Speech by Susanna Pettersson at the an­niversary cel­eb­ra­tion of the Uni­versity of Helsinki on 26 March 2019

I open my address by telling you about a boy with a big question. This boy, sitting in the back of the hall, raised his hand and asked: “Does art have a future?”

A few years have passed since that particular public event and the boy has grown into an adult, perhaps a student, but his question took root in my mind.

I believe my answer went along these lines: Imagine a world without art and culture. A world without words, images, music, dance, drama or, say, the built environment. Such a world would be very quiet, empty and unimaginative. Nothing new would be invented in a world with no room for expression, ideas or creativity. I told him that art does have a future, since humans will never cease creating.

The voice of art and culture is the voice of humanity.

The roots of that voice go deep.

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In their recently published book entitled The First Artists. In Search of the World's Oldest Art (2017), Michel Lorblanchet and Paul Bahn recall how humans have, from the beginning of their existence, transformed their environment. Only the conditions have changed. In the Palaeolithic era, our ancestors painted images of bison in the Cave of Altamira. Today, we see the walls of condemned buildings and, for example, an abandoned shopping centre in Laajasalo, fill up with graffiti. Both instances speak to the ability of art and culture to bring people together. It is a way of communicating and a way to express being special.

What makes this interesting is how culture constructs identity regardless of time, place or socioeconomic background. Establishing a link with what we see before our eyes and what we experience requires no platinum cards or doctoral degrees, only time and curiosity. In addition to looking, certain individuals also develop the desire to collect and possess, the objects being mostly beside the point. Such collections can be built from pebbles washed up on the beach, ballpoint pens or valuable first editions. No matter what the approach, it always boils down to thinking and structuring those thoughts.

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The Renaissance with its theatres of memory is an excellent example. During the Renaissance, the structuring of the world into cabinets of curiosities commenced, as specimens from the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms, devices measuring time and distance, as well as artefacts evidencing human craftsmanship, were collected. The last-mentioned category also included art. These collections were used to control knowledge about the world. Newly established access to the New World was made apparent in exotic objects such as coconuts and ostrich eggs, which were considered so valuable that it was customary to adorn them with precious metals.

The collections also became sought-after loot, and thus instruments of political power. In this way, possessing valuable works of art and symbolically significant objects turned into a value in itself, measuring the power of rulers. Consider Christina, Queen of Sweden, and her raid on Prague during the Thirty Years’ War, or Catherine the Great who understood the political significance of art, decreeing the construction of the Hermitage for her expanding collection. After all, a serious art collection and cultural life were the hallmarks of an eminent state.

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As the ideas of the Enlightenment spread, art and culture turned into a mirror reflecting the civilisation of nations. Indeed, a lack thereof engendered feelings of embarrassment. In September 1844, the Swedish-language daily Helsingfors Tidningar published a text by Zacharias Topelius, agonising over how “everything in the field of art has come to a standstill” and saying that “the latest representative of fine arts here in the Finnish capital is a dancing monkey”.

There was awareness in the autonomous grand duchy of the need for books, theatre performances, music, art teaching, exhibitions and an art collection to be accumulated in accordance with European role models. No support was on offer from the Russian court; rather, in Finland, the driving force for all this came from civil society. To name but a few, a number of organisations were founded as a result: the Finnish Literature Society (1831), the Finnish Art Society (1846), the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design (1875) and the Finnish Antiquarian Society (1870). Meanwhile, the aim was to make culture available to all – culture was seen as a force unifying the country and its people – and the primary school network became one of the central channels for the establishment of a cultural identity.

Among the key works of art of the period was Robert Wilhelm Ekman’s painting of Pentti Lyytinen reading his poetry in a Savonian cottage (1848). The painting is a portrayal of an ideal society where generations come together to listen to the spoken word. The men are puffing on their pipes, the women carry on with their chores and the children have stopped in their tracks to listen. Lyytinen himself symbolises the import of reading and writing: knowledge and skills that could open up paths to recognition and social advancement. As it happens, Lyytinen was the first representative of the common people invited to become a member of the Finnish Literature Society in 1836.

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Ekman’s work attempted to capture a certain rustic idyll and harmony, while at the other extreme there are artworks that wish to expose the dark side of humanity: the wickedness of humans, the destruction sown by wars, corruption or political wrongdoing. Typical examples of this include the series The Disasters of War (1810–1820) by Francisco Goya, The Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819) by Théodore Géricault, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867–1869 ) by Édouard Manet and Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso. In 19th century Finland, too, there were paintings depicting war and families that had abandoned their homes to go begging during the Finnish famine of 1866–1868. Art is needed to portray and articulate unbearable events and phenomena, to make it possible for them to be talked about.

However, society does not always tolerate criticism from artists. The Nazis made bonfires out of books and banned degenerate art. If we believe that the shame caused by the events of the Second World War put an end to censorship, we are mistaken. Artists criticising society are imprisoned even today. Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, and the Russian anarchist punk rock group Pussy Riot are prime examples of this.

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What, then, is the role of art and culture in our time? In the 19th century, culture was needed to help elevate Finland to a position among the civilised states, and to create a narrative for the country and its people. Today, culture constructs an identity for individuals and for our immediate tribe. On the scale of a nation we understand that, instead of a single coherent narrative, we are perceiving parallel, overlapping and even mutually contradictory stories, all of which enrich our surroundings.

Culture is a way to differentiate oneself, to analyse the world and to deal with what may be very difficult matters. Culture is about encounters, experiences and thoughts. It is about knowledge and understanding of the phenomena surrounding us. And it also continues to be about politics. It is no coincidence that new museums are most actively being built today in countries such as the United Arab Emirates and China. This must also be seen as a socioeconomic engine in which experiences and civilisation cross paths with economics.

In other words, culture makes a difference. Understanding its societal significance should, indeed, be self-evident. And yet, culture may be sidelined, and not only in election questionnaires matching voters with candidates. This is a result of art and culture being all too easily relegated to the same dusty shelf with souvenirs in the field of politics. In reality, culture is no mere decoration, but a system equal to the road network, also requiring investment.

Culture generates more new jobs than traditional industries, and it also has a direct impact on health and wellbeing. Despite this, culture is not placed in the limelight when think tanks envision the future welfare society, even though it merits such attention. We are already rehearsing for the redistribution of time management. The ways we work, move and use our time are changing. People need more and more forms of sensible activity.

In this regard, our society would do well to look back a couple of centuries to a period when forms of unhurried action, experiencing and learning were not so alien to people. For instance, when the Finnish philosopher and statesman Johan Vilhelm Snellman toured Europe in the early 1840s, he apologised to his readers for his superficial familiarity with the collection at Munich’s Pinakothek gallery. After all, he had only spent four weeks perusing the collection before composing his article.

I find this an important example, as it serves to remind us that thinking takes time. There are no shortcuts available. Another reason for this being an important example is the way in which, at that time, culture was a precondition for success for the entire nation.

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To summarise, I am underlining certain keywords from my address that make up a sort of a chain.

A desire

To create

To think

To possess

To see

To experience

To learn

To build

To influence

Words with a close connection to art and culture – and our identity. An identity we are building every single day.

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In closing:

  • Art does have a future, since humans will never cease creating.
  • Culture constructs identity regardless of time, place or socioeconomic background.
  • Art and culture portray our time, highlighting both ideals and difficult issues – things we shy away from.
  • A strong society understands the importance of culture to identity, from the perspectives of individuals, communities and entire nations.
  • Believing in culture is believing in humanity.

I conclude my address by quoting Carl August Ehrensvärd who in his book De fria konstens philosophi (‘The philosophy of the liberal arts’, 1786) asked “What effect does beauty have?”, providing the following answer:

“When the eye beholds beauty,

It encounters order in nature,

Bringing to mind the object in concepts beyond description,

Making one know and understand everything.”

Were humans to know and understand – perhaps not everything – even just a little more each day, that would already be an achievement.

For knowing and understanding lead to new ideas.

This is what creativity means. This is why art and culture have a future.

Culture is us.

The voice of art and culture is the voice of humanity.

Susanna Pettersson, docent, director general of Nationalmuseum, Stockholm