On the Political Economy of the Art Scandal
The essay Scandal Success — The Political Economy of the Art Scandal is published in Scandalous, A Reader on Art and Ethics. (Ed. Nina Möntmann). Sternberg Press, 2013.
Texts by Petra Bauer and Annette Krauss, Franco Bifo Berardi, Galit Eilat, Ronald Jones, Maria Karlsson and Måns Wrange, Nina Möntmann, Peter Osborne, Marcus Steinweg, Nato Thompson; conversations between Simon Critchley and Miguel Á. Hernández-Navarro, Renzo Martens and T. J. Demos
Recent encounters between art and real life, the ubiquity of images of violence and humiliation in visual culture and the media, and the persistence of controversial debates on public and participatory art projects are raising fundamental questions about the importance of ethical decisions in art and curating. How far can provocation in art go, before it becomes cynical and abusive? Does “good censorship” exist? Are ethical decisions seen as more urgent in participatory art?
This reader introduces current notions of ethics in several contexts related to the cultural field. Responding to the instrumentalization of ethics as a privileged tool of neoliberalism, the reader claims the need for an ethics that critically reflects the mechanisms of contemporary global power structures. The contributions discuss models of subjective and situational ethics and pit them against a canon of unquestioned principles and upturned notions of ethics and human rights.
Public Speaking is a research project in collaboration with Maria Karlsson, Ph.D in Literary Studies, and a senior lecturer in Rhetoric at the Department of Literature, Uppsala University and Marysia Lewandowska, former professor at Konstfack. The project was funded by the Swedish Research Council/Vetenskapsrådet. The below article is a part of the project which focuses on the cultural, social and political aspects of the art scandal in relation to the change of the media landscape and the rise of political populism in Europe during the last two decades.
The Art Scandal in the Public Sphere and in the Field of Art
Art has never occupied as much space in the public sphere in Sweden as it has in the last decade. Individual works of art have provided front-page stories and have at times been featured in television and radio news programs. Leading journalists, academics, lawyers, spokespeople for various religious denominations, and politicians have discussed ethical, legal, and political aspects of these works. Social media have seen lively controversies with heated blogs and Facebook campaigns for and against works of art. Voices have been raised proposing restrictions in state funding and more rigorous control of the programs offered at academies of art, for instance. Individual works have been reported to the police, threats have been made against artists and exhibitions; indeed, some exhibitions have even been canceled.
The reason for this massive and often rather aggressive public attention for contemporary art in Sweden since the turn of the twenty-first century can be spelled out in two words: the “art scandal.” Consequently, a number of articles and essays has been published that analyze the individual artworks to try to explain why they have caused such controversy. The origin of the art scandal —the artworks—are, however, not the focus of this essay. Our interest lies instead in the art scandals’ relation to public discourse and how the art scandal as a phenomenon has been strategically exploited by parts of the media and the political establishment in Sweden for purposes that should be defined as populist.
In order to start our analysis, we first need to define what an art scandal is and how it is constructed. Despite its impact on the development of art during the last two centuries, art scandals, as phenomena, are a relatively neglected area in art history and in other fields of research as well. 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. 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 one institutionalized element in the concept of art, today artistic provocation is also 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.
The kind of norm transgression that gives rise to scandal is, of course, dependent on the cultural and sociopolitical context in which it occurs. For example, in Western countries where religion plays an important role and where sex is consequently taboo (such as the United States, Russia, Italy, and Poland), the major art scandals in recent decades have involved blasphemy and sex—not infrequently both at once. In more secular and liberal parts of the world, as in 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 not, for example, involved sexual misconduct, but rather financial irregularities and misuse of the taxpayers’ money, as the issue of money is more of a taboo than sex in Sweden. And this is also symptomatic for the art scandals in Sweden, where several of the scandals 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. Apart from norm transgression itself, there are also other factors that decide if art will give rise to scandal and how great this will be: what consensus prevails about the values that are attacked, the artist concerned, and, not least important, what incentives exist for authorities, pressure groups, and critics to acknowledge or ignore the event.
Art scandals also have a great deal in common with what are usually referred to as media scandals, and also political scandals. The two concepts are not completely synonymous. “A media scandal occurs when private acts that disgrace or offend the idealized, dominant morality of a social community are made public and narrativized by the media, producing a range of effects from ideological and cultural retrenchment to disruption and change,” to use the words of the media researchers James Lull and Stephen Hinerman. According to the sociologist John B. Thompson, political scandals have five characteristics, of which the first four can be said to apply to art scandals as well: 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 (rumor is not enough—the media have to create a public reaction to the scandal). And fifth, the transgressive event must jeopardize the politician’s reputation and can result in the demand for her or his resignation.
Above all, media and political scandals differ from art scandals in one essential respect. Unlike the first two types, which often concern private actions that are disclosed by outsiders, there is no element of “dirty laundry” that needs to be exposed to the public in an art scandal. A work of art is never private but is always addressed to an audience. As a rule, the artists themselves display the scandalous work—it is exhibited or performed in various public contexts. But the audience that the work of art is mainly addressed to is frequently not the same as the one that feels provoked. What is a scandal in the eyes of the great majority of voters need not be a scandal in the world of art. This could be termed “the paradox of the art scandal.”
As already pointed out, not only the transgression of some norm and an audience that perceives this are required for there to be a scandal. Media are also needed to communicate, and not infrequently amplify and dramatize, the transgressions and, not least importantly, pressure groups need to acknowledge the media’s perception of scandal as a scandal in various public spheres. Some degree of “disclosure” exists, in other words, as awareness of the provocative work of art must also be extended outside the relatively restricted art world. Consequently, an art scandal can in some cases be defined in terms that approach those applying to media and political scandals. There are a number of examples of works of art that have been displayed in public art institutions without arousing scandal as the moral values of their audiences have not necessarily coincided with those of the general public whom the media address. Scandals only originate when the media have informed the general public about the works, which has led in its turn to reactions from pressure groups.
Unlike media and political scandals, the transgressive event in an art scandal need not automatically imperil the reputation of the perpetrator. Indeed, an artist reviled by the general public because of a work can find that she or he has acquired greater status and cultural capital in the art world; scandals may, in other words, be sought and exploited strategically by both the artists and those who react to them.
It is not, however, always as simple as many believe to create a successful scandal, a succès de scandale. In general, art scandals are always reported in the media and may make an artist a celebrity to the general public. But this does not automatically mean that it will generate major cultural capital in the form of exhibitions at prestigious galleries, museums, or biennials. The public attention and media fame that an art scandal can attract to a formerly unknown artist may also have a counterproductive impact. Influential agents in the art world may consider the scandal as conceptually uninteresting or quite simply “bad art” on the basis of purely aesthetic premises.
The effect of a scandal on an artist’s career largely depends on other factors instead, such as the artist’s cultural capital and position in the field of art as well as what influential agents both within and outside the art world are likely to be able to gain from the scandal through either criticizing or defending the artist or the work. Nor is it always easy to predict how the public, the debate, or any authorities who may be involved will react or respond to an art scandal. Some artists do everything they can to provoke without arousing anyone’s indignation, while others end up giving rise to enormous scandals without even really knowing why.
Art and Politics
We have already indicated that in addition to the work of art that transgresses the norm, three kinds of agents are required for there to be a scandal: the artist responsible for the scandalous work, those that mediate the scandal, and finally those that respond to it. The actions of all three agents also have to follow a specific pattern.
Most retrospective analyses of Swedish art scandals have focused mainly on the first of these agents, the artist causing the scandal, as well as the institutional context in which the work has been funded, created, or exhibited. Often in the media debate about art scandals, the major, and in some cases decisive roles played by what we call the “respondents” and the “mediators” in creating the scandals have been ignored.
Art scandals in Sweden have often originated through the indignation of some of the local population in the area in which a work of art has been shown, which has then been reported briefly by the local media. Among politicians, especially those involved with cultural policy, the norm in Scandinavia has been not to express opinions about the contents of works of art, and consequently they have been cautious about involving themselves in the public debate when an art scandal arises.
Only a decade ago it was rare for politicians from established parties in Scandinavia to make public statements that criticized contemporary art. Even though cultural policy in Sweden and the other Nordic countries is often defined as architectonic in form—in other words, that the state intervenes more actively than in patronage-based systems—the explicit principle has long been to respect the autonomy of art and not intervene in cultural content in detail. Sweden has, in other words, adopted the principle of maintaining an “arm’s length” distance between politicians and the publicly funded cultural sphere—one that actually finds expression in the Swedish constitution, which prohibits ministerial intervention in administrative procedures. [SB1]
The “arm’s length” principle was established in Western Europe, North America, and Australia after the end of the Second World War and was intended to protect artists from political control. As is well known, this took its most extreme form in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Soviet Union, which experienced the worst consequences of direct political involvement in cultural policy in the form of explicit regulations on aesthetic and moral criteria for art. The principle that took shape in the Western democracies was “support but not control.” Art was to be an autonomous and critical element in society. The principle meant that politicians made decisions about the directions to be taken by cultural institutions and the extent of the resources allocated to them, but without influencing or directing the contents of culture at a detailed level. Discussion of content was to be left instead to professional representatives of the world of art and culture.
During the last decade it was possible to discern in a number of European countries—such as Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Italy increasing readiness on the part of not only private sponsors and donors but also politicians to both criticize and steer the contents of cultural production. The latter applies above all to contemporary art in North European countries, where public money still matters in the cultural sector. The criticism mainly comes from political parties that are usually characterized as “right-wing populist”; for these parties “multicultural” art is a particularly rewarding target, as they regularly pay lip service to some unspecified national past. Their ideal is an undefined past era when, on the whole, “decency” still prevailed in their own country and its own people. The focus of right-wing populists on their nation—a “heartland” is the term used by the political scientist Paul Taggart—as it was then, but not now, obviously includes a conservative ideal with regard to art: it should be recognizable, preferably morally enlightening, and above all not provocative, multicultural, nor amorphous. Ideally it should also be possible to link it to a national tradition. Culture occupies a prominent place in the political program of the most populist-oriented parties, with educationally conservative demands for the establishment of a canon to be used in schools or explicit safeguards for the national cultural heritage.
Sweden has not previously seen the same development of right-wing populist parties as in other European countries—not least its neighbors Denmark and Norway. According to the sociologist Jens Rydgren, this delay is due the dominant position occupied by socioeconomic questions about welfare, employment, and economics in the Swedish political debate.
In the last decade in Sweden, however, as in a number of European countries, it has been possible to discern a change in the attitude of establishment 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 scandals 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 the staffs of cultural institutions and academies of art. In the few cases in which politicians have criticized 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, sentences passed, prosecutions initiated, or any actual crime has been demonstrated. On the whole, much of the criticism of individual works of art and artists, as well as of contemporary art on the whole, expressed by some leading politicians has not consisted of spontaneous remarks but strategically considered public statements and articles in the major daily papers or established and respected political blogs. In these cases the strategies adopted, together with the kind of populist rhetoric used, resemble those of the right-wing populist parties—the kind of stance that they have otherwise taken pains to distance themselves from. How is this to be understood?
Art Scandals and the Rise of Populism
In analyses of the political debate, concepts such as “right-wing populism” or “populism” usually describe a certain type of party on the extreme right. A number of theoreticians like Ernesto Laclau and Yves Surel are, however, critical of analyses that merely focus on a specific category of movement or ideology. In their view populism is not a fixed set of ideas but “a political logic” (Laclau) and “a dimension of the discursive and normative register adopted by political actors” (Surel). Consequently, populism does not lie in content but is a method that can be used across the entire political spectrum and that unites a number of disparate movements from Right to Left. What characterizes the political logic of populism is, instead, that it divides the world into two opposing camps—“us” and “them.” Similarly, Gianfranco Pasquino claims that the populist strategy is based on 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.
Why then have some leading politicians from established parties begun to use populist strategies in Sweden? Research into the growth of populism in Europe can provide us with a few explanations. During the last decade there has been a shift in the political discourse, in which value-oriented and cultural issues have also acquired importance. This development is partly the result of the inclusion of the socially conservative Christian Democrat party in the Swedish coalition government since 2006 and also the entry of the xenophobic Swedish Democrats into the Swedish Parliament in 2010. Like the Christian Democrats, the Swedish Democrats have also adopted a profile in which value-oriented political issues, not least culture, have become the main ingredient. They use concepts like “Swedish culture,” “cultural heritage” in their party program, speeches, and other manifestos.
We also believe that another contributory cause is a change in the role of politicians. According to the political scientist Bernard Manin, the Western system of liberal government moved from nineteenth-century “classic parliamentarianism” to the “party democracy” that was established in the early twentieth century and has now become “audience democracy.” In party democracy we see loyal and faithful party workers who submit completely to their party and adapt to its needs. Audience democracy is characterized by a completely different type of politician—political entrepreneurs. They see their main task as breaking new ground. Unlike the loyal party workers, political entrepreneurs have their own agendas. And they differ greatly from the loyal party workers in making repeated reassessments of the way in which their personal ambitions can best be achieved—in the Swedish Parliament or some other arena. Manin describes a type of politician whose personal qualities play an increasingly important role and whose appeal to the electorate is based less on traditional class affiliations but more on interests that transcend the traditional class boundaries. Political entrepreneurs can, on the other hand, envisage several arenas in which they can operate and are therefore more flexible and regularly review their positions. The entrepreneurs also want to make their own contributions, they want to matter, and may therefore not be team players to the same extent. This does not mean that the party is totally in the hands of the political entrepreneurs but that politicians of this kind are dependent on being able to find a party—a platform—in which they can operate 
Yves Mény and Surel have also described how this “personalization of political power” increases the temptation for politicians to act in a populist way. One of the reasons for this development in Sweden—at the same time a manifestation of this increased personalization—can be found in the voting for individual candidates introduced in the general elections of 1998. Just as the smaller parties that lack the support of a stable group of core supporters have to identify niche issues to attract votes, individual candidates have to find questions on which they can take the lead and attract media attention without at the same time offending the leaders of their party or its program. Finally, the political process is time consuming and many politicians feel frustrated about not being able to account for the results of their political actions to their electorates more rapidly, which has been one of the contributing factors to the resignations of more Swedish politicians now than in the past.
An art scandal offers a possibility for politicians who seek to create identifiable profiles in the public debate in which moral values and black-or-white judgments are rewarded. A work of art can, indeed, be interpreted freely. The only opposition they risk facing in discussing an art scandal will most probably be agents of the cultural field; in other words, the “elite” who have already been disavowed through the populist approach.
There are, in other words, many benefits for politicians who target contemporary art. As the personal qualities of politicians and their opinions on specific issues have become increasingly important, art scandals have offered a rewarding area for them to act in. Politicians become individuals with opinions that reflect the mass indignation for which they can then act as spokespeople. The major benefit of attacking art is not, however, merely the demonstration of moral rectitude and the ability to take political action through public condemnation of a provocative work of art; above all, it offers a politician a chance to identify with the electorate in accordance with the populist strategy defined by Pasquino as endeavoring to create an identification—an “us” with “the people”—by adopting a position opposed to “them”—an “elite.” Normally, after all, politicians themselves are viewed as members of an elite. In labeling artists as a “elite people,” as “parasites on the taxpayers,” and “as not seeming to have a trace of feeling of what those of us outside their circles think,” politicians get an opportunity to create an alliance and identification with the populace by publicly condemning the provocative work of art and by demanding cuts in the funding for cultural activities, the dismissal of members of the staff of cultural institutions, or even by trying to stop the work of art itself from being exhibited.
Art Scandals and the Transformation of the Media
If the changes in the political landscape offer one reason for the growth of populism in Sweden as well as the rest of Europe, which has in its turn prompted our hypothesis that some Swedish establishment politicians have begun to use populist rhetoric about provocative contemporary art to win votes, then the transformation of the media sphere naturally offers another.
In a major international study of populism in the Western European countries three reasons are given for the success of populism since the millennium. The first is that national news media—particularly television—have acquired greater importance for contacts with electors as the political party’s journals have either been closed down or lost significance. Secondly, the media play an increasingly important role in setting the political agenda, which has led to politicians having to adapt more to the ways in which the media work, a process that has placed increased emphasis on media visibility and newsworthy media initiatives. The third is that the journalistic methods of the popular press have influenced the editorial approach and value systems of all the news media. This has resulted in greater focus on individuals instead of their policies and also a more black-and white media dramaturgy that focuses on sensational events and scandals 
Developments in the media during the last two decades have also led to greater focus on scandals. During the first four decades after the Second World War political scandals were rare. The few that arose largely concerned criticism of political actions. During the last decade, however, the number of “media driven scandals” has risen dramatically. This increase does not mainly involve scandals arising from doubtful actions by politicians in the political sphere but also their transgression of moral norms in the private sphere. Over a period of three decades the number of this kind of political scandal has risen threefold. What we can see, in other words, is a manifest shift of media interest from reprehensible political actions that impact on the public sphere to discreditable moral actions in the private sphere.
There are several reasons for this increased focus on moral concerns. Empirical studies have 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. Scandals that are dramatized as moral narratives therefore appeal to more readers and attract more visitors to different websites.
There may be the same kind 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, cliff-hanger “story,” with a beginning, middle, and an end—but they can constantly be taken up again and angled differently. Every new art scandal prompts references to previous ones, which are given new dimensions in the light of the most recent, which in turn is rendered more scandalous in the reflection of its predecessors. The consequences of art scandals have also become part of the public discourse, which both amplifies and extends them. As for political scandals, the narratives for each individual art scandal—as well as for several viewed en bloc—take spiral form with a plot that twists and turns according to the devices of classical dramaturgy. The narrative is continually ready to take new life—like a soap opera or a traditional melodrama—with consequences and reversals but never any definitive end.
This dramaturgic approach is of course not a coincidence but is deliberately adopted by the media. A textbook for journalism students by the long-standing producer and progenitor of Sweden’s most influential investigative television program teaches them how investigative journalism has to be dramatized to appeal to viewers:
If a story is going to have any impact, often it is just as important to tell it well as to have firm ground for its contents. The fact is that viewers want a real story, not a long and tiresome presentation of facts. We want to be carried away, thrown off balance, feel indignant. […] What we need to do is learn how to manage the classical dramaturgical tools that are used in virtually every fairy story, feature film, play or novel. […] The material from the investigation usually contains ingredients like “the good versus the bad”, which is what an effective narrative requires.
Art scandals have, in other words, fitted extremely well into the parameters set by the economic as well as the dramaturgical conditions in which the media operate—every penny can be extracted from the “effective narrative” while the audience is kept on its toes when the revelation of a new scandal recalls one or more of its predecessors, amplifies them, and merges into them.
In a period of social reorientation in the area of moral values, the rhetoric of the public media is increasingly driven by the emotions, polarized, and exaggerate—it becomes melodramatic, which involves a shift from logos to pathos. Opinions and feelings take priority over facts, which have 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 analyzed. The new digital social media have become a forum that reacts to, informs, and augments public opinion. In art there are no truths—it is open to interpretation. Points of view on art need no factual basis and fit excellently into the vociferous media climate characterized more and more by opinions rather than objectivity.
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. Almost all art scandals display all the qualities of melodrama: they deal with morals;
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, damage, complaints to the police, canceled exhibitions. What characterizes melodrama is, however, that our sympathies are always with the victim—when the criticism becomes too fierce, the artist’s standing may be restored.
The reference to melodrama singles out the pivotal aspects of media scandals –the exaggerated and emotional rhetoric and the moral polarization. Melodramatic forms of expression have been considered to insist on and endeavour to clarify different cultural values when it is felt that these are increasingly being repressed. The growth in the number of media scandals could indicate that our era is in fact one in which values are being challenged, characterized by a widespread feeling that moral standards are in decline.
This argument fits in well with the Swedish art scandals, with the focus in the media in recent decades on moral issues and the increasingly sensationalist reports in various forms of media. The new media situation, in which the conventional media face shrinking circulations and cuts as well as greater competition from digital and social media that reach more and new groups of consumers, naturally tempts politicians to express opinions on scandals. Through the social media and various digital news and discussion sites they can create a platform for value-oriented statements that, aided by the power of moralistic forces, can make themselves heard above the constant background noise of the media. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other 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. At the same time these politicians become involved in dialogues: they accuse or defend in active discussion with those who, for example, read their blogs.
Today many different media are merging with each other and anybody at all can use their new interactive features to address and respond to the different Internet forums, which prolongs and enhances the spiraling process. Politicians themselves can take a hand in directing the dramaturgy with statements in press releases, political blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, and at the same time—and not least because of this—create their own image as politicians. The new media involve a shift in power that is well worth noting in this context.
In one of the few texts that analyzes art scandals as phenomena, sociologist Ari Adut describes these events in liberal democracies as generally “low stake affairs” that concern a limited circle and seldom lead to legal penalties or social sanctions. We would claim that this no longer applies in Sweden nor in several other European countries. There is every reason, we believe, to treat the phenomena of art scandals with greater gravity than has often been the case in the debate about them. And this is not only because of the discussion they have generated about the development of contemporary art and its relationship to ethics and artistic freedom and freedom of expression, but above all when it comes to how art scandals function as a kind of litmus test in exposing ideological and ethical changes in the fields of politics and the media.
Several of the politicians who have expressed criticism, like many of the articles and comments in the media, have maintained that the recent Swedish art scandals show that contemporary art rests morally on thin ice. This has also been discussed in great detail in articles and essays in the arts sections of the daily papers and in cultural magazines in Sweden after the scandals have ebbed. But the art scandals also indicate a reverse trend—namely, a shift in course taken by part of the media and some establishment politicians in using the same black-and-white populist rhetoric as the right-wing populist parties they criticize and repudiate. This development has future consequences for the public political debate that deserve to be further analyzed and discussed.