Thoughts on the destruction of Frederik V statue in Copenhagen

A few months ago, a group of artists stole a bust of King Frederick V from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and dumped it into Copenhagen Harbor. By the time the statue was found, it was ruined beyond repair, its head and neck eaten away by the water.

Frederick’s crime? Ruling over a country that had colonies and participated in the slave trade and sugar trade. At the time of Frederick’s rule (from 1746-1766), Denmark had several colonies, including the Danish West Indies, Greenland, Faroe Islands, Iceland, and minor outposts in India and Ghana. Denmark abolished the slave trade in 1792 and ceded most of its colonies by the 20th century. 

According to a New York Times article, the group said in a statement: “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.” They added that they wanted to demonstrate solidarity with people affected by colonialism and to spark dialogue with Denmark’s institutions. Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld, a professor at the academy, was fired for her role in the statue’s destruction. According to the Times, she said that she “hoped to trigger a broader reflection on cultural institutions’ role during the colonial period” and to draw attention to existing laws that some people consider to be “harsh and discriminatory.”

People have every right to hold and express any opinions they wish about colonialism, slavery, discrimination, or any other topic. But to steal and destroy a work of art is never OK. It is the ultimate in arrogance to presume that your beliefs give you the right to steal and destroy the property of others, particularly when the property in question is a beautiful and irreplaceable statue. Destroying a work of art is an act of aggression, not only against the institution or individual that owns it but also against the artist whose skills and hard work created it and anyone in the world who loves and admires it. Aggressing against others is not an acceptable way of starting a dialogue with them or inspiring reflection. It is ironic that this act of vandalism was motivated by a desire to protest against harsh and discriminatory laws. In my opinion, destroying a work of art is one of the harshest actions someone could take, and it is also discriminatory against people who do not share your beliefs.

The Academy Council, which owned the bust, condemned its destruction and implored people not to impose the norms of the present on people from the past. An opinion piece in the Danish newspaper Berlingske wrote: “The methods of identity politics are intolerance, exclusion, cancel culture, and physical destruction.” It described the mindset as “nothing must be left, everything existing must be leveled.”

This is 100% correct. Hypocritically, it is the people who profess to value tolerance and inclusion who are the most exclusive and intolerant. It is the people who profess to value kindness, justice, and human decency who perpetrate vicious acts of destruction against those with whom they disagree. 

Art history professor Mathias Danbolt, according to the NYT article, criticized people who use “the logic of deflection” and complained that “the scandal is never about the visual, political or cultural history of colonialism” but instead about the destruction of the statues. I disagree with his take. The destruction of statues and other priceless works of art is the real problem. To treat it as such is not deflection, but recognition of how truly heinous and atrocious it is. History contains a nearly infinite number of people and events, some good, some bad, some just, some unjust, and some in between. In my opinion, no event in history compares in brutality, injustice, and sheer awfulness to the statue genocide perpetrated during 2020 and 2021. Most people likely disagree with me on this. If you consider colonialism and slavery to be bigger problems than statue genocide, you have a right to your opinions, but I have a right to mine as well. It is not deflection to have a different opinion about which injustices are the most worthy of criticism and condemnation.