Applicant for art professorship excluded on political grounds: failed to be “norm critical”

If you are considering a future professorship at the prestigious Swedish University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, you should already start thinking about the political direction of your work. This is signaled by a recent appointment of a professorship in visual communication. One applicant, who is already a professor in the subject in Germany, was deemed not sufficiently “norm critical” for the position. ARW warns for the politicization resulting from the University’s policy to require norm criticism, in a narrow sense, from applicants to academic positions, which favors candidates with a certain political orientation.

One might have expected that a professorship in “visual communication, specializing in illustration and visual storytelling” at the University of Arts, Crafts and Design, Sweden’s largest and most prestigious state-owned art school, would go to an applicant who is good at illustration and has the necessary pedagogical qualifications for teaching this subject to others.

But apparently it is not that simple, for the Swedish announcement (our translations throughout) also requires “documented extensive experience of a norm creative practice (to through practice explore and make visible structural power relations)”.  The term is explained as follows: “[n]orm creativity summarizes that acting which aims at translating norm critical analysis into practice.” (The English announcement for the same position curiously does not mention norm creativity.)

Yet perhaps the three external reviewers are wise enough to ignore the seemingly irrelevant requirement of having a norm creative perspective? In fact, rather the opposite is true: in the assessments, this is given considerable attention—about as much as the requirement to be able to illustrate and teach this ability.

Several applicants are thus praised for their norm critical practice. Here, it must be remembered that both the University of Art, Crafts and Design and the external reviewers understand this term in peculiar narrow sense, as concerning criticisms of particular power structures and not others (e.g., not female power structures, which are excluded by definition, or the University of Art, Crafts and Design might risk itself coming under scrutiny; see below).

The foreign reviewer highlights, regarding one of the applicants:

Her work comes from a norm critical approach, which means a sustained, rigorous critique of cultures, systems and institutions that marginalize, oppress and enact violence upon a range of subjects occupying subaltern socio-political positions.

Regarding the applicant who recently got the position, Sara Teleman, the reviewer approvingly states:

Teleman works from a feminist and political perspective, with attention to visibility in terms of race, ability and religious identity … she understands an analysis of power and its distribution is central to a norm critical perspective.

Also, a Swedish reviewer gives Teleman praise for her normative work and not least for the as ideologically appropriate considered motives for her drawings:

In her illustrations, Sara Teleman works very much with visibility, both in terms of skin color, function variations and religious affiliation.

Here it becomes clear that norm criticism includes not only a feminist position but also what is commonly called identity politics, i.e. the highlighting of a person’s ethnicity or other group affiliation as particularly relevant and interesting. Ideologically, this is well in line with current Swedish government policy, in particular that of the Green Party, but hardly at all with various conservative political affiliations, which by definition emphasize the value of preserving existing norms, unless there are strong reasons to believe that they need to change. The class of conservative norm critics is likely to be empty.

Anyhow, with such convincing norm critical merits, it can apparently be taken lightly that Teleman, as the other reviewers express it, “may not have an internationally recognized artistry” and “does not seem to have a professional network outside of Sweden,” respectively.

For other applicants, the suspicion that the intended norm critical perspective may be lacking effectively excludes the person from the position. The foreign reviewer writes about a male applicant:

However, his rather brief address to the specifics of the job criteria are slight and insufficient, and reveals a lack of theoretical, intellectual consideration for what norm criticism, or norm creativity, could mean. His claim that his work is ‘gender neutral’ and that ‘gender, religion and race often take focus away from the content of an illustration’, show this lack of consideration, as it is a basic tenet of a norm critical perspective that the aesthetic is never separable from the political, and that art is never neutral. His own art, while merry and full of life, owes much to African sculpture, and the primitivist school of art. This in itself could be read in relation to European colonialism and the Swedish myth of neutrality.

It is thus negative for an applicant for a professorship in illustration to have produced something that can be understood as supporting “the Swedish myth of neutrality”. (Anyone who knows what that means?)

One applicant, Samuel Nyholm, stands out as he already holds a professorship in the same subject in Germany, and might therefore reasonably be considered one of the main candidates for the position.

However, Nyholm’s in this context impressive artistic and educational qualifications utterly fail to convince the foreign reviewer:

While his artwork seems to play with ideas of high and low art, none of the work he includes with his application presents as having a norm critical conceptual basis.

Even worse, Nyholm is guilty of having drawn naked women:

I found some of it to not be challenging at all, but to include rather standard images, such as in his array of traditionally rendered naked and eroticized women. The choice to depict women this way strikes me as nostalgic, rather than critical.

The bottom line is that Nyholm from an ideological point of view has chosen the wrong motives for his drawings and must therefore be disqualified—notwithstanding his extensive artistic and educational merits. The same reviewer fails to mention that Nyholm is already a full professor in the subject.

A Swedish reviewer also remarks on Nyholm’s, as she sees it, suspiciously ambiguous relationship to norm criticism, in the prescribed sense:

Samuel Nyholm takes a positive attitude towards the norm creative part of the program, while parts of his work go in the opposite direction, through (ironic) reproduction of racist stereotypes.

Again: Nyholm may be good at illustrating, but he is, ideologically and politically, insufficiently orthodox to qualify for a professorship at the University of Arts, Crafs and Design.

There is another peculiarity worth noting. In the University of Art, Crafts and Design’s internal rules, the following it is stated that “[b]oth women and men should be represented among the reviewers unless there are very strong reasons against this”. But in this case, the reviewers consisted exclusively of women. How come? We have not heard of any “very strong reasons” to disregard the instructions in the statute. An applicant who ARW has been in contact with was also unaware of any such reasons. Hence, there is indication that the University violated its own internal regulations on this point. In this context, it is relevant to note that only female applicants were called for an interview.

ARW has in several postings on our Swedish website criticized Stockholm’s artistic universities and colleges, including the University of Art, Crafts and Design, for conflict of interest and for favoring mainly female applicants to professorships. Recently, Uniarts (Stockholm University of the Arts) appointed a female professor (without a PhD), without any expert assessment at all. In that case, too, internal statutes were violated, which was noted by ARW as well as by The Higher Education Appeals Board, a state unit under the Higher Education Authority. In a post we observed that “[v]irtually the entire academic leadership [of Uniarts] now consists of women without PhD’s.”

It would be unfortunate if the impression arose that the University of Art, Crafts and Design is attempting to improperly favor female applicants by violating those parts of the internal regulatory framework that are there precisely to prevent irrelevant considerations from entering into the hiring process.

Nor does it give a good impression that the selected candidate for the present position has a close affiliation with the University of Arts, Crafts and Design, where she has both studied and taught.

To make matters worse, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Art, Crafts and Design, Maria Lantz, has recently stated, on the University’s homepage, that “[i]n terms of new recruitments, knowledge of norm criticism/intersectional perspectives is something we have as a requirement in order to be employed as a lecturer or professor,” adding that “[w]e will focus on this even more.”

Rules requiring norm creativity in order to become lecturer or professor are in our view unconstitutional as they violate the constitutional requirement that state hiring should be based exclusively on objective grounds (ch. 12, § 5, in the Instrument of Government). ARW has therefore filed a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsmen (JO) regarding the case.

The reader can make the experiment to replace “norm criticism” with “Marxism-Leninism” and “norm creatively” with “revolutionary” throughout in the advertisement of the present position and the reviewer assessments. The result is very similar to recruitment criteria for positions in the former Soviet Union or GDR.

Regardless of what one may think of norm criticism in the narrow sense, it is surely unfortunate if a university is politicized to the extent that a certain ideological perspective becomes the only one possible. This will result in the university becoming an intellectual echo chamber—contrary to the ideals of openness and free exploration of ideas that higher education stands for. Norm criticism is itself a norm subjectable to critical examination.