The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts has recently been the subject of a great deal of media and public attention.
Last week, a bust of the Academy’s founder, Frederik V, was stolen from the Academy’s Assembly Hall and thrown into the Copenhagen canal. On Thursday last week, to my great surprise and disappointment, I found that one of the Academy’s own employees, Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld, was behind the theft and vandalism against the bust. She was, of course, immediately expelled.
One cannot claim to be above the law under the pretext of creating art. Theft and vandalism remain criminal acts – regardless of the context. I therefore strongly disapprove of Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld’s choices and actions in this matter.
The legal aftermath is a matter for the police, and I have every confidence that they will conduct all further investigation in the appropriate, professional manner. The Academy will, of course, be available and offer any assistance the police authorities may want.
The case of the bust has prompted important discussions – both internally and in public – about the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. About our culture, our study environment and our values. These are all central discussions, and all of us who have the Academy’s best interests at heart quite naturally want to take part in them. Since its founding in 1754, the Academy of Fine Arts has, as an institution, been keenly interested in art’s role in examining and challenging reality without prejudice. Even when that reality is awkward, reluctant and complex.
So while we distance ourselves from criminal acts of any kind, we at the same time appreciate lively debate that can accommodate disagreement, emotions and raised voices. The Art Academy has plenty of room for differences of opinion.
The issue should not and must not end up as a discussion about whether the Academy is, as an institution, for or against identity politics. The concept is in itself far too loosely defined for it to make sense to be ‘for’ or ‘against’; it is underpinned by important societal issues that revolve around gender, race, language and minorities, and if we simply lump all these things together in a single heap marked ‘identity politics’, we miss out on important points and neglect key discussions.
We need to be able to discuss our past, our present and our future without pigeonholing people or opinions. If there are forces that want to eliminate certain attitudes and thus stifle free debate, they will fail, because we will not allow that sort of thing at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
At the Academy, I want a culture of debate that celebrates the openness and broad-mindedness that characterises art. A culture where we are not afraid of conflict, but recognise that art is created and shaped by people with opinions, feelings and values. And where we embrace the fact that different people have different opinions, feelings and values. The Academy is open to teachers and students of any political leanings, including, of course, identity-political attitudes. Thought policing will never become part of the admissions process at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. But it is equally clear that no matter how strong one’s convictions, it is not acceptable to use them to snub or ostracise others or try to suppress the free exchange of opinions.
So, don’t we have any problems at all at the Academy? Yes, we certainly do. But we also have solutions, passionate people and fundamental values that can do something about them.
Allow me to provide some examples:
Among our students, we have seen examples of situations where debates and exchanges of opinions have not been open and unprejudiced – for example, some students have not wanted to participate in teaching alongside others with different views. For certain opinions – and the people who hold them – to be rejected or excluded in this way is unacceptable. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts is not in favour of ‘cancel culture’ in any form.
We have also seen examples of group critique sessions – our so-called ‘criticism classes’ – pervaded by an unnecessarily harsh tone among the students based on opinions and points of view, whereas the starting point should, of course, be the art and the premises of art.
And we have had examples of students who feel intimidated because of their views, gender or ethnicity – and have not felt heard when they have called attention to this fact.
None of these examples are in the Academy’s interest, nor – more importantly – in the spirit of the Academy. And that is why we are, of course, doing something about it. Let me once again provide some examples:
I will carry out a project on how the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts should relate to issues of diversity and complexity in a time marked by conflicts over discrimination, diversity and identity politics. We must become better at dealing with such issues, which are not just found behind the walls of Charlottenborg, but very much part of our society and societal debates.
This week I will hold meetings with the teaching staff at the Academy in order to create a Code of Conduct which will help to clearly define the parameters of good debate practice, behaviour and generally proper conduct at the Academy.
And I will invite the students to a series of meetings where all students are invited to take part in the work of manifesting our Code of Conduct in concrete terms, fostering a good study environment. This work will build on a set of rules of conduct introduced at the Academy earlier this year.
As leader in a position like mine, one must quite naturally expect to meet many different opinions and criticism from many sides. I fully understand and acknowledge that. Criticism has been levelled against me and my management style, and I naturally respond to that criticism in an ongoing dialogue with the critics. Because maintaining a dialogue is important to me. That we talk to each other, not just at or about each other. And the last few weeks have served as a reminder of the importance of such dialogue.
Recent events have also shown me that – across all the various points of view, attitudes and values expressed – we see a genuine and not least shared awareness of how art is important in our society. Because it lets us see the world in a new light. Because it questions structures and cultures. Because it is unruly.
But that does not mean that there are no limits at all. For me, the limits of what is acceptable are exceeded when you see criminal acts, thought policing and a prejudiced approach to discussion and debate. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts has no room for that.