the happening was about: the marking of - and invitation to challenge - the structures of colonial domination past and present. The action, carried out collectively and anonymously, reached far beyond the sinking of the bust itself. As we see it, the action resonates throughout a nationalist and exclusionary public sphere: a carousel of media figures, politicians, and individual commentators with the privilege of access. Their inability to acknowledge the colonial past and present is striking.
The reactionary media spectacle caused by the sinking of the bust functions both as a public, historical, and contemporary marking of a governmental regime. The sinking of the bust functions, as Taussig argues, as an act of defacing that actualizes unspoken histories and prizes opens a space in which to face, and begin coming to terms, with these collectively. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, a gesture towards the abolition of the notion of a supposedly ‘neutral’, but predominantly racist, public sphere. Abolition is not a matter of erasure, but of the wish to replace one infrastructure with another. Let’s build new decolonial and anti-national schools everywhere.
The bust-action and the reactions to it also highlights the essential question of who has the right to name and to define violence. This is a right that has to be defended as the colonial legacy is a violent, transhistorical, and lived matter in present-day Denmark.
From our various backgrounds and institutional affiliations, we also want to critically reflect on how the action may motivate us to reflect on how we traverse public spaces and institutions in our daily lives.