A methodical bullying ombudsman

One month ago, the identity of one of the people behind the anonymous Facebook profile Sløseriombudsmannen was revealed: Are Søberg.

Søberg and several commentators accuse the art field of rejecting a critical debate on public funding of art and culture. But what debate are we really talking about?To point out how tax money is being misused, Sløseriombudsmannen chooses to attack individual artists in the free performing arts field. This has been going on for several years, and it is reprehensible.

Although Sløseriombudsmannen's submissions do not explicitly encourage hatred, they provoke harassment and hate speech. They are «ragebait»; clickbait intended to upset, and thus create interaction with a link or a case. The most provoked of the followers click themselves into the artists' social media profiles, where they mock and sometimes threaten them. This triggers a chain reaction that reinforces power structures: the dominant group against the dominated individual.

Promoting bullying as a legitimate method of debate is problematic – not only for the art field, but for the Norwegian society as a whole, because it is both invasive and contributes to humiliation and limited spaces of expression. No artist should have to experience that "dealing with hatred" is the new normal.On Facebook, Sløseriombudsmannen shares short video clips from performances, as well as the level of subsidy for artists. These clips and numbers are presented in a misleading way. Several years of funding are added together, so that the numbers look enormous. They do not show what different costs that actually are associated with a performing arts production. The artists are reduced to a small detail of great artistic work. Vegard Vinge, for example, is portrayed as "the artist who sprays paint out of his ass" – but the performance the video clip is taken from, was discussed as "the performance of the decade" in Germany. A short video clip does not reflect neither the scope of the work or how powerful the expression is. An excerpt as such is not a serious basis for a discussion about artistic quality or public funding for art. A proper debate requires intellectual honesty and ethics.

The ideological debate lies in the rhetoric – because by repeating and insisting on narratives such as "artists are wasting resources", these definitions can be normalized. Last year, Sløseriombudsmannen's Facebook post received a lot of attention in the media. Shortly afterwards, Sløseriombudsmannen's inaccurate stories became part of the political debate. A Frp politician stood on the Norwegian Parliament’s rostrum and meant that art containting nudity, feces and body fluids should not receive public funding. This was followed by a debate on NRK where it was argued for and against "penis art". Apparently serious media grabbed the semantic content without even questioning it, took aesthetic conditions out of context and ignored the totality of the work.

What Sløseriombudsmannen does is typical of populist rhetoric: to simplify and polarize, and to hang people in public out to dry. Sløseriombudsmannen's methods have common features with some parts of the press. Some media rely on "clickbait", quick information and fragments of opinion that highlight conflict, polarization and simplification, rather than actual debate. We need a press that is more critical of misleading information and factual errors.

Sløseriombudsmannen is a manifestation of a widespread liberalist and populist phenomenon. Søberg is in eighteenth place among Norway’s highest-paid managers and investment advisers and has been affiliated with the Liberal Party. Their party program is clear: they work for a minimum state, they want to reduce taxes and fees, and they share a desire with right-wing politicians to downsize the public sector. This agenda has already begun in several countries in Europe, and usually starts with cutting the budget for art and culture, due to the symbolic effects. The project aims to abolish the media – another critical platform – as well as health and public services.

I will never agree with Sløseriombudsmannen when it comes to the use of tax money. Norwegian cultural policy has made artistic risk possible, which has created a vibrant cultural field and profiled artists who are flourishing both in Norway and abroad. Artists can provoke, disturb, scratch where it hurts – no matter what, they are helping to create change. Artistic expressions can be critical and challenge norms. Yes, they may be demanding for some, but they are essential in any well-functioning democracy. Although some works are more accessible than others, performing arts reach out to new audiences. It is the institutions' job to facilitate the meeting points between artists and the audience – and this, we can always be better at.

After a performance by the Spanish theater group El Conde de Torrefiel, a first-time visitor to Black Box teater commented: "I have never seen anything like this before, I cannot even say what it was, but it was absolutely fantastic." One can decide to ridicule art – or enter with curiosity and explore something yet unknown.

I expect that the debate methods are honest, that artists are not singled out as scapegoats, and that the agenda is clear. We are always open to discussion, as long as these conditions are present. The Ways of Seeing case has shown us the harmful consequences it has, both for the artists and the public discourse, when there is a discrepancy between actual content and speculative comments. It is time for us to act collectively. Several voices, including those of politicians, should be raised to speak in favor of public funding of the arts. Now, only months ahead of the parliamentary elections, we want to hear more people advocate an ambitious cultural policy.

Anne-Cécile Sibué-Birkeland,
Artistic & General Director – Black Box teater

This article was published in Dagbladet Friday 16 April 2021.