The Swedish cartoon: art as provocation

Birgitta Steene
10 September 2007

In early 2006, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten's publication of a series of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed a few months earlier escalated into an international row involving demonstrations and protests across the Muslim world. Now the Swedish artist Lars Vilks has stirred up comparable - if so far less destructive - reactions with a cartoon drawing of a so-called rondellhund ("roundabout dog") with the head of the most venerated figure in the Islamic religion.

Birgitta Steene is professor emerita in cinema studies and Scandinavian literature at the University of Washington and has also been a professor in the film department at Stockholm University. She is the recipient of an honoris causa doctorate from her alma mater, the University of Uppsala.

Birgitta Steene is the author of Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide (Amsterdam University Press, 2005) as well as numerous other books and articles on Scandinavian drama and film

Also by Birgitta Steene on openDemocracy:

"Ingmar Bergman and Sweden: an epoch's end" (6 August 2007)

Vilks's cartoon belongs in the first instance to a local, specific context. In the winter and spring of 2006-07, the roundabouts on Swedish roads - much "loved" by the country's official road association and equally "hated" by its car-drivers - found themselves the objects of "subversive" decoration when citizens began placing home-made dog sculptures in their planted central area. After some deliberation, the road association decided that the sculptures could remain as long as they did not constitute a safety hazard. In the event, many of them disappeared anyway, probably confiscated by passers-by who might have found them amusing, ugly or obstructive.

The artist Lars Vilks, realising that the emblematic rondellhund had become something of a public joke, took this opportunity to give the tail of this bandwagon a provocative twist. His method was to transfer this new, rather innocent national emblem into a potentially charged political arena by adding a "Mohammed" reference to his cartoon dog. The seriousness of the insult is accentuated by the fact, widely known among non-Muslims, that the dog is considered by Muslims to be an unclean animal.

The consequences have been predictable, with echoes of the Danish controversy: threats against Vilks; public (and peaceful) demonstrations at the offices of the two newspapers which published the cartoon (Nerikes Allehanda and Upsala Nya Tidning); a quickly arranged meeting between prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and diplomats representing the Muslim world; and a media debate that has raised a number of sensitive issues, ranging from the failure of Swedish society fully to integrate its Muslim population to the need to uphold freedom of expression in a democratic country.

Behind the political and media firestorm loom questions that relate more narrowly to the question of the artist's thinking and responsibility. Was Lars Vilks's cartoon primarily a testing of an artist's right to free expression? Was it a case of an artist exploiting a public phenomenon (the roundabout-dog sculptures) to seek attention and visibility for himself? Or was it a deliberate act of provocation, even (perhaps most seriously of all) intended as a religious-ethnic insult?

Here, it is relevant to note that Lars Vilks's artistic premises rest on challenging his viewers by making them angry, engaged or amused. He is known not only in Sweden but in various parts of the world (including Canada) for his self-consciously "outrageous" installations. A less toxic example than the dog cartoon was his intervention at a nature compound near Kullen in southern Sweden, where Vilks - without a building permit - constructed a monument made of pieces of lumber and rubbish he had hauled in. The local community board protested - and with that Vilks had fulfilled his core purpose. Whether or not his piece of junk was to be confiscated was no longer the real issue, which for Vilks was the artist's right to provoke. openDemocracy writers dissect the Danish cartoon controversy of 2006:

Neal Ascherson, "A carnival of stupidity" (6 February 2006)

Tariq Modood, "The liberal dilemma: integration or vilification?" (8 February 2006)

"Muslims and Europe: a cartoon confrontation" (February 2006) - a symposium with twenty voices

Faisal Devji, "Back to the future: the cartoons, liberalism, and global Islam" (13 April 2006)

Lars Vilks, with his cartoon drawing of the Mohammed roundabout dog, pushed the same issue beyond the realm of local Swedish opinion and communal politics. Sweden has a large Muslim population composed of immigrants and (now) the children and grandchildren of immigrants, which has increased steadily during the Iraq war. It does not constitute a homogeneous group, and many of its members define themselves in secular terms. Yet a considerable number too view Vilks's roundabout dog as a deliberate act of defamation of the Muslim religion and an attempt to increase Swedish Muslims' alienation from mainstream society. Thus, even if the primary self-identification of Swedish Muslims is far from narrowly religious, as an ethnic group they feel offended by this act.

At the same time, there is an important Swedish constitutional dimension. Whatever Vilks's precise purpose in drawing his cartoon (and of the newspapers in publishing it) the act has become a test-case of an artist's right of self-expression in a free society. Such freedom of expression is guaranteed and defined very specifically in the Swedish constitution. The prime minister and other political leaders in Sweden have reiterated that Sweden's government must abide by this legal framework. An artist cannot be restricted in his freedom to create and circulate his or her work because it may be offensive to some viewers. Only if a situation constitutes a threat to the country's national security can the government interfere.

In the final analysis, it is the artist himself who must be held responsible for his action. What did Lars Vilks hope to achieve with his cartoon of the "Muslim" rondellhund? Was it perhaps just a self-consciously "cool" provocative ploy that went out of hand? If so, it is hard to see where, on any side, the benefit lies.

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