2010 | Thoughts on Simon Sheikh and COP15

©Rune Peitersen 2010

I followed the COP15 climate conference in Copenhagen, December 2009, through various media outlets, tv, live-streams, blogs etc. A lot of the domestic Danish policy-making leading up to the summit (and for the last 8-10 years in general) was characterized by the desire to stifle any opposing voices and make sure everything went as smoothly as possible. This, in modern Danish, means letting the big guy (USA) dictate the rules and outcome because his big and we’re small, and make sure that petit bourgeois ‘common sense’ and ‘decency’ prevail. It’s ok to voice a different opinion, to take it seriously, however, is ludicrous, and to actually suggest real change is subversive and dangerous. Luckily, a number of quickly adapted laws legalized the obscene number of house-arrests, ‘preventive’ mass arrests, wiretaps, closed courts, excessive police violence and paranoia, so that the dreaded large scale demonstrations and certain destruction of inner cities never had a chance to take place.

In many ways Denmark has shown itself to be a petri dish of the Western world in recent years. It is a welfare state with a very high (and pleasant) standard of living. Politically it has grown from a social democratic to a neoconservative state over the last 20 years or so (although, as is often the case in Europe, the Danish neoconservatism would in the US still be considered socialist). It has been a frontrunner in the Western “velvet fascism”[1] -movement – the minority government rules with the support of The Danish Peoples Party (whose leader Jȍrg Haider didn’t want to meet with, out of fear of being seen as too radical!). A populist fear mongering party, intensely and unabashedly against non-Western immigrants, proclaiming to stand up for the ‘real’ Danish people and their values, while enabling the government’s neoliberal agenda of undoing the social welfare state. The, from other countries well-known, downgrading of professionals, academics and intellectuals has been extremely successful in Denmark – to actually speak on the basis of knowledge, reflect on both sides of a given story or suggest that there is ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’, must be considered ‘elitist’ and ‘out of touch’ in order for self-serving morons to remain in power. Needless to say the media hasn’t put up much of a fight. The fourth estate seems to have caved to its own corporate structure and accepted that there isn’t a lot of money in overthrowing (or just questioning) the system[2].

All of these factors create a climate of fear and distrust, which result in the rule of stupidity and intolerance. Add the ‘Idols’ and ‘Big Brother’-mentality of the popular tv-shows of the last decade and the dismantling of the public education system, and we end up with a large segment of the populace being unable to digest even the simplest thoughts and ideas. Naturally, they follow the bully who screams the loudest and seems to best resemble their own fearful nature. I have no doubt, that most of these people would willingly and happily turn on the gas if told so, just following orders.

However, the ‘culture war’ (typically named so by our previous prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, after American example) has also produced a growing awareness on the left, that it may not be enough to try and the change the system from within, the system itself has become the problem and is in need of an overhaul. The new combatants then become the neoliberal corporate interests on one hand, and the anti-globalists and ngo’s, the new left[3], on the other hand. What struck me at their latest battle, COP15, was the restraint the demonstrators exercised over themselves and their ‘troops’, and the lack of restraint displayed by the government’s ‘troops’. To me the growing underlying anger and discontent with the neoliberal mindset, should have produced some terrific clashes with ‘the system’, but to my surprise nothing happened. The reason for this, I believe, must be found in the organization of the anti-globalists, through the use of mobile phones and internet they were able to keep everybody very tight and controlled within their ranks. Secondly, I believe they wanted to give ‘the old system’ one last chance, perhaps Obama would really deliver, perhaps China isn’t all about profit and perhaps here, in the petri dish of the west, with all its social control and green energy, the world as we know it could still be saved. As we know COP15 failed on all fronts, and my guess is that next time the anti-globalists won’t feel compelled to show neither hope nor restraint.

In In the Place of the Public Sphere? Or, the World in Fragments[4] Simon Sheikh writes:

” I would suggest that we take our point of departure in precisely the unhinging of stable categories and subject positions, in the interdisciplinary and intermediary, in the conflictual and dividing, in the fragmented and permissive – in different spaces of experience, as it were.”

Although the outset here is theoretical, it is not difficult to see how this can be a call for practical action as well.

In the “The Artist as a Public Intellectual” he concludes that the role of the artist, the public intellectual, in society has changed as a consequence of the changing of the Enlightenment public sphere into an commodity driven model, which demands a different kind of exchange between the subject (the intellectual) and its ‘recipient’ (the public). The classical educational exchange between teacher and student is supplanted by the consumerism of the market space. This also influences the institutions representing the art, so that museums are judged by e.g. the number of tickets sold at a given exhibition, instead of the intellectual or artistic properties of the art and its representation. He describes how the concept of the intellectual as the teacher (holder/giver of knowledge) has been turned into an idea of the ‘creative elite’ as the desirable (“organic”) intellectual because he generates a product as well as an audience – the tricky part seems to be determining “… whether they are in the service of capital or the cultural industry or in its counter-movement, a struggle for the multitude.”

So, in order to escape the connotations of the market-driven public sphere, and, I suppose, the highly market driven art-world, the public intellectual must engage in the creation ‘counter-publics’ (or counter-public spheres). These counter-publics should not be seen as contra the public sphere, but existing ‘outside’ of this sphere, possibly in re-conquered or redefined ‘space’ (e.g. the gay parks [4]). The self-organization and self-institutionalization becomes a strategy to disengage from the experience-driven cultural industry, and a hallmark seems to be the desire to be boring. This seems logical given the anti-intellectual climate mentioned earlier; in the search for an experience or in the obtaining of knowledge more profound than what is offered by the market-driven cultural industry, one must seem boring (and elitist) to someone who is not able to distinguish the difference. It seems to me, that many of the counter-public structures simply revive models, which in the public sphere have grown too large, become market-driven or underfunded – their critique is of the surrounding structure that led to the decay of the model, not the original model itself (Copenhagen Free University is an example hereof, the original model being the university).

In his final critique he confronts us with the decayed model of the art world as it has developed in the Western world.

In Western welfare states the cultural field has traditionally been seen as ideally autonomous from the political sphere, and has thus been structured, financed and institutionalized as a separate entity, something apart from the political as an independent public sphere. Strangely, it is also this relative autonomy that has supplied the cultural field with its potential for political critique and discussion – that it has been removed from direct political representation and control, allowing for a different production of knowledge and reflexive processes. Unfortunately, it is also this relative autonomy that has led to a de-politicization of cultural production and the configuration of the art world as an elitist, exclusive club.

The relative luxurious position of the Western artist has removed art from political thinking, possibly elevating it to higher intellectual grounds, but also made the art(ist) non-consequential in terms of directly influencing society. He does, however, seem to conclude, that art is needed in order to fight the “…expansive global capitalism, corporatization of culture and criminalization of the critical left…”. Luckily, art can still redeem itself and become a tool for good[5]: ” It is our firm belief that the cultural field is a usable tool for creating political platforms and new political formations rather than a primary platform in itself; that art matters, or at least should matter and not only be a playground for self expression and/or analysis.”

As I was following the events at COP15 live on my computer screen from 3-4 different cameras and several live blogs, it struck me for the first time in my life, that I wish I had been there, in the front line of these seemingly pathetic demonstrations. Just to show, that I disagree, just to stand on the right side. The demonstrations were declared illegal as soon as they started, the police moved in using excessive force, arrested the organizers, and made sure absolutely no dissenting noise was heard. It was such a display of misguided use of power, it was sickening. And worse still, according to opinion polls app. half the Danish population thought the police had done an excellent job, and anyway couldn’t quite see what all these activists were doing there in Copenhagen. Such ignorance. Finally, my home country had revealed itself completely, and it was naked and shivering, no clothes at all, but still acting like an emperor.

I went to Copenhagen to celebrate Xmas with my family. It happened to be the same day Obama arrived, so it was difficult getting from the airport. I spoke to friends and family about my outrage and how I felt as an expat. I read a lot of op-eds in the newspapers and realized that the country is extremely polarized. That a lot is being done to counter the developments of the last 10 years and that a lot of people are ashamed of the direction. But what can you do? If you wish to play by the rules, how then can you change anything? And more importantly, what can I do? How can I as an artist influence the world around me?

According to Simon Sheikh:  “Art matters, certainly, but art is not enough.” – I cannot accept that, but I fear I have to. Art in its present form certainly is not enough. And, yes, I’m sure there comes a point when the artist too must “take arms against a sea of trouble”, but until then, there must be a way for art to reclaim influence in the world. Perhaps the counter-publics and tactical self-institutions are the best way. If a counter-culture can be established which champions elitist values as tolerance and knowledge, and sees the nation state as a vehicle for protecting the weak not a marketplace for profit, then there might still be hope for the western world.

January 2010


[1] Simon Sheikh – Representation, Contestation and Power: The Artist as a Public Intellectual

[2] A few exceptions can be found, of course.

[3] Which I will use as a term to cover activists, ngo’s, anti-globalists, self-institutionalized institutions etc.

[4] In the Place of the Public Sphere? Or, the World in Fragments, [06/2004], http://www.republicart.net

[5] “Join me, Luke, I am your father”, “No, never!”