A Decolonial View

By students in the Colonial and Postcolonial Master

National culture canon in Sweden as a “unifying force” in a “polarized” society


On September 11 this year, Sweden had a general election to the national parliament (Riksdagen), the 21 regional councils and the 290 municipal councils. The right-wing coalition between the Sweden Democrats, the Moderate Party, the Christian Democrats, and the Liberal Party obtained a majority in the Riksdag, leading to Ulf Kristersson as new Prime Minister and a new government in Sweden in October 18 (based on the Tidö agreement, which was presented on a press conference in October 14).

One of the new ministers in Kristersson’s cabinet was the relatively unknown Parisa Liljestrand, former municipal councilor in Vallentuna between 2018-2022, as Minister of Culture.

Parisa Liljestrand, the Minister of Culture in Sweden.Photo: Ninni Andersson/Government Office

Parisa Liljestrand, the Minister of Culture in Sweden.
Photo: Ninni Andersson/Government Office

One of her tasks will be to appoint an “independent expert committee” with the aim of developing proposals for a Swedish cultural canon, in accordance with the Tidö agreement. Nevertheless, nowhere in the text of the Tidö agreement does it say what Sweden should have such a cultural canon for. The inspiration is though said to come from the Danish model, which since 2006 has introduced a national cultural canon. However, one of the key arguments, according to an interview with Liljestrand in SVT, is that culture could become a “unifying force” in a “polarized” society.

Among scholars and intellectuals, this is a highly controversial statement that engages. In Sweden, there has been a long-standing tradition of the principle of keeping politics at arm’s length from culture, which means that politics can create basic conditions for culture to be brought to life (for example through budgets and legislation), but not get directly involved in the culture’s content. The proposal to introduce a national cultural canon breaks with this tradition.

As a student of postcolonial studies, I find the “unifying force” argument not only deeply problematic but also suspect, downright unpleasant. Constructing a national cultural canon rather contributes to hiding the societal conflicts and contradictions that art in its various forms aims to make observable. That in turn contributes to the risk of maintaining a false notion of an united “we” as well as an artificial consensus about Sweden. To put a label on an individual profile and let that person be presented as representative of that label is to take an interpretive priority over their artistic efforts. Would, for example, August Strindberg, Karin Boye, and Vilhelm Moberg appreciate being part of such a national canon? That is not certain. Would artists like Lars Vilks and Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin contribute to a desirable “unifying force”? That is extremely doubtful. In any way, the political canonization had meant that all their works would have been read/seen in a completely new context. In other words, it means that politics in practice seizes artistic works.

Regardless of what the “expert committee” presents for works to might be included in this canon, there are no objective measures of quality. Valuation and taste regarding cultural expressions is always subjective. Moreover, the inclusion of some in a culture canonization implies that others will be excluded, which can definitely be analyzed from postcolonial perspectives.

Something that even becomes more worrying is that Culture Minister Parisa Liljestrand does not exclude the idea of letting knowledge of the cultural canon be used in citizenship tests for immigrants. The same demand does not seem to apply to Swedish citizens. This means that Swedes can move freely with their lack of knowledge about famous cultural figures, while immigrants can be denied citizenship if they have a lack of knowledge about the same famous cultural figures. This discriminatory approach creates an “us” and a “them”.

With the background of the above-mentioned critical objections in mind, what remains as the real reasons for establishing a national cultural canon? It is probably one of many concessions to the Sweden Democrats from the Moderate Party, the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party. The Sweden Democrats are a political party with ideological roots in Nazism, who addresses their ideology in all substantive political areas. A cultural canon is thus a far-reaching ideological project with nationalist overtones, which aims to win the struggle over historiography and thereby define “Swedishness”. At the end of the day, it is about defining who “we” are and what “we” are not.

Before I finish this text, I would like to quote the Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “A great writer is, one might say, the second government of his country. And therefore no regime has ever loved great writers, only the less important ones.”


Filip Hallbäck

Nya kulturministern Parisa Liljestrand (M): ”Kulturkanon kan vara en enande kraft” | SVT Nyheter (2022-11-23)