lars dog

Art, censorship and the politics of transgression

Lars Vilks


Art in society is generally accepted as an important way of challenging our conventions by transgression. The laws concerning freedom of expression are of course also valid for the arts. In practice, however, it proves to be slightly different. One of the problems is that art cannot be interpreted easily. Understanding a work of art is the outcome of a number of agents within the art world: the artist, the critics, the curators, museums, galleries, etc. Thus it often is the case that a work of art is brought out of its context and misunderstood.


A work of art frequently stirs opposition and is considered a provocation. It is often accused of not being a work of art but merely an obscene or racist act. Usually this is done by bringing the work out of context, as it is very rare for an artist to premeditate straightforward obscenity or racism. In its content, the work might be actually a project about these issues, or an aesthetic expression where the content is of secondary importance.


Thus a controversial work of art might well end up in court. One of the most famous of such art trials is the 1990 case of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989). His exhibition The Perfect Moment was shown in Cincinnati, where some of the homoerotic photographs were found highly controversial. The trial is also interesting as a case study of how art can be successfully defended. The prosecution’s strategy was to allow the seven pictures to speak for themselves. The defence followed what one could call the classical art defence. First came the formalist defence: the subject matter is of little importance as the works focus on compositional qualities. Second, they placed the works in historical context, showing how they relate to other well-established artworks, underlining that art by its very nature is transgressive and challenges our conventions. The defence had experts from the art world who could confirm the status of Mapplethorpe’s works, giving the court a lecture in art history. The defence won the case. The curators, however, lost their jobs.1


Defending freedom of expression is easier when it involves a recognized, high profile artist. It is much more difficult to find an expert to defend controversial art created by artists at the beginning of their career. One example is the exhibition Fired Works, which took place at Leeds Polytechnic Art Gallery in 1984. The exhibition showed objects referred to as violent “porno-art”. A group of feminists attacked the exhibition and destroyed several works. In a subsequent trial in 1985, the artist defended his artworks, suggesting that they “intended to make men feel guilty and women feel angry”. The defendants were found guilty and given a three-year conditional discharge, but no compensation for the costs or damages (estimated to amount to £1,894) was awarded.2



Accusations of obscenity – from the side of conservative purists as well as some feminists – is a common reaction against art. Physical violence was almost always directed against the objects and not the artist. It was so in the case of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), which was attacked several times. The work was also taken to an Australian court in 1997.3 The accusation involved obscenity and blasphemy. This case is complicated as the photo shows a crucifix with colour effects. It is only the very title Piss Christ which makes the work controversial: “The court sees the image as formally beautiful, but precariously so, subject to a degradation wrought by its title and by manner of its making. With this juridical oscillation between surface beauty and disgusting production, it becomes impossible to tell the difference between art and obscenity, to judge the difference that obscenity makes,” the court concluded.



During the latest decade, many of the controversies in art involved accusations of racism. The well-known German artist Jonathan Meese made a Nazi salute during an interview with the magazine Der Spiegel in 2013. The court investigated whether it was a part of an artistic expression or not. In this case the judge considered that it was a part of Meese’s art and that the artist had no racist agenda whatsoever.



When Salman Rushdie, in 1987, received a fatwa for his book The Satanic Verses, controversial art reached a different level of fear and danger. It opened a long and still ongoing discussion about freedom of speech versus insulting foreign cultures in a multicultural world. From the post-colonial perspective, freedom of speech could be perceived as a convention created by the Western white male to suppress other cultures. In this way, Islam has become a major problem also in the arts. Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam by an Islamist in 2004. In 2006, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the Mohammed caricatures, causing an outburst of violence worldwide.

Actually, there are very few examples of critical, contemporary and “serious” art. Criticism of Islam is considered to be a part of the political extreme Right’s narrative and is often dismissed as racist. But fear is also a factor. Between 1990–2005, the conceptual artist John Latham created a series of sculptures entitled God is Great. The piece consists of three holy books, The Bible, the Talmud and the Koran, incorporated in various ways into the artwork. Tate Britain had planned to show one of these works in 2005 but cancelled the decision. The reason was the terror attack in London the same year. It could be dangerous…



The author of this article also contributed to the discussion concerning Islam and freedom of speech. In July 2007, I made a drawing of the Islamic prophet as a “roundabout dog”. It was a comment on two media events at that time: the controversy concerning the drawings published in Jyllands-Posten, and the spontaneous folk-art movement of roundabout dogs (home-made dogs placed in roundabouts all over Sweden). I did not expect any trouble, even though the drawing drew public attention when a gallery found it too dangerous to show. That was a reasonable assumption. Pictures and actions which are considered offensive to Islam quite commonly cause violence. What is needed here, however, is strong media attention and further reactions. This, fortunately, happened in my case.

A couple of months later, things calmed down. Then I suddenly received a fatwa from al-Qaida Iraq. This means world news, and it is difficult to be forgotten after that. Following the media storm, which lasted for a couple of months, nothing happened until 2010 when Irish security police found an Islamist cell that had planned to murder me. The main character here was an American woman called “Jihad Jane”. This event again attracted the world media’s attention. Two months later I gave a lecture at the University of Uppsala about provocation in art. There were many angry Muslims in the lecture room expressing inappropriate behaviour. I showed a video filmed by the Iranian female artist Sooreh Hera (living in The Netherlands), Allah ho Gaybar (2007). The artist had received death threats and had to go underground. When the video was shown I was attacked, and soon there was a riot in the lecture room. After a while the lecture was cancelled.

A couple of days later, two Muslims tried to set my house on fire. They failed and were later seized by the police. At this point, the Swedish Security Service provided my house with an alarm. I have to admit that this did not make me feel particularly safe. My house is rather remotely located and should there be a need for assistance it would take quite a long time for the police to reach me.

In December 2010, Sweden witnessed its first proper terrorist attack. A suicide bomber tried to blow people up at the Christmas market in Stockholm. Fortunately, the bomb went off too early and he became the only victim. As one of the reasons for the attack, he mentioned me. The Swedish Security Service took the decision that I should have bodyguards around the clock. The following years were not without incidents, but when terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo in Paris 2015, I had to leave my home and go into hiding. A month later, I was the target of a terrorist attack in Copenhagen when I – together with speakers from Passion For Freedom – participated in a seminar on the subject “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Speech”. The security were taken by surprise but were able to hit back. Two persons were killed that day.



Islamist threats against freedom of speech involve also the risk of physical violence. This creates certain problems in the art world, but the issue does not receive much attention as criticism and satire against Islam are considered politically incorrect. Combined with the actual danger, it is an effective obstacle to confronting the subject. But looking the other way does not solve the problem. Artists who decide to exhibit critical works have become politically suspect. It has also become increasingly difficult to find exhibition spaces for such art, as owners of the spaces get worried. If a space is available, there are inevitably concerns about security. It could mean very high expenses for the exhibitors. With a limited budget, it is becoming impossible to organize an exhibition.

Such was the case for the Passion for Freedom art festival, when they wanted to show the artist Mimsy’s work “Isis Threaten Sylvania”. Art critic Jonathan Jones commented: “If an artist can’t show art on the grounds that it might provoke terror, the terrorists have plainly won. The suppression of these Sylvanian satires is as absurd and sinister as the reports that police officers asked for the names of British people buying Charlie Hebdo. What’s happening to us? Are we already ruled by black clad puppets of intolerance? This art is brave and witty. It deserves to be seen. To let fear of bigots and maniacs rule our art galleries is a betrayal of the civilisation we claim to uphold.”4 I have witnessed similar situations on many occasions. My presence is sometimes sufficient for a lecture to be cancelled. An exhibition is even more complicated. A whole army of security is needed, which Is enough to scare the organizers.



Identity politics is an important issue in the discussion concerning censorship in art. It relates to a political and moral principle: white people should not deal with subjects concerning other ethnicities. Painter Dana Schutz participated in the 2017 Whitney Biennial with the painting Open Casket. It is a portrait of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Artist and writer Hannah Black protested and started an intensive discussion: “I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum… The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun…” In this case the painting was not removed.

In Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Sam Durant installed a work entitled Scaffold. The work is a copy of a scaffold representing a number of executions in American history. The reactions focused on one of the executions, when 38 Dakota men were killed in Mankato, Minneapolis. Native American activists protested that it trivialized one of the ghastliest episodes in the indigenous history of Dakota. “It’s not art to us.” Following the initial outcry, Durant, who is white, came together with Dakota elders and museum officials, and agreed to remove the Scaffold.



Freedom of speech has become problematic, as it has become an insulting offence in the multicultural landscape. Therefore, more than ever, we should not forget that art’s constructive contribution to the history of free civilizations has always been based on transgression and provocation.

4| The Guardian, 26th September 2015.