Art and Social Democracy

Gertrud Sandqvist

Photographs by Maria Hedlund.

When Hannah Arendt published her magnum opus on work, The Human Condition, at the end of the 1950s, she speculated in the prologue on the effects of mankind's stepping out into space. For the first time, she writes, it is possible that earthly existence will no longer be the common condition shared by everyone. The human beings of the future, as scientists imagine them, are "possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given." But we cannot speak of this using normal speech. The scientific image of the world is expressed in formulae and is demonstrated using technology. Our brain is unable to follow what we do, "so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking. If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is." (p. 3)

In the summer of 1998, an American computer expert claimed that the decision to introduce European monetary union in the year 2000 may be the last major political decision that can be made without reference to the views of computer experts. During the forty years that have passed since the publication of The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt's apprehensions have come true in domain after domain. The most compelling argument for gene manipulation, for example, is that the technology already exists.
But it is not only the "future man" who is possessed by a rebellion against the terms of human existence. This is a characteristic feature of the whole of the 20th century. It might even be a good definition of the modern project as a whole?
Art, philosophy and religion have developed languages that allow people to talk about their personal circumstances. Today, there is an ever-widening gap between these languages and a society that is steered by a variety of technologies. Politics, which has traditionally been the arena of action where speech and technology meet, has increasingly come to be a logical follow-on from technology, with small niches especially labelled 'human'.

Art begins where purpose ends. A good starting point for art, I believe, is boredom. Perhaps that is why art does not agree so well with utopias or 'visions'. Once we have thought the thought, made the work, seen, spoken, we have already taken a particular view of the given conditions of existence. By offering resistance, art has often implicitly involved a reconciliation with the world.

Utopias are very rarely set in precise locations. The very word means 'no place'. But Sweden during the social democrats' uniquely long spell in government (1932-1973), not even interrupted by the Second World War, conducted a social experiment that borders on the utopian. During this period, Sweden became one of the most modern nations in the world. A principal aspect of this was aesthetic.

As a Swede brought up within the Folkhemmet (
'the peoples home' - the Swedish welfare state), with parents who were both politicians active in the labour movement, I am naturally ambivalent. One of my earliest memories is of how the wooden floor vibrated in the Folkets Hus ('peoples palac'e') when everyone sang the Internationale. I remember the local theatre representative and the poetry circle, and the housewives' league discussing the new pedagogy, the graphic prints from Konstfrämjandet ('art advancement'),and the hullabaloo about the systematic colour scheme and public decorations for the new upper secondary school. We lived in flats or terrace houses owned by the co-operative Riksbyggen ('State construction'), we were (co-operatively) insured with Folksam ('people together'), shopped, of course, at Konsum ('the co-op'), drove a SAAB (50% state-owned), bought petrol at OK (co-operative), subscribed to Vi ('we'), (a co-operative weekly magazine), Morgonbris ('morning breeze'), (social democratic women's league) and Stockholmstidningen ('Stockholm news'), (owned by the labour movement), were members of the Tiden ('The Times'), book club and the Svalans ('the swallow') poetry club, watched performances at the Riksteater ('National Touring Theatre') and listened to music from Rikskonserter ('The Swedish Concert Institute'). My mother's more rebellious temperament resulted in daft hats, buying meat at the private butcher's, and only using old furniture that had been inherited. Our cleaner was a member of the women's club where my mother was chairwoman, with the compromise being that we cleaned the house scrupulously before she came, so that she would not have too much to do.

What is telling is the concern for everyday life, or the intrusion into everyday life, if you will. Every aspect of private life was modernised. Capital and the trade unions negotiated industrial peace in the 'spirit of Saltsjöbaden', which among other things meant that Swedish capital mostly remained private and that Swedish industry was significantly less nationalised than, for example, its French counterpart. The great modern project affected both home and social life. The dominant cultural movements influenced workers' literature, architecture, town planning, design and photography.

"It is an interest and a joy to affirm features of the present day that differ from those of other ages and to fearlessly allow new ideas of form to emerge. Creation out of the time, the urge to be inspired by its bright aspects, its dazzling technical inventions, its freer people are the only thing that has meaning. This interest, this composition with the countenance of the age as its theme, itself sets the demands that we are seeking to meet. We cannot be inspired by the age without feeling a sense of solidarity with it. We must declare ourselves its servants, we must help to resolve its problems." (acceptera, 1930)

The acceptera (
accept) manifesto was written by five architects and an art historian. Keywords are acceptance, the present day, light, dazzling, technology, free, solidarity. But what does it mean to be a servant of the age? Does it mean a modernity that consists in being modern? Does it mean the subordination of the individual to 'the social'?

Hannah Arendt: Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence. This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings. (op.cit. 9)

The present day, the contemporary, becomes a part of the human condition. Everything that is not consonant with modernity is called, using an expression taken from American sociology, a "lagging field".

acceptera, the most important manifesto in Swedish architecture, began by linking the private sphere with the public, by relating research on marriage to architecture. "It is not truth but a capacity for social adaptation that gives a theory power," acceptera claims, and goes on to divide Europe into A-Europe and B-Europe. A-Europe is industrialised and describes a circle whose circumference passes through Stockholm, Glasgow, Budapest and Florence. It is the "Europe of machines, banks, universal education and science." The rest (and note that, for example, half of Sweden is outside the circle) is the Europe of "agrarianism, religious orthodoxy and illiteracy". The conclusion states: "It is a lamentable illusion to believe that artistic culture, and at any rate the production of buildings and household objects, can survive independent of economic, technical and social circumstances. This culture must adapt to A-Europe or become meaningless."

acceptera's architects wanted to build for the working class in the industrialised A-Europe. Changed family relations and shorter working hours open the way to more rational residential solutions, with light, clean and spacious homes, and without superfluous, frowzy, feminine decorativeness (quoted from one of the co-authors, Uno Åhrén). The age is "masculinely healthy", with mass recreations like the cinema and radio. Friendship is cultivated in associations and clubs. The passivation that mass entertainment can bring with it was counteracted with sport. When the new man is not working or listening to the radio, he is doing gymnastics, playing football, scouting, swimming, camping out in nature. In contrast, people who created things themselves (music, art, poetry, conversation) and made their homes into cultural milieux belonged to 'the past'. Unfortunately, sigh the authors of acceptera, there is no place for you in A-Europe. But what is most important is perhaps that the whole structure of the family and the functioning of the home are transformed. This was a result of: a. birth control; b. parents who go out to work as a consequence of a; c. labour-saving devices (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, etc.); d. industrially produced tinned foods and clothing. A totally new type of family is being developed. And along with it a totally new human being. The type triumphs over the individual, write the authors of acceptera. Standardisation is the rational consequence of the type, not "as compulsory uniformity, but accepted as the best way to meet a certain need."

The house of Modernism, or Functionalism as it was known in Sweden, has no back to it. In the new rational world, there was to be no darkness, no thickets where people could hide, no dark, narrow passageways where dirt can be concealed. The world is light, dazzling, active, affirmative. Art that matches this radiant rationality endures. The rest becomes meaningless.

acceptera's message is no different from several other Modernist manifestos from the same period. But this one was put into practice. How was that possible? In totalitarian states like Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union, paradoxically enough, Modernism met with great difficulties, since its programme was seen as far too great an intrusion into private life! In other countries, cultural traditions were far too strong. But in Sweden special circumstances proved to apply.

In the first place, the ground was ready. In the 19th century, Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Reform programmes were needed. At the end of the 19th century, and beginning of the 20th century, They came one after another. Each programme was focused on the labour movement, and more specifically on workers' bodies. Gymnastic and temperance movements spoke of a healthy mind in a healthy body. Hygiene education, which was primarily directed towards women, celebrated a new type of woman, the efficient housewife who aired away the bacteria and let in the sunshine, at the same time as she was encouraged to rationalise and apply time-and-motion studies (!) to household chores. Babies were also made to adapt with strict breast-feeding regimes and "toughening up" with cold rubdowns. The system of values thus already existed: (sun)light, activity, temperance, rationality, simplicity, health. The ideal milieu was the sanatorium.

At the same time, the labour movement built up an extensive system of club activities, with mobile lending libraries, amateur theatre, reading circles, all part of trade-union work. People read Tolstoy, Kropotkin, Rousseau, Ellen Key, Georg Brandes, with their radical calls for the creation of a new world. In order to be able to hold their own against their employers, people learnt argumentation techniques and the rules of order for meetings. To avoid being fleeced by tradesmen, they built up their own consumer co-operatives. Many took courses in Esperanto, the new, rational language. The folk high schools, which existed (and still exist) throughout the Nordic countries, gave young adults the competencies they had not acquired in the, more often than not, inadequate schools. The labour movement, of course, had its own folk high school. Many others were run by the Free Church, or belonged to the temperance movement. Here, beauty meant simplicity, order, light - enlightenment. An entire nation was reared on democratic socialism, long before the social democrats took over the reigns of power.
Tolstoy, Kropotkin, Rousseau, Key - all of them shaped the utopian visions of a new world founded on equality, cooperation and harmony with nature. How could the labour movement be brought to embrace acceptera's unconditional endorsement of industrialism? How could forests, parks and gardens become 'open, green spaces'? How could people not only accept, but also eagerly speed up the demolition of the vast majority of the old Swedish town centres, so that Sweden, despite never having been bombed, got the newest building stock in Europe?

In early-1930s Stockholm, a group of young radicals architects meet some equally young and radical social-democratic economists and party heads. The co-operative organisations have already been developed, among them the KF (co-operative movement) design office and Riksbyggen. They gathered at the home of the Myrdals, a couple who had recently returned from a grand educational tour of the radical USA, where they met a number of important sociologists. Gunnar Myrdal, later winner of a Nobel Prize for economics, was a brilliant young social-democratic economist; Alva Myrdal, who later received the Nobel Peace Prize, an equally brilliant social psychologist with special interest in architecture and design. The group also included the leading social-democratic ideologue, Ernst Wigforss. It is no exaggeration to say that this little group - acceptera's authors, the Myrdals, Wigforss, who was also an editor at Tidens förlag (
'The Times publishers') where all the working-class authors were published - devised the entire welfare-state ideology and provided the labour movement with a thoroughgoing Modernist programme. Politicians, economists, architects, educationists, sociologists met. Power and ideas met. Alva and Gunnar Myrdal also proved to be brilliant politicians, and made Modernism into a solution to classic conservative questions like the continued existence of the family.

The year 1935 saw the publication of their immensely influential book, Kris i befolkningsfrågan (The Crisis in the Population Question). The background to this was alarming reports that Swedes produce too few children. The reasons were primarily economic. Alva and Gunnar Myrdal propagandised for families with 3-5 children. For this to happen, the family had to adhere to the same principles of efficiency as the rest of industrial society. They recommended sterilisation of those who were presumed to offer their offspring an "obviously inappropriate environment for bringing up children", along with, later on, positive racial hygiene, whereby outstanding individuals, in particular, were encouraged to have more children. They also recommended compulsory sex education from pre-school age, along with a general matter-of-factness and directness in sexual matters, since sexuality is not a private concern. For this reason, the population's sexual habits must be reshaped to produce "individual and social harmony". Consequently, they - and their ideas were followed up by Morgonbris - promoted a new culture of the body, in which the naked body was true, healthy, pure, trim, as free of decoration as Modernist buildings and household goods. "Our restless age does not have the same space as previously for voluminous, nervous, impatient people. Action is the watchword of the age, and what we need are youthful, vigorous, energetic men and women," said Morgonbris in 1933. Obesity becomes something subversive.
The modern human being's modern body and modern sexuality produce children who are brought up in the modern way. The Myrdals propagandised for kindergartens, 'barnkammare' (nurseries), not just so that both parents would be able to work outside the home, but primarily so that the children would be raised in the modern way. Their food is to be nutritionally correct, their bodies are to be healthy as a result of "fresh air and regular repose". They learn to adapt to the group, and their actions become socially correct, partly because they only play with pedagogically correct toys. Children are checked, both physically and mentally, by specially trained doctors.
All schools have a doctor who is to: "monitor all symptoms of disease and maladjustment, or refer to the appropriate hospital all cases that he lacks either the time or the ability to cure himself." The system is to be an integrated one, and doctors should also be trained in social hygiene and child psychology. Hygiene no longer applies only to bodily cleanliness, but also to the mind - and to society. In place of morning prayers, a "daily morning check [...] on the children's state of health" is to be introduced. (A. Myrdal, Stadsbarn (
'the urban child'), 1934) Faith in God, as we saw in acceptera, was antiquated, an example of a "cultural lag".

In this context, the modern building, the 'slab-blocks' of flats without embellishment, and the modern home, with its separate sleeping compartments for all family members, and its laboratory kitchen, were taken as self-evident. Jan Myrdal, the Myrdal's son (they, of course, had three children, and separate bedrooms, but with a common workroom) describes his room: "the sleeping compartments were intended only for sleep and had exactly the number of cubic metres of air that sufficed for hygienic sleep. In addition, they were ventilated by special window constructions. My sleeping compartment was functionally furnished. When you pushed open the thick door, which was sound-proofed with a grey felt rug in the middle, it opened with a loud click? The door swung open with precision. But the bed was supposed to be folded up against the wall during the day? I had no curtains. Curtains were old-fashioned...The floor was coated with a grey substance that went a decimetre up the exterior walls and up the wall of the living room, so that it would be easy to mop? From the ceiling hung a large globe of matt-white glass that cast light without shadows."

Light without shadows. In the main, all of Alva and Gunnar Myrdal's proposals were carried out. Opinions were moulded in line with these proposals using the radio: "An instrument of propaganda as powerful as the radio cannot remain unused."; "There is ample scope for propaganda for an altered mentality in terms of ideals and demands, for the duty to subordinate personal quirks to the demands of the family and sexual ethics, for the duty to contribute to the maintenance of the nation."; "Bad habits must be put right, the foolish must be educated, the irresponsible awoken. There is room here for comprehensive, societally organised popular education and propaganda action, which if it is to be put to use where it is most needed, must be intense and imperative, and seek to make use of every sort of channel of contact to parents, who might otherwise have only a tenuous connection with the external social world." (Kris i befolkningsfrågan)

In 1936, Per Albin Hansson, the social-democratic Prime Minister who coined the concept of the 'Folkhemmet', moved into a functionalist house designed by the acceptera architect Uno Ahrén. (Per Albin took the tram to work, a habit adopted by many Swedish social-democratic Prime Ministers.) Modernism, or Functionalism, became accepted on virtually every front throughout society. The labour movement had acquiesced. Mondrian's "new man" who was to emerge in place of the old one, who gave himself over to morbid fantasies (and, among other things, liked landscape art), was now to emerge in Sweden.

But what about dialogue, dialogues?

Hannah Arendt: "What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved, or at least not primarily, but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them. The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible." (op cit. 52-53)

The social is not the public, according to Arendt. On the contrary. The social enters the picture when there is no longer a boundary between private and public. The social is the private state of affairs, the family and the household, expanded to apply to society. For Arendt, the public realm means dialogue, politics and art, religion and science, like a table that relates and separates men at the same time, and "prevents our falling over each other".

It is symptomatic that the places in a town that have traditionally been public - squares, cafés, street corners - vanish in functionalist town planning. The town is now designed for circulation, not for meeting. The eight gigantic skyscrapers that Le Corbusier proposed to replace the old Södermalm quarter of Stockholm (the proposal was never carried out) were to be surrounded by open, green space.

Modernism, as it was put into practice in Sweden, meant activity and organisation within in an equal society. All of life was to be divided into functions. In 1936, the world's first leisure-activity exhibition opened in Ystad in southern Sweden. Something had to be done with the newly won vacations that the trade unions had negotiated. They should not be squandered. Leisure time was becoming "one of the most important individual and social problems of our age". (A&G Myrdal, Kris i befolkningsfrågan) Manual workers and clerks should not "fritter away" the time on pointless pleasure and debauchery, but should use the time for sport, hobbies (for example, various kinds of collecting) or further education. The new, healthy human being was to be fostered into existence. He was not to be inactive for a second - and, strangely enough, it did not occur to these social-democratic architects of the Folkhemmet that he might devote himself, for instance, to politics, or to culture in the traditional sense. It is perfectly sufficient if the collection consists of beer labels or butterflies. When Konstfrämjandet was set up at the end of the 1940s, and the groundbreaking art education for children arrived at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm at the beginning of the 1960s, it was the 1930s active leisure time with its collector principle and focus on further education that was taken as a model, along with its concern for children as the future improvers of society.

acceptera's architects all get jobs at the KF design office, the biggest architects' practice and, as we saw, co-operative. The gigantic task of re-building Sweden into a functionalist paradise was thus set in motion. In a parallel way, the Svensk Slöjdförening (
Swedish handicraft and design association) held (and still holds) model home exhibitions. The KF-owned porcelain factory, Gustafsberg, produced functional kitchen utensils. Other co-operative enterprises produced virtually everything for the home, from margarine to vacuum cleaners. The first block of service flats was built in Stockholm in 1936. It was designed by Alva Myrdal and Sven Markelius, and was intended for working women, either single or with children, but those who came to live in it were from the higher echelons of the new social-democrat intelligentsia. According to a contemporary commentator, the entire social-democratic cultural and political elite would vanish if the house were blown up!
So, on the one hand, control from the top without parallel, especially in aesthetic and family-policy questions, on the other hand, the large, growing labour movement with its totally different traditions. Control from the top won. It was not until the 1970s that we heard talk of folk culture or even worker culture, and this from 1968 radicals who usually came from upper-middle-class homes.

At the same time, the period and the sheer grandiosity of the project are fascinating. The working-class author Ivar Lo-Johansson described the feeling of seeing the Stockholm Exhibition 1930; the great architectural exhibition to which acceptera made a major contribution. He walked and drove along the main street. "Around me in the crowd there was talk of the new architecture that would create a new feeling for life. A door handle, a picture window, a practical piece of furniture, would soon influence the family that lived in the house, so that their feelings and thoughts would be open, transparently clear? I translated the language of the architecture directly into that of literature. I walked and looked around me for the new human being."

Did such an open human being actually need art? Did such an active person have time to be bored? Did such a social human being have a need for any form of communication other than lucid conversation? Was the beauty of nature not the only true one?
And was there actually any public arena, any platform, where art could be discussed?

The functionalist architects were not especially enamoured of art. That was why architectural training was moved from the art academies to the technical high schools, and was linked up with the education of engineers. The town as a work of art was seen as being an outright dangerous concept, since the town "is not something that is eternally, statically beautiful like a sculpture or painting." This implicitly revealed the conception of art they actually held. When Modernism in the visual arts gained acceptance in the 1950s, it was primarily as public decorations. In the 1960s, the one-percent rule was introduced, which decreed that one percent of the construction costs of public buildings should be used for "artistic decoration".

The attitude of social democracy to the visual arts was either indifference or outright suspicion, with the exception of support for the Moderna Museet and its dynamic leader, Pontus Hultén in the 1960s. Art was conceived of as a 'lagging field' It could not properly be fitted into the rational, transparent, dazzling new world that the social democrats were planning. acceptera's authors located it outside the modern project: "We see many fumbling attempts to achieve a new art to accompany modern architecture. But we are still wondering whether it will lead anywhere [...] A full, rich modern art in contrast to modern architecture?"

Art was thus placed in opposition to the new. Art ended up outside of society, and took on the role of the Other to a much greater extent than those things that traditionally tend to be given the role of being outside: nature and women. Despite support for public art, art acquires the stamp of something private, it comes to bear the longing for darkness that is a natural consequence of a society as see-through and as enlightened as the Swedish Folkhemmet. There are an unusually large number of mad geniuses in Swedish (and Nordic) art! In the 1950s, there were even a number of books published, some of them written by senior physicians who had art as a hobby, about the very phenomenon of visual art being a symptom of mental illness. On the other hand, the practise of visual art, especially from the 1970s onwards, has also been seen as something that cures mental diseases and, above all, schizophrenia. Thus, art too becomes 'useful', although it still does not take up its place in public dialogue, but becomes 'therapy'.
It was not until postmodernism's critique of the Modern project and the dissolution of the welfare state in the 1980s and '90s that the visual arts gained a real place in Swedish society. But, even now, questions are asked about art's right to exist in terms of usefulness and popular appeal - does art reach the general public? Is it elitist? Is it high quality? Is it 'good'?

A memory from childhood: my mother takes over of my abjectly poor great aunt's few possessions. Among them were her confirmation psalm book. There were poems stuck between the pages. She lived a miserable existence, exploited in every way as housekeeper to a miserly old farmer. And cut poems out of the daily papers.

I believe that art causes us to recognise that someone else is experiencing and thinking in the world - and that art in that sense can never be totally contemporary, but, on the contrary, points to a possibility other than that which the immediate social one can offer. Art can be a shared secret. That is why it was not given a place in a Folkhem that was to a great extent built up around the rationality of the Enlightenment, and the notion of fluid boundaries between the private and the public. Art did not belong in the daylight-bright Folkhemmet, since it was conceived of as "morbidly sensitive and emasculated". For the age was masculinely healthy.

And yet, how could the idealistically tinged, rather romantic labour movement, with its ideal of popular education, be swallowed up to such an extent by the project of Modernism? Because the propaganda claimed that this was the only navigable route for achieving an equal society. Because the architects of Modernism were also industrialists - it was quick and cheap to build a modern Folkhem. And because Modernism was associated with purity, health, rationality, clarity. Because it was a triumph for the poor and downtrodden to be able to take over the reigns of power and set the agenda, with a totally new language of form to back them, one that matched the conviction that the country belonged to everyone, and should be built for the benefit of all.

We go out for a swim. My father drives the car. He knowingly drives up a road that says "private", down to the sea. Once we are lying in the sun on the rocks, an angry landowner appears. My father apologises for our wearing out the cliffs - and he stays put. The landowner slinks off. He knows my father is in the right. The Social Democrats have brought in 'everyman's right' of access to private land.

And today? The remnants of the aesthetic utopia of the Folkhemmet are administered by IKEA, the multi-million company that is still one-hundred-percent controlled by the rich landowner's son and former Nazi, Ingvar Kamprad. It has wholeheartedly taken over the rhetoric of the authors of the Folkhemmet, right down to the slightest patronising tone of voice, and is exporting the idea throughout Europe. In this year's IKEA catalogue, we can see model homes for the new family, "father and I", or "he did the kitchen, since he's the one who makes the food." From the same catalogue, we can also buy art, complete with frames and stretchers, very cheaply. Good art, Cezanne and Kandinsky in reproduction. As a parody of popular education, it is not bad.

And the real wielders of power are those who once again speak in the name of historical necessity, those who control the workings of the means of production: the computer engineers. They are experts, they are not a part of the political arena, they remain invisible. As Hannah Arendt predicted.

The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt, The University Of Chicago Press, 1958.

Translater, Mike Garner.

The article has been published in the very first number of the British magazine Afterall.