Art & Democracy: A double-edged sword

Art & Democracy: A double-edged sword. Image Credit: Zachary Brown

Jon Catlin

Jon Catlin is a first-year at the University of Chicago studying great books and the humanities. He’s primarily interested in philosophy as it relates to happiness, Holocaust studies, religion, human rights, and other ethical questions. Jon spends his time exploring libraries, teaching young people philosophy, and taking long jogs on the Chicago lakeshore.

You may have noticed that the series title has changed for this piece from “Modern Art” to “Art and Democracy.” As I wrote the second article, I began to reconsider my framework for the series. I honestly don’t think I understood when I first started writing how political in nature my ideas were because I failed to see the distinction between the art itself and the space into which it was absorbed. Additionally, as I’ve said, I’m no art historian or theorist, and I don’t want the title to give that impression. The new title, “Art and Democracy,” accurately reflects what I wanted this series to do from the beginning: to see art as an arena in which important political and cultural issues both arise and take their shapes.

Inspired by “Bodies Covered and Exposed: Feminist Reflections on Choice in the 21st Century,” a lecture by Leora Auslander, Professor of Modern European Social History and founding Director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Chicago

Issues of freedom, expression, and immigration have drawn serious international attention in Europe over the past several years. Muslim women have been the foremost targets of nationalist campaigns for the liberation of women from “oppressive” head-scarves and other religious clothing. Now, just as Muslim women are testing whether democracy will defend their rights to free expression, opponents are pushing back on those limits in the opposite direction with offensive, extremist propaganda. Religious, ethnic, and ideological pluralism has stretched formerly homogenous democracies to their limits. This confrontation has, in turn, awoken a sleeping dragon of legal and ethical questions that democracies at large will be forced to reckon with for many years to come.

In my last article, I advocated the artwork of Czech sculptor David Černý for rustling the political atmosphere with “hooliganism”—what I believe is a triumph of free expression at its best. However, we will see that art isn’t always fun and games. Propaganda, a form of art first mastered by totalitarian governments in the early-to-mid twentieth century, is alive and well in many parts of the world. This article will investigate a recent series of controversial public advertisements from the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), a nationalist-conservative political party in Switzerland.

The SVP holds as founding tenets what in any other country might be considered “fringe” political ideas: blatantly xenophobic opinions, anti-immigration policies, and anti–muslim sentiments. Yet, the SVP has only intensified its Swiss-nationalist campaign in recent years. In 1999, the SVP became the largest party in the Swiss Federal Assembly, a position it holds today with nearly 30% of parliamentary seats [1].

This poster was the first of many put up in bus stops, on billboards, and in print advertisement by the SVP in 2007, prior to a public referendum on immigration policy. The print on the poster reads “for more security,” alluding to an amendment the SVP backed that has accordingly become known as the “black sheep campaign” [2].

The amendment is in response to growing crime in Switzerland, a problem that many have attributed to increased immigration since Switzerland opened its borders to foreigners from across the European Union. Time Magazine reported, “According to the Federal Statistics Office, juvenile convictions surged from 2,000 in 1999 to 14,106 in 2005” [2].

The Swiss considered joining the European Union, but a 1992 public referendum proposing the change failed and has not been reconsidered since. Nevertheless, the EU states that surround Switzerland all practice open-border policies that allow free movement of labor between member states. Though Swiss borders have long been open to citizens of Western European nations, the number of immigrants from Balkan states and Eastern Europe has increased dramatically in recent years due to the major expansion of the EU to include many Eastern European and Balkan nations in 2004 [3].

The amendment in question would allow the Swiss government to deport any immigrants who have been convicted of a crime in the country as soon as their prison sentences have been served. A further amendment would have their families deported as well. The most recent version of the amendment calls for Switzerland withdrawing entirely from the current bilateral agreements with the EU that allow for the free movement of labor in the EU [1]. The SVP claims to currently have the 100,000 signatures necessary for the amendment to be voted upon by public referendum.

The SVP also backed a ban on the construction of new minarets (common fixtures on mosques, comparable to church steeples) in Switzerland, which was passed by public referendum in November 2009 with 57.5 percent of the vote [4]. The poster reads “Stop. Yes to the minaret ban,” and portrays missile-like minarets over a Swiss flag, joined by a woman wearing a Niqab conveniently the same negative color as the missiles. The poster is almost laughable when compared to actual minarets in Switzerland. The minaret at Wangen bei Olten began the controversy. As you can see, it is a small decorative structure protruding from a normal roof, while a church steeple towers over it on the skyline.

Minarets at existing mosques are not effected by the legislation, but the implications of the ban on religious freedom are tremendous. Many government officials have expressed deep concern and regret over the law, which they think is inherently unconstitutional, as it violates religious freedom. The Swiss Federal Commission Against Racism said in a press release that the poster was “tantamount to the denigration and defamation of the peaceful Swiss Muslim population” [5]. Proponents of the bill have responded that “minarets are not buildings with a religious character. Rather, they are a sign of political domination and the power of Islam” [6].

Since the passage of the legislation, several other European nations have proposed similar bans on minarets. One official from Belgium reflected what seems to be a common sentiment among European nationalists: “[the ban] is a signal that [Muslims] have to adapt to our way of life and not the other way around” [7]. So much for pluralism.

The final image is also a production of SVP and was the centerpiece of the lecture on women’s clothing choices that this article is based on. The image is constructed as a before and after–or rather, a before and what-will-be-if-we-allow-immigration-to-continue. I personally interpret the ad to roughly say, “unless we ban immigration, what was once an all-white state in which beautiful Swiss women could bathe naked in Lake Zurich, will turn into a state full of Muslim hags who dirty our water.” The Swiss women in the top image also craftily illustrate the extent of diversity the SVP thinks permissible: blondes, brunettes, and red-heads. This propaganda campaign is so clearly racially motivated that it led many to begin calling the SVP the “Swiss Nazis.”

The image indirectly references the head-scarf controversy that ran through Europe years earlier. The so-called “scarf affair” began when several Muslim girls were expelled from French public school in October 1989 for, as the school principal claimed, not reflecting the school’s secular values. Hundreds of girls were suspended from French public schools for wearing the hijab (Muslim head-scarf), most of whom were allowed to return to school by French courts. After years of controversy, a March 2004 law ushered through the French Parliament by then-President Jacques Chirac prohibited the “ostentatious” display of all religious symbols in French public schools on the grounds that the public school experience should be entirely secular.

In her lecture, Leora Auslander considered this question of choice for Muslim women in the context of these widely-held European nationalist (i.e. pro-white) sentiments. Many vocal European leaders consider the hijab a violation of a woman’s right to free expression, since it is assumed that they are forced to wear it by their religious communities. Seen from this angle, the hijab is a symbol of oppression and misogyny that has no place in a democratic society. Auslander strongly defended the opposing idea that wearing the hijab is part of a personal religious journey for women and reflects their autonomy. Muslim women she has interviewed claim that the hijab, if merely imposed on them by men, would have no religious significance. It has to be worn freely, and they claim that it is.

Auslander took further issue with the claim that wearing the hijab is “never a free choice,” since no human beings exist in a cultural vacuum. She said, “this popular objection fails because it rests on the liberal view of the self as completely ‘free,’ which of course we never really are–there is no escaping culture.” Citing a parallel in European culture that has seemingly not caused any distress, Auslander rhetorically asked, “Why haven’t Christian nuns gotten the same treatment? Aren’t nun’s habits even more restrictive than the hijab?” She continued this line of questioning even further. “Why does our society say that a woman in a hijab can’t also be a feminist? It’s just illogical.”

To tie this back to the series theme of modern art, I hope considering several widely-distributed and widely-successful SVP propaganda images calls into question the limits of free speech. There’s an added layer of significance to the ads being run in Switzerland, a country that passes laws by popular vote (public referendum), rather than a representative system like the U.S. Congress.

Ivan Ureta called the SVP’s propaganda tactics “a blatant abuse of direct democracy” in an article for, and I strongly agree with him [8]. I would also consider the SVP’s work a problematic case of free speech because it grossly exaggerates the problem and numbers of foreigners in the nation. Insofar as they rely on gut feelings of disgust and fear, the SVP’s public advertisements are merely hateful pieces of propaganda rather than constructive and peaceful contributions to political discourse. Furthermore, there are no visible pro-minority groups with the millions of dollars necessary to counter the SVP’s campaign and set the facts straight.

Since these images affect the voters directly, they contribute to a climate of hatred that doesn’t accommodate minority voices. Moreover, direct democracies like that in Switzerland exclude the voices of legal scholars and government officials who can knowledgeably appraise whether the law is permitted by the Swiss constitution. In this case, the Swiss people used direct democracy to re-write their constitution against the wishes of the Swiss Federal Council. By this system, the Swiss can essentially vote any ethnic minority or religious group out of existence on the grounds that it increases crime or damages national unity. Sound dangerous? It is.

Perhaps the joke about the Swiss carrying on the Nazi legacy isn’t so far off, as thus far the resulting policies have been in the same racist vein. Most disturbingly, this discrimination is being advanced by the Swiss people themselves rather than a dictator. This time, there will be no one to point fingers at when this problem, if left uncorrected, inevitably leads to hate-crimes or more serious discrimination.

Democracy–especially direct democracy–has its costs. I live in a nation where free speech is vigorously defended. Discussing free speech more broadly, legal scholar Martha Nussbaum referenced the fact that the American Civil Liberties Union successfully defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, IL (a highly Jewish community) in 1977 before the Supreme Court [9]. Yet, in Germany, any form of anti-semitism is illegal to this day. Nussbaum concluded on these examples, “I actually think both laws are right, given the nations’ different histories and traditions” [10]. Beyond right or wrong, Nussbaum sees a third option of “legal relativism” as a potentially valid option, though she would likely take issue with the SVP campaign in that it stifles democratic discourse and minority rights. I can’t speak for the people of Switzerland, but it seems that direct-democracy has unknowingly–or perhaps terrifyingly openly–pulled up its very own roots.

In any age, art, harmless as it may seem, has the potential to be used in dangerous ways. Paradoxically, it’s both an outlet for freedom and a tool used, as in the case of SVP propaganda, to destroy freedom. Whether we know it or not, we’re handling a double-edged sword.


[1] Swiss far-right party on course for record-breaking election win—
[2] Bye-Bye, Black Sheep—Time
[3] A decade of further expansion—
[4] Minaret result seen as “turning point”—Swiss Info
[5] Zurich allows anti-minaret poster—BBC News
[6] Bundesrat: Minarett-Initiative widerspricht Verfassung—SR DRS
[7] Switzerland: Minaret Ban Violates Rights—Human Rights Watch
[8] Abusing the Swiss system of direct democracy: the Swiss People’s Party aims to stop “mass immigration”—Open Democracy
[9] National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie—Wikipedia