Culture has no legal protection – a threat to democracy


It is with consternation that we see a Sweden in which cultural policy has become an ideological battleground where established political agreements are being challenged. In a time of populism and nationalism, all around us democracies are being dismantled and freedom of speech is being restricted – often by directly controlling and governing the culture. This alarming development shows that legal protection for culture is not strong enough to resist political influence. This is a threat to one of the most important foundations of our democracy, i.e. the right of every individual to practise and enjoy free, independent culture. It is high time that culture was given the same legal value as other welfare rights.

Culture in all its forms – from theatre, circus and dance to visual art, literature, music and film – contributes to a vibrant democracy. It provides us with perspectives of ourselves, our fellow human beings, the society we live in, and our shared history and cultural heritage. Culture makes the world a bigger place. Being able to freely participate in culture and express oneself through art is a human right under the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Similarly, it is this universal right to participate and express oneself that forms the basis of many activities and operations in the cultural sector. The fact that these activities and operations are wholly or partially funded based on these rights, can be seen as a guarantee that everyone who lives in Sweden should be able to access culture that is free and independent.

The lack of legal protection is clear in the wording of Sweden’s constitution. The Constitution of Sweden establishes that public institutions shall work for the cultural welfare of the individual. However, the Constitution then states that, “In particular, the public institutions shall secure” the right to a number of specific areas, and it lists e.g. housing, education and social care – but omits culture. The rights that are mentioned are undeniably crucial in a democracy. However, the list belongs to a time when culture was not under systematic attack. The right to culture deserves the same protection value as the right to education and housing.
In Swedish cultural policy, there has long been a consensus across party boundaries regarding how public funds should be used to support a free, vibrant cultural scene. Partly through the national cultural policy objectives last revised in 2009 by parliament, which state that everyone should have opportunities to experience culture, and that culture should be a dynamic, challenging and independent force. The parliamentary parties have also been in agreement regarding the arm’s length principle, which means that politicians provide the opportunities for, but do not interfere in, the content of culture. This principle is not law, but it is something that national, regional and local governments all support.

In recent times, however, we have seen several examples of politicians, on the local government level, questioning and challenging the prevailing agreements. This gives a worrying indication of what could happen on the national level within a few years.
We can see it clearly in Sölvesborg Municipality, where in a short time a series of decisions have been made that have attracted attention, one result being that the municipal authority will no longer acquire what the joint council refers to as “challenging contemporary art”.

Another example is when a member of the Leisure & Culture Committee at Täby Municipality demanded that a discussion about LGBTQ issues at the library be called off. The reason was that the discussion was perceived as being destructive, and bringing gender roles into question.
In Nacka the arm’s length principle was bypassed when the municipality prevented works of art that were socially critical, rebellious or aggressive from being shown during Wall Street Nacka, a festival of street art.

It may seem extreme to equate this with the situation in other European countries. But in Poland, for instance, we can see how control of culture has become an important tool for ideological propaganda. One manifestation of this was when a politically charged film was stopped by the Polish Ministry of Culture during an ongoing film festival. Another was when the head of the Museum for the Second World War was fired, as the government did not consider the museum to be sufficiently patriotic.

More robust legal protection is needed to ensure that publicly financed culture is free of direct political influence and does not become an ideological tool for the ruling powers. We have never previously seen any need for a culture law which establishes the public sector’s responsibility for ensuring that culture is available nationwide, and that the arm’s length principle is observed. When this principle is set aside, however, we believe that the matter of further legislation on the freedom and integrity of culture should be seen in a new light.

We therefore request that the government appoint an inquiry board to explore how culture can be assigned the same value as housing, education, social care and the other fundamental rights in the Constitution of Sweden. Consolidation of the legal protection should be considered, alongside the task recently assigned to the Swedish Agency for Cultural Policy Analysis by the Minister for Culture and Democracy, Amanda Lind, to look into the arm’s length principle.

In tandem with a review of legal protection, understanding of the role of culture in a democracy needs to increase and achieve broader acceptance, both among politicians and the general public. More people must realise the importance of a multifaceted film repertoire, challenging public art, and of stage art being performed across the whole of Sweden. As institutions that are wholly or partially financed by public funds, we see it as our task to increase understanding. This is the reason we are now mustering forces to take action together.

On 16 December, there are 1,000 days remaining until the next general election. We therefore invite organisations to take part in a shared initiative which aims to carry out one thousand activities – i.e. one a day – to illustrate the role of culture for a vibrant democracy – partly by highlighting what we already do, but also by creating platforms for discussions about culture, such as debate contributions, disseminating information, and discussion with politicians and citizens; activities of all sizes and scales. We urge all institutions that have a desire, to join the initiative. We are convinced that, more than ever, we need to bring up the debate on the role of culture. And we will do this every day, a thousand times.

Anders Frennberg, CEO Cirkus Cirkör
Anna Serner, CEO Swedish Film Institute
Björn Sandmark, CEO Gothenburg City Theatre
Calle Nathanson, CEO Folkets Hus & Parker
Challa Gustavsson, Acting Director, Head of Administration, International Scene of Contemporary Dance
Eric Birath, CEO Fasching
Fransesca Quartey, CEO Västerbottensteatern
Jesper Larsson, CEO Kulturhuset Stadsteatern
Johan Oljeqvist, CEO Fryshuset
Kitte Wagner, CEO Malmö City Theatre
Leif Magnusson, Head of Operations Mångkulturellt Centrum
Magnus Aspegren, CEO Riksteatern – Sweden’s National Touring Theatre
Monica Fredriksson, CEO Folkoperan
Petra Brylander, CEO Uppsala City Theatre
Pia Kronqvist, CEO Scenkonst Öst
Robert Uitto, Chairman Länsteatrarna Sweden
Stefan Hansen, CEO Unga Klara

The collaboration is an initiative of Riksteatern – Sweden’s National Touring Theatre.

Link to debate article in Dagens Nyheter, 16 Dec 2019 (in Swedish)