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Is the ‘arm’s length’ principle for the arts in Sweden at risk of amputation? 

Paul O'Mahony
Paul O'Mahony - [email protected]
Is the ‘arm’s length’ principle for the arts in Sweden at risk of amputation? 
Anna Troberg, chairman of the DIK trade union for arts sector workers. Photo: Alexander Donka

Sweden’s government has said it wants to develop a cultural canon to forge a greater sense of community and collective identity, but the idea has met with stiff opposition from arts sector representatives who worry that the long-held principle of keeping culture at arm’s length from politicians is under threat. 


The Tidö agreement between the three governing parties and the far-right Sweden Democrats says that experts tasked with developing the canon would have “artistic competence in their respective fields”, and would develop a canon that included “different cultural forms”.

Explaining the rationale for the plan in his government declaration, the Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said: “Culture and our shared history are the basis of our collective identity. They create cohesion and enhance our mutual understanding.”


The government says it will await the results of an inquiry before deciding how to use the canon, but Culture Minister Parisa Liljestrand has not ruled out making it part of a future citizenship test.

Among producers of culture and arts sector officials the plan is deeply controversial. Speaking on The Local’s Sweden in Focus podcast, Anna Troberg, the head of the culture sector trade union DIK, said a state-mandated cultural canon represented a threat to the ‘arm’s length principle’ in the cultural sphere.

In existence for more than 50 years in Sweden, this principle underpins a system in which funding mechanisms for the arts allow politicians to oversee the framework without meddling in day to day cultural life. 

Anna Troberg worried that if the government created a canon and made its use compulsory in schools, libraries or museums, “then they are in effect amputating this arm. Politicians are suddenly deciding what culture people should have access to.” 

Hear Anna Troberg discuss the cultural canon plan with our panelists on Sweden in Focus

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Two events this week led to more debate about the arm’s length principle. In Trelleborg, a library canceled a planned story time event featuring two drag queens after a local Sweden Democrat politician complained (although the town’s cultural affairs committee later overturned the decision), and in Gävleborg the Sweden Democrat regional chairman put a stop to a college’s planned St. Lucia procession on learning that the person the college had chosen as Lucia identified as non-binary.

The culture minister rushed to defend the idea that politicians should keep their distance. Speaking to public broadcaster SVT after the Sweden Democrat intervention in Trelleborg, she said: “It’s crystal clear in the Tidö agreement that the principle of keeping an arm’s length to culture will be maintained.” 

The Sweden Democrat member of parliament Björn Söder welcomed the intervention. Writing on Twitter he said: “The left’s argument about an arm’s length to culture is based on the left having been allowed to dominate the culture sector for decades.”

For Anna Troberg, Söder’s comment would have come as no surprise. She referenced a study carried out recently by DIK of the eight parliamentary parties’ culture policies. 

Seven of the parties “were very much in agreement that this arm's length between politicians and culture should be upheld; they had a very strong view that free culture is important. But the Sweden Democrats were very different. And it is important to remember that their view on this is that they want to use culture as a tool to create a certain society or a certain way of being.”

As for the canon, it remains to be seen who will make up the expert committees tasked with creating it. The country’s best-known arbiters of culture, the Swedish Academy, said they had no intention of participating in the creation of a cultural canon. 

“A canon is a concept steeped in power and the wielding of power,” the Academy’s permanent secretary Mats Malm told newspaper Dagens Nyheter. 

“I don’t believe in the idea of developing a canon,” he added “It’s not the same as saying that certain works have achieved classic status. There are lots of very competent teachers in this country; they are best at deciding what literature to take up in their classroom.” 


His view was shared by Academy member Horace Engdahl. In an email to The Local he wrote:

“Undoubtedly, there is a number of literary works that have helped to shape Swedish mentality and have served as models and consequently deserve to be studied in school and discussed by educated people. In this sense, there always exists a canon, whether we approve of the idea or not. Yet, I am convinced that the project of making some sort of reading list compulsory is misconceived.”

"Literature, in the sense of belles lettres, is written in order to give pleasure. Making a pleasure compulsory is a contradication in terms. When I once published a selection of the poets of Swedish romanticism, I specifically addressed it to "the voluntary reader". Such is the proper recipient of all good books."


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