Why Is the Danish Far Right Vandalizing Left-Wing Artwork?

In an attempt to win votes, Denmark’s major parties have mainstreamed far-right ideas and stoked a reactionary political climate in the country. The result: right-wing extremists have been emboldened to terrorize minorities and attack cultural symbols of the Left.

A museum visitor looks at the painting The Detested Town (R) by Asger Jorn. (Dominique Faget / AFP via Getty Images)

On Friday April 29, a small group of far-right artists and activists entered the Jorn Museum in Silkeborg, Denmark to vandalize the work of the celebrated antiwar and anti-fascist Danish painter Asger Jorn. One of the provocateurs caused lasting damage to Jorn’s 1959 painting The Disquieting Duckling by signing the artwork and affixing a photo of herself hatching from an egg onto it.

The events of last week should be understood in the context of the rise of the Nordic nations’ far right, made possible by establishment parties on both sides of the political divide. Denmark’s far right has mounted an assault on both the symbols and institutions of the Left within the country. The attack on Jorn’s work is the latest episode in this revanchist turn.

Jorn as a Political Artist

A committed anti-fascist and antiwar activist, Jorn was a key figure in the radical avant-garde Situationist International alongside figures like Guy Debord, Raul Vaneigem, and Jorn’s younger brother Jørgen Nash. Between 1957 and 1972, the Situationists practiced “détournement,” a form of radical subversion of mainstream culture for emancipatory purposes. The Situationists dissolved partly over disagreements between Debord and Jorn on the political potential of this strategy. Foreseeing developments like the transformation of the politics of the Black Panthers and the punk movement into fashion, the French philosopher despaired of capitalist societies’ ability to co-opt any radical challenge which sought to use iconoclastic images and events to disrupt the status quo.

Jorn, meanwhile, remained more sanguine about the emancipatory potential of art and the fruitfulness of struggle. The Danish artist even founded the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism. Vandalism derives from Vandals, the Germanic people derided as barbarian who clashed continuously with the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE. Through art, Jorn sought to resuscitate the figure of the subordinate against dominant. Given his enthusiasm for vandalism, the recent events stand out as particularly ironic. Yet no one should be confused as to their political significance.

Jorn’s artistic practice involved buying run-of-the-mill paintings, whose nationalistic conservatism and romanticism for agrarian life he scorned, at flea markets. He would then adorn — or vandalize — these minor artworks with colorful and playful superimpositions. Jorn’s aim was to flatten the distinction between “high” and “popular” art. Indeed, among his most famous works is a large multi-part fresco decorating a state-run kindergarten in Copenhagen.

His work offered an alternative model for politically committed art beyond the rigidity of Soviet social realism, and the subjective romanticism of American abstract expressionism lauded by mid-century liberals. Breaking with these traditions, he instead took inspiration from the French communists who established the short-lived Paris Commune in 1871. One of these influences was the Communard painter Gustave Courbet, one of the figures responsible for the defacing of the Vendôme Column, a monument to Napoleonic imperialism styled after the Roman Column of Trajan. For this act of resistance Courbet was imprisoned by the French state.

Vandalism becomes genuine art, for Jorn, when it breaks with the oppressive Latin and Roman traditions prevailing as the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement in Europe. Vandalism need not be mindless destruction: it can be beautiful, liberating, and egalitarian.

The Splintering of the Danish Far Right

The vandalism of Jorn’s work — remarkably streamed on Facebook by the racist and fascist Patrioterne Går Live (Patriots Go Live) — was none of these things. Patriots Go Live is a small extra-parliamentary street-based splinter organization from the most extreme right-wing political party in Denmark, Stram Kurs (Hard Line). Hard Line is in turn several steps to the right of the other two far-right parties, Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish People’s Party, DPP) and Nye Borgerlige (New Right).

The fact that there are two parties to the right of DPP is a testament to the extent to which the forces of reaction have been able to establish themselves in Danish society. Denmark’s DPP, marred by a drawn out EU expenses scandal and bitter factionalism, is in disarray. Founded in 1995, the DPP has struggled to navigate the move from protest to establishment party. Despite their weakness, the Social Democrats have consistently attempted to appeal to the far-right party’s base by adopting a series of exclusionary and xenophobic political positions.

While sections of the Social Democrats clearly look to and even migrated from the Left, the dominant wing of the ruling party is now firmly oriented toward the Right. The demise of DPP is both cause and effect of the rightward turn of the Social Democrats. The anti-immigrant chauvinism of the “ghetto plan” is clear evidence of this. The plan introduced arbitrary punishment for inhabitants of deprived areas (“ghettos”) allowing the Social Democrats to evict tenants and sell off public housing. This development gives the lie to the Right’s insistence that they are the defenders of the welfare state. Anton Ösgård and Jonas Algers have rightly argued that when Denmark’s ruling party established these laws, “the racialized stigmatization of the poor in fact goes hand in hand with the privatization of their homes.”

Ignoring this fact, some have argued that the tougher anti-immigration policies of the Social Democrats offer a path to power that should be copied by center-left parties across Europe. Yet political scientists have convincingly shown that such “accommodation” does not work. Rightward turns on immigration not only legitimize the far right’s agenda, they can also bolster its electoral support. The diffusion of far-right positions across most of the political spectrum is evidence of this.

Although support for DPP has sharply fallen, two parties further to the right emerged out of this overall crisis situation. First among these is the New Right, pursuing the economically right-wing platform of the Conservatives twinned with an even more extreme version of the exclusionary politics of the Danish People’s Party. Second, Hard Line, an out-and-out fascist and racist party campaigning for the forced expulsion of all Danish Muslims and the codified white supremacy in Denmark. Notably, this party built a major source of support online, where it used YouTube to radicalize teenagers online.

Open agitation and provocation on the streets has been Hard Line’s preferred strategy. The group has toured the most deprived and ethnically diverse Danish neighborhoods, led by the lawyer Rasmus Paludan, setting alight copies of the Quran in front of Muslim residents. One of the attendees of the vandalism of Jorn’s painting was convicted of assault in 2016 when he attacked two staff members at another museum — and his defense lawyer was none other than Paludan. As a follow-up to his assault, the far-right activist contributed a performance piece to a Polish exhibition last year in which he shouted the N-word while in blackface, set a Confederate flag alight, and reenacted the killing of George Floyd.

The party narrowly missed the 2 percent electoral threshold in the 2019 parliamentary elections and was denied the right to run in elections by the Electoral Commission due to voter registration fraud in February 2022. These crises lead to multiple splinter-successors, including Nej til Islam I Danmark (No to Islam in Denmark) and Patriots Go Live, the group responsible for filming the vandalism at the Jorn Museum.

Yet the more sinister consequence of the splintering of Hard Line is the migration of Paludan to Sweden, following consecutive bans by the Danish police against his Quran burning and public provocations. He has repeated and ramped up these actions in Sweden, instigating a series of riots in marginalized neighborhoods across the country. Cars set on fire, heavy police presences, and mass arrests following Paludan’s provocations have ignited national debates in Sweden likely to end in ever more draconian clampdowns on already excluded communities.

Equal parts skillful and clueless political operator, Paludan and his foot soldiers exploit the state’s default tendency to protect the speech of the far right and clamp down on the Left. Securing the marketplace of ideas is a poor excuse for the nationwide scapegoating of ethnic minorities, particularly Muslims, through what the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse called “repressive tolerance.”

In contrast, the approach of the Danish police toward the Left has been anything but tolerant. The first ever operation of the counterterror unit set up in the “war on terror” era was to clear the center of counterculture in Denmark, the squatted Youth Centre, in 2007. When Denmark hosted the COP15 climate conference two years later, the police illegally arrested hundreds and subsequently lost a court case on false imprisonment. A law passed months earlier, specifically curtailing the mass demonstrations expected at COP15, made these arrests possible.

It is possible that the shift in the far right from purely parliamentary politics to a street-based insurrectionary strategy is a sign of their failure to enact change directly through the institutions of the state. There is, however, a bleaker inference that one could draw. The adventurism of Paludan and his companions also points to the saturation of the parliamentary political landscape with far-right politics. Thus far, the Social Democrats and the Liberals (Venstre) have been willing to act as the rear guard for a revanchist right.

Far-Right Art and Its Consequences

In contrast to the emancipatory vandalism of Courbet and the Communards, fascist iconoclasm is an insurrectionary form of provocation aiming to polarize oppressed and dominant groups in order to incite civil unrest, or worse.

The Italian Futurist artists, central to the emergence of Italian fascism, famously declared: fiat ars, pereat mundus! (create art, let the world perish!). The hallmark of fascism is the transformation of politics into spectacle: a move evinced in the trivializing of the racist murder of George Floyd by police and the hyper-ironic posture of the online alt-right. Socialists, in contrast, have always sought to transform spectacle into politics: to track a path out of the fog and miasma of the present by clarifying relations of power.

In vandalizing Jorn’s painting, the Danish far right attempted to subvert the very idea of emancipatory art. Liberals, incapable of recognizing the oppressive social relations which determine society, are incapable of meaningfully distinguishing between reactionary and emancipatory subversion. Fascists have been able to use this cloak of ambiguity to act under the guise of freedom of expression.

Liberals should understand that by refusing to reckon with power and domination, they give cover to the Right.