In late March a strange letter was sent to a couple of culture editorial offices in Stockholm. It claimed to be written by the street artist Banksy, and announced his presence near the gallery cluster on Hudiksvallsgatan [known as Stockholm’s Chelsea] in the northern part of the inner city.
The letter raised a lot of reactions in the traditional press and on social media, for and against the event’s authenticity. Most were in doubt, thinking this must have been a completely different street artist, someone who had found a way to attract attention. Anyway, the publicity was successful and when Sunday came, Hudiksvallsgatan was crammed with an excited art audience. Later, critics made clear that this was not Banksy, but views differ on whether the provocation was a success or failure. Was it at all for real, was it even about art? Or was it just advertising?
This event says a lot about both the art and art criticism situation in Sweden. First, there is a great interest in art, both established and alternative. Second, both local critics and an art audience are far away from big international events. Banksy does not come to Stockholm—a painful awakening for trend-sensitive citizens who too often see themselves as living next door to New York.
But the city’s interest in art should not be underestimated. The number of visitors at the Modern Museum is high and gallery openings are well attended. The problem is that the conversation about contemporary art does not have any strong arenas.
The culture pages and culture editorials do characterize the press coverage in Sweden. It might be unique for Sweden that even the tabloids publish high quality criticism. However, the culture pages are traditionally dominated by literary criticism. It is a larger field, and literary criticism does not have the same problems as art criticism: it needs no translation, no ekphrasis. This is, I believe, the general problem of—but also opportunity for—art criticism.
Swedish art critics have struggled over the years to gain a presence in the media. In the ’80s and ’90s the approach was via an informed, theoretical criticism. Later, in the trademark era, it was associated with clear views and a defined, personalized position of the author. In recent years there might be a new turn characterized by institutional critique and a greater interest in discussing structure of the system instead of individual artistry.
The transformation of art criticism from being a leading arena for a few well-known writers to becoming a more secluded activity for persevering freelancers and low paid critics, has had a parallel development in the curator’s rising power and also in the feminization of criticism. Whether the power goes out when the women come in or if women are allowed to enter when the power is already expired is difficult to determine. But it is clear that the emblematic Swedish art critic is a woman, who writes for a major newspaper.
Adult education, which is somehow a goal for the daily newspaper, is not as evident for the editors of cultural magazines. The Swedish system of government-sponsored journals basically works well and supports the more specialized and theoretical criticism. Paletten magazine has been published in Gothenburg since 1940; there is also the English-language website, and, until very recently, an academic journal called Valör.
Dependence on public funding and the difficulties of finding private sponsors are challenges for reputable journals. Partly it’s because corporate sponsorship is not as favorable to such publications as in other countries, but there is also a more trivial explanation: the Swedish culture is in its essence anti-intellectual, though a more positive view is to call it “anti-elitist.”
But thanks to the welfare state and the idea of governmental and local support for culture—which is also characterized by the Keynesian “arm’s length” between elected politicians and the depending cultural world (galleries, artists, and magazines included)—the Swedish cultural and artistic life still works relatively well with its mix of the commercially viable and the support-dependent sponsorship.
However, some cultural changes have occurred in recent years, after a major restructuring of regionalization support services was implemented. Cultural support has increasingly become a regional issue, and it has unfortunately become evident that skills and knowledge are often lacking when it comes to regional art. The result has been that the “arm’s length” has not always been kept and politicians at local and regional levels have started to interfere in cultural policy.
A recent consequence of those changes are reflected in the controversies surrounding the introduction of a “safe haven” for prosecuted international artists in Gävle, a city north of Stockholm. Although the city authorities adopted the decision to establish such a zone in Gävle , one of the right-wing parties opposed it and appealed to court to reject the Municipal Act that established such a zone. That local politicians have so much influence in areas they are not familiar with is currently a huge problem in Sweden and scandals have succeeded each other in recent years as they have asked to stop public artworks, to demolish statues that have been in place for decades, and just this spring a curator at a public gallery in Lund in southern Sweden was interrogated by local politicians because of her program.
Today arenas of art criticism are not limited to paper newspapers and cultural magazines; a vital one has emerged in Sweden in recent years in web-based criticism. Konsten was a pioneer of that type of criticism when it started in 1998. Then, it was followed by artist-run OmKonst; the latest and most interesting addition to online publications is the Norwegian Kunstkritikk which has a Swedish editor and a Swedish edition. Kunstkritikk started thanks to the very generous public support and it maintains a very high level in terms of the quality of criticism and the news reporting it produces. Attempts to create a paper version of the online edition have not yet succeeded. However, the transition in the newspaper world away from an unprofitable paper newspaper and toward web-based products has not benefited either art criticism or criticism at large. The dependence on ads and clicks leads to an increasingly nervous kind of criticism where the most important thing is to attract as many readers as possible, not just informed readers. But I hope that the era of “shouting loudly” through new channels of communication will pass quickly, because everybody will, in the end, long for the well-written carefully thought-out articles. And as the web is without end, long articles in one form or another will eventually return from where they are hiding.
ULRIKA STAHRE (b. 1964) received her Ph.D. in art history with her dissertation Admired Barbarian: the Amazon in Western European Visual Culture 1789 - 1918 (2004) and has written art criticism in daily newpapers since 1996. Since 2001, she has been working as a cultural editor and art critic at Aftonbladet.