Russia’s attack on Ukraine in late February 2022 certainly caught the Western public off guard. The great ideological project of our time, “the green transition”, had promised a brave new world of fossil independency. Instead it turned out that the closed nuclear and coal plants all over the continent were replaced by energy from Russia, not from the wind or the sun. Vladimir Putin waited until the dependency reached a critical level. It came after Germany in December 2021 closed three nuclear plants in a row.
As Russia invaded Ukraine only weeks later, Western leaders quickly adopted a strategy of “signalling” by means of cultural boycotts. The idea was “to send a strong message of disapproval of the war” by cancelling all cultural projects connected to the Russian state. This may sound reasonable, at least until one is made aware of the football event soon to take place in Qatar – a country who’s leader openly salutes Vladimir Putin. The will to boycott appears selective, to say the least. “Art washing” of authoritarian countries is generally accepted in the West, most recently demonstrated by Olafur Eliasson’s art project in the very same country.
Jon Eirik Lundberg, “The Prosecutor Is Pointing At The Victim”. Ink on paper, 2022.
These examples aside, in the spring of 2022, “cancelling Russian art” became the big thing in Scandinavia. The Danish minister of Culture, Ane Halsboe-Joergensen, gave a direct order to all governmentally funded art insitutions: stop immediately all projects connected to Vladimir Putin’s state. The only problem was that there were not a lot of such projects. There were one single singer, Anna Netrebko, who was known as a personal friend of Putin, but later distanced herself from him. Except for her there were not really others.
Targeting Russian state actors might, as mentioned, have some legitimacy due to the connection to that government. Such actors deserve to be deprived of money and recognition along with the rest of the Russian society. But the Minister of Culture went further. All art institutions, also the private ones, were encouraged to follow suit, although with no financial compensation announced. Also, she added, she could not order the private actors to do anything. But they would be evaluated, she said. There would be “judgement”. Not by her, she made clear, but by “others”.
A wave of cancellations followed suit.
A German ballet company with Ukrainian dancers were told their show couldn’t go on, since they perform “Russian national ballet”. This label is a description of the kind of dance they perform, not of the formal structure of the company. The host institution thus at first did not cancel them. Local politicians, however, forced it to do so all the same, threatening to withdraw public funding.
At Horsens Art Museum two sisters, Maria & Natalia Petschatnikov, had their posters outside the building removed, yet the exhibition remained installed. The sisters hold dual German and Russian citizenships and had already spoken out against the war at the time of the cancelling. Again, the institution did not come up with such an idea, it was local politicians who threatened them on the annual public funding.
The perhaps most dramatic cancellation happened in Copenhagen, at the country’s most prominent Art Hall, the Charlottenborg institution. It is part of the Royal Academy of Art. Sergei Prokofiev, a young Russian artist, had just received the First Price in the annual spring exhibition for his video works “FAN OF THE LAND (2021) and FIREWORKS ON THE SWAMP (2020)”. To his own great risk, he has spoken out against Putin for years, and he had denounced the war at the time it began. The head of the committee which honored him with the prize said: “The effort of opposing the war is too important to take into account individual considerations”, whereafter Prokofiev’s projectors were switched off. This cancellation, and it’s Machivallian explanation, triggered an uproar among artists. The head of the committee eventually stepped down, apologizing for his bad judgement, and the projectors were switched on again.
What came out of this ordeal was the sight of the political hand pulling the strings. It would be irrational to imagine that this was a deviation from the norm of cancel culture. It is rather more obvious to recognise that the same mechanism is operative in connection to other cancellations. Most often we only see the face of activists, sometimes not even that, when some cultural event is forced to close. This time the minister herself clearly gave the signal. And political actors, not the art institutions, heeded the call for action.
This time the legitimation of cancelling was the artist’s perceived “connection to Putin”. Usually, in the everyday stories of cancelled books, movies or debates, it is the person’s “connection to something right wing extremist” which is the “problem”. But just as none of the cancelled artists had any connection to Putin, so is the connection to “right wing extremism” absent in other cancellations. The Swedish professor Cecilia Sjöholm explains in her book, “How to see things; Doing aesthetics with Arendt” (2015), that right wing populists detest words like ‘art’ and ‘culture’.
In former times one would talk about “the power of the art world” as something the art institutions are disposing of. Ai Weiwei represents the legitimate art activist, telling important stories subverting power and averting censorship. The result is unforgettable stories in the form of sculptures or installations, like “Straight” (2008 – 2012) and “S.A.C.R.E.D” (2013).
Today “the power of art” is rivalled by a political power about to seize the art world from within under the guise of moralism. This power structure is located in the art world, but it doesn’t come from the artists or the art institutions. It is kind of a blind passenger, or a parasite. This becomes all the more evident when one is looking at the attacks on famous art pieces in the name of climate activism. Activists don’t care much for the wellbeing of art or art institutions. They are just using it as requisites in strategies of communication.
Until recently the border between activism and artistic practice indeed may have been blurry.
What is not blurry, however, is a cancellation. For some years this phenomenon has riddled the art world, also in Denmark. Until 24th of February 2022 it could be portrayed as something going on between private individuals and some enterprises; nothing of political concern. After Russia’s attack on Ukraine that mask fell off.
Art can speak out against power. But “cancel culture” is power acting against art.
The fingerprint of power is now, in light of the war, evident for all to see. It will be wise not to let it fall back into its old camouflage.