The Sinking of a Bust Surfaces a Debate Over Denmark’s PastBreaking News
tags: colonialism, memorials, Denmark, public history
For a while it seemed no one had noticed that something rather prominent was missing from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, the prestigious institution housed in a palace on the edge of one of Copenhagen’s canals.
It was a bust of Frederik V, the 18th-century king of Denmark-Norway and duke of Schleswig-Holstein. Largely known as an affable if ineffectual leader and an alcoholic, Frederik V was the academy’s founder, and a likeness of him had for years been on display in the institution’s Assembly Hall. Midway through the autumn, it vanished, though it wasn’t until early November that school officials finally realized it was gone.
A few days later, the bust’s fate was revealed. An anonymous group of artists had unscrewed it from its plinth, popped a black garbage bag over its head and ferried it to the edge of the canal, before tipping it in. A video was released that showed the bust disappearing into the inky waters of Copenhagen Harbor.
In a statement accompanying the video, the artists said they wanted to pledge solidarity with people affected by Denmark’s colonial past, and to spark a dialogue with institutions created during that time. Under Frederik V, the government heavily subsidized the nation’s slave and sugar trade, and administered its colonies.
“We want an art world that relates to and takes responsibility — not only for the actions of the past, but for the ways in which colonialism is still active today,” the group said.
Even months later, the ensuing dust-up has laid bare deep schisms in Danish society over how to reckon with its colonial past.
The Academy Council, an artistic advisory board that owns the bust, condemned the taking of it, arguing that while it was imperative that past abuses not be downplayed, it was also worth noting that slavery was common in Frederik V’s era. “It is also important that we do not impose the norms of our time on the past,” the statement said.
Some politicians and cultural leaders joined in denouncing the bust dumping as the epitome of cancel culture and identity politics run amok, some going so far as to call it fascist. A prominent artist, Bjorn Norgaard, and the art historian, Merete Jankowski, wrote articles likening “the happening,” as the artists called it, to extremists’ blowing up the sixth-century Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan.
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