Free-Speech Hypocrisy in Europe
A Danish art exhibit attacks public figures who ‘insult’ but not those who issue death threats in response
There are few people in the world who have sacrificed more for the principle of free speech than the staff of Jyllands Posten, the most popular newspaper in Denmark. Since the paper published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on Sept. 30, 2005—sparking riots in Muslim countries, violent attacks on Danish embassies around the globe, and a worldwide debate about the extent of the West’s commitment to free speech—the Copenhagen bureau has been under constant threat. The downtown office is protected by a giant steel security gate strong enough to block an oncoming truck—a strange sight in a city where nobody seems to lock their doors.
Meantime, Kurt Westergaard, the Danish artist who drew the most famous of the cartoons (Muhammad with a bomb in his turban), lives under constant police protection. In 2008, three men were arrested for plotting to kill him, and two years later, an ax-wielding Somali man actually made it into Westergaard’s heavily fortified house before his guards came to the rescue. In June, a Danish court delivered a guilty verdict in the 2010 case of four Muslim men accused of plotting to storm the Jyllands Posten offices during an award ceremony with the intention to “kill as many as possible.”
While much of the world condemned the newspaper’s decision to run the cartoons, the vast majority of Danes did not think their government should have apologized. “In Denmark we do not apologize for having freedom of speech,” then-Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at the time, a principled stand that came back to haunt him four years later when the government of Turkey protested his selection as NATO secretary general.
Yet one of the most important organs of the Danish cultural elite, the state-funded Danish Arts Council, has taken the opposite view of the citizens who subsidize it. A major art exhibit located just steps away from the heavily fortified Jyllands Posten offices at Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg, among the most prominent contemporary art museums in Europe, makes the case that it is the cartoonist Westergaard, his newspaper colleagues, the former prime minister, and other Western leaders who are the enemies of free expression—not those who continue to call for the murder of cartoonists and publishers.
Pavilion for Revolutionary Free Speech, created by the German artist Thomas Kilpper, premiered at last year’s Venice Biennale as part of the Danish pavilion. A recent Artforum review of the Copenhagen exhibit lauded it for “countering the asserted patriotism of the speakers depicted.” Though the Charlottenborg show just closed, a giant banner displaying some of the faces caricatured by Kilpper underscored with the words “GET RID OF ‘EM” is being displayed at Villa Romana in Florence, a residence and exhibition space for German artists, through Sept. 2.
The original piece consisted of a wooden platform—a “romantic gazebo,” as Kilpper called it—into whose floor he carved the faces of some 33 individuals. “All of them,” according to the exhibit’s promotional materials, “are people who Kilpper believes have been directly or indirectly responsible for promoting censorship, social exclusion or intolerance.”
Included among this parade of horribles, alongside Jyllands Posten culture editor Flemming Rose (who commissioned the cartoons), Rasmussen, and the pope, were a cast of right-wing European politicians: France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Thilo Sarrazin, the former member of the Executive Board of the German Federal Bank whose recent book about Muslim immigration, Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Does Away With Itself), caused a massive controversy in Europe. Gallery-goers in both Venice and Copenhagen were encouraged to walk over their faces as if they were doormats.
The Copenhagen exhibition included the original wooden floorboards displayed in Venice, which were used as negatives for the creation of color fabric and paper prints that hung from the ceiling and affixed to the walls as portraits. “I started to collect images of figures I am opposed to politically, who, through their conservatism or narrow-mindedness, are excluding certain people from our society,” Kilpper said in an interview in a pamphlet accompanying the exhibit.
What’s most astonishing about this exhibit—even more than its state funding and its close proximity to Jyllands Posten—is that Kilpper attacked people who regularly exercise their right to free speech. “Denmark considers itself to be at the forefront of fighting for total emancipation, and for operating without censorship,” Kilpper says in the interview. “But it is important to ask if the right to speak freely equals the right to insult.” According to Kilpper’s bizarro-view of what constitutes free speech, “insulting” is verboten, but those threatening violence are just fine.
Days after being stabbed in a Tel Aviv café, my African student remains determined to learn the Aleph-Bet