Reactions from the art community are clear after Kunstkritikk and other media published the statement #konstnärligfrihet (artistic autonomy), where 1625 people came together to protest against sexual assault and harassment in the Swedish art world.
– The challenge for art institutions and boards is to look over who is among the majority of people in charge, and to reflect on one’s role in reproducing different levels of gender inequality and power corruption. This is a social change that we all have to commit to, Corina Oprea tells Kunstkritikk. She is the curator and artistic director of Konsthall C in Hökarängen in Stockholm.
#konstnärligfrihet is written by women, trans and non-binary persons who demand that art institutions respond to sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and cripophobic oppression.
The people who have signed the letter are visual artists, curators, professors, art students and others working within fine arts institutions. They demand a safe working environment in a field consisting largely of self-employment, where personal and professional relations are mixed.
The following is an excerpt from the letter #konstnärligfrihet:
We have now come together. Together we will not tolerate our professor telling us that our art sexually arouses him, or that we won’t make it in the art world because we don’t have the balls. We will publicly denounce the art collector who asks if sex is part of the deal. We condemn the male artists that make sexual transgressions against colleagues, curators and gallerists. The teachers who lick our ears, that press their crotch against our bodies, that stroke and grab our asses will be held accountable. Many of us have lived in silence and alone with painful memories of assaults, heterosexism, racism and class oppression. Now we have assembled our experiences.
We demand our artistic autonomy.
We demand that no one assaults our bodies.
We demand an end to sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and cripophobic oppression.
We demand that male teachers stop acting as if female students are a sexual perk of the job.
We demand that our colleagues react when they see what is happening, and that they believe us when we testify.
We see all of you and we hold you accountable.
Nothing will remain the same.
The letter included scores of anonymous testimonies accounting for different forms of sexual harassment, violation, corruption of power, and assault.
A well-known problem at the art academies
The testimonies make clear that the art academy’s function as a place of transition between education and a professional career has resulted in abuses of power and sexual relations between teachers and students. A school often referred to in this context is the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. The recently appointed Dean Sara Arrhenius is upset by the testimonies about poor conditions at the school, and is aiming to create better routines able to prevent harassment and violating discriminations.
– When I started in April 2017, I soon became aware that the school had a long standing problem with its psychosocial working conditions. The fact that we now have a clear process for what to do when someone is subjected to these kinds of problems is a step in the right direction, says Arrhenius, who is working for a reorganization aimed at greater transparency and greater potential for influence from students and employees.
– The next step is to promote knowledge among teachers and students about how to deal with assaults, Arrhenius tells Kunstkritikk.
– Part of this is about knowing what about the structure of the school has made these assaults possible, and what has kept them from view and contributed to normalize oppressive behaviour, Arrhenius continues, stressing the importance of facing what has to be changed about the school’s educational tradition and values.
Professors with too much power
In European art academies there is a tradition where a group of students follow the same professor throughout their entire education. This can result in a student ending up in a particularly vulnerable relation to their professor, with minimal interaction with other students and employees at the school.
Petra Bauer is an artist and a professor at the Royal Institute of Art, where professors are able to work without any particular oversight from colleagues. According to Bauer this enables power corruption, transgressions and silencing.
– Many students at the Royal Art Institute feel dependent on their professor and have the impression that this relationship can affect their future careers in art. This must change. All of us employees have a responsibility to make this change, Bauer stresses.
Malmö Art Academy is among the schools that have taken measures to step away from the traditional professorship. When the school started in 1995 the rule was introduced that no one would have access to a studio without the student’s permission. This was done to avoid the problem of professors having sexual relations with their students. Konstfack, University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm has instead chosen to have several professors working in parallel with one student, to prevent individuals from misusing positions of power.
A culture of silence fed by precarious working conditions
It is harder to map oppression outside the institutions, where relations between parties are more complex. Johanna Gustavsson-Fürst, artist and lecturer at the University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, says that the art labour market with its intense competition and poor financial resources, coupled with poor structures for agreements and contracts, leads to obscure situations where artists tend to wind up in poor negotiating positions and powerlessness.
– Lack of transparency leads to powerlessness, which feeds into a culture of violence and silence. Changing this is a slow process partly due to the fact that artists do not share a place of work, and that we often have at least two jobs where the art-related work rarely provides an income. We suffer from a lack of time, we are scattered and self-employed, says Gustafsson-Fürst, who stresses that even in the cases where there is a contact person for situations of assault, is is not always easy to understand whether something has happened, or to admit it.
– This is why we need more safe spaces where these questions and situations can be discussed together with others. The challenge is to find a system that works with different forms of work, including temporary project employments, says Gustafsson-Fürst.
The silence is broken, but for whom?
Critique has been voiced in conjunction with the #MeToo movement that media prioritizes white persons and persons of means in social debate. Corina Oprea stresses that the culture of silence still stands for the most vulnerable female, non-binary persons, and persons of color working in arts and culture.
– They have been undermined, harassed, detested and threatened by people in power that decide who gets access to resources. Their situation has not changed, since the #MeToo movement this far has addressed only privileged women when it should also take into account gender identity, ability, class and immigrant status.
Oprea says that many art institutions and individuals with great influence speak about feminism and justice rhetorically to reflect a progressive politics, while in practice they sustain oppressive norms and power structures.
– Those who have access to this power and ignore, excuse or commit daily harassment, generate an acceptance for more grave, illegal uses of power, says Oprea, who stresses that the resignation of a few high profile people will make little difference when inherited power structures and the art world are maintained.