PRINT March 1994


Lars O. Ericsson

FOUR YEARS INTO THE ’90s, Sweden is in the middle of a painful metamorphosis. Of course we blame the recession, which merely triggered the trauma, and the bourgeois coalition government that took office in 1991 (after half a century of almost unbroken Social Democratic rule), which merely speeded it up. In fact this change, a transition from a welfare to a postwelfare society, has been underway since the ’70s. Not only does it mean a long goodbye to the collective social-security system we had come to take for granted, it also affects the entire social and cultural climate, deflating our self-image as the most advanced welfare state in the world.

The famous “Swedish Model,” that mixture of socialist central-planning and capitalism that in the ’60s replaced the older and slightly idyllic Social Democratic notion of society as a folkhem (a “home for the people”), was meant to “humanize” capitalism. And to some extent it did. But it had at least one serious flaw: it was based on the Modernist idea of social and, particularly, economic progress. Without an annual growth rate of 2 to 3 percent, the welfare system that constituted the core of the Swedish Model eventually had to collapse. This much was proven twenty years ago during the oil crisis of 1973–74. Unfortunately, neither Sweden’s politicians, who had their popularity among the voters to think about, nor its intellectuals, who have a tradition of being paralyzed by their loyalty to the Social Democratic government, did anything about it. Then the economic boom in the ’80s lulled us into thinking that maybe things weren’t so bad after all. How wrong we were.

The awakening has been rough. Unemployment rates of around 14 percent, a state debt of $125 billion (in a country of less than 9 million people!), a galloping budget deficit, a sagging industrial base, and a crumbling welfare system have created a climate of insecurity and frustration. Volvo, the flagship of Swedish industry, recently came within a hairbreadth of being merged with Renault, which is part owned by the French state. The banking system, which almost collapsed in the early ’90s, has not yet recovered. We seem to be caught between the conservative government’s inability to govern and the Social Democratic Party’s inability to renew itself.

In the cultural sphere, the Swedish Model meant state-run radio and television; state-subsidized press, theater, and film; free education and public libraries; and an art world largely financed by state and city money. As in Austria, where the system is in many ways a distant cousin of ours, it meant a kind of enlightened absolutism or paternalism in which cultural goals were formulated and their implementation controlled by the organs of the democratic state. Consequently, culture was to be “consumed” almost exclusively in the public sector. Private initiatives, although of course not forbidden, were on principle regarded with suspicion or, at best, seen as supplementary to public ones.

Most of this cultural structure is now disintegrating, partly for ideological reasons (propelled by the bourgeois government), partly for technological reasons (the advent of cable and satellite television has forced the state to give up its monopoly), and partly for crass economic reasons (the deficit requires that subsidies be cut). For some, this new cultural climate is a stimulating challenge; for others—probably a majority—it constitutes a threat to many of their most cherished values and most ingrained ways of thinking. Today Sweden is in limbo, a country in search of a new, post-Modern, postindustrial identity that no one seems able to formulate.

During the ’60s and ’70s, the effort to modernize Sweden’s art world resulted in a number of new state-or city-funded institutions, including the Moderna Museet and the Kulturhuset in Stockholm, the Malmö Konsthall, and several other art museums and halls throughout the country. In the ’60s, under the dynamic leadership of Pontus Hultén (later the first director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris), the Moderna Museet opened its doors to all the new tendencies in art: neo-Dada, Pop, Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, Minimalism, Happenings, etc. During the ’70s, when the Swedish art scene became much more politicized (but also more isolated), the Kulturhuset became a kind of leftist alternative to both the Moderna Museet (which had begun to lose some of its edge after Hultén’s departure) and the Kungliga Konstakademien, the royal academy (which never had any edge to lose). There were few private galleries and collectors, and as a result, the Swedish art scene was almost completely dominated by the institutions.

This situation reversed itself in the ’80s. The Moderna Museet ceased to be a forum for contemporary art; it produced only one major contemporary show all that decade, “Implosion: A Postmodern Perspective,” 1987, curated by Lars Nittve. This exception aside, the museum devoted its exhibition schedule to classic Modernists like Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marc Chagall. And the Kulturhuset also lost its touch (partly due to the left’s ideological crisis), creating a vacuum that was filled by new commercial galleries and new private and corporate collectors. Supported by the economic boom, these forces took the initiative from the sagging public institutions. Fredrik Roos, a millionaire collector of contemporary art, even started his own private museum, the Rooseum. For the first time in recent memory, the responsibility for new, advanced, and experimental art lay in private hands.

This development actually produced some good art. But in the general frenzy, its symbolic meaning—its prediction of the Swedish Model’s demise—was almost drowned out by the sound of popping champagne corks. David Bowie’s line “The vacuum created the arrival of freedom” seemed to fit the moment perfectly.

The current crisis—economic, ideological, psychological—contains much bewilderment, fear, and even anger. People feel disoriented, and scapegoats are easy to find. In recent years Sweden has accepted a large number of immigrants and refugees (many from Bosnia and other parts of ex-Yugoslavia). Xenophobia and racism have begun to poison the body politic, with refugee camps attacked and mosques burned down. Nationalism and provincialism are in the air. All of which makes it less surprising that, to judge from recent polls, a majority of Swedes are opposed to membership in the European Community.

In an art world characterized by weak institutions without vision, and by a cautious but slowly recovering market, conservative groups see their chance to get rid of “alien” (post-Modern, deconstructive, antiesthetic) art and theory. As might be expected in a recession, we see a lot of mediocre traditional painting both in the galleries and in the museums. The Rooseum, that private monument to the ’80s, almost had to close, but was saved by money from the state and from the city of Malmö—at a price. Appearing currently at this “center for contemporary art” is a show of drawings (and facsimiles of drawings) by Leonardo.

The present state of the Moderna Museet is sad indeed: “We no longer take the Moderna Museet into account,” Jean-Christophe Ammann, director of the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, recently told a Swedish curator. Once important internationally as a scene of contemporary art, it has now become a kind of mausoleum dedicated to “classical” Modernism. Yet a new building for the museum, designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, has been commissioned, at a cost of approximately $50 million.

The prospects are not entirely bleak. The European Council recently named Stockholm “Cultural Capital of Europe” for 1998. It is an obvious propaganda stunt, but in order not to lose face completely, the politicians will have to “bless” the cultural world with considerable amounts of money. (What they will fund, of course, remains to be seen.) Perhaps most promising, a younger generation of artists, who have realized that they can count on neither the institutions (which won’t let them in) nor the galleries (which tend to play it safe, for lack of money), have begun to take things into their own hands. Recently, 15 of them organized a show called “Spelets regler” (Rules of the game), which sited works in widely scattered locations around Stockholm—a pool hall, a ministry, a bus, a hotel, a department store. In Malmö, 11 young artists “invaded” a supermarket with their artistic “products.” One participant, Elin Wikström, startled customers by bringing her bed to the store and occupying it for the duration of the show. Other fresh and challenging exhibitions have been mounted in alternative spaces and in new, noncommercial galleries such as Ynglingagatan 1 (which also shows young American artists), located in cheap, “off-off” areas. Projects like these reveal this generation’s determination to investigate and articulate the present social and cultural metamorphosis. With considerable audacity, they have begun to sketch the outline of a period that looks as if it could become as politically charged as the late ’60s.

Lars O. Ericsson is the Swedish correspondent for Artforum and an art critic for Dagens Nyheter. He is currently associate professor of philosophy at the University of Stockholm.