Aleksi Malmberg: Art offers alternatives
  • Aleksin blogikuva 02.2016 828x555px
5 February 2016

Photo © Wikipedia

Arts institutions must offer alternatives to nationalism, Jussi Koitela’s contribution to our blog from January 2016, represents exactly the sort of incisive and broad-ranging discussion on the present and future role of the arts and the wider cultural sector that is required right now. As his argument is also directly relevant to my own institution, caught, as outlined by Koitela, in the crossfire of efforts to boost Finnish competitiveness and other softer pursuits, I thought it important to respond to some of the ideas he puts forward.

In his blog post, Koitela considers the role of arts institutions and curators along with the potential for alternative forms of debate in a public sphere currently dominated by nationalist and neoliberal discourses. My response focuses on the role of arts institutions in perpetuating and constructing narratives of heroism, with a particular focus on Koitela’s idea that the purpose of the arts programme of the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux, for example, is to ”build a narrative of the successful Finnish curator, actively engaged on the international cultural scene”. Koitela explains that it is a source of some pain to him to be so dependent on the nation state and its nationalist structures and goes on to call for new alternatives.

The ghost of enlightenment notwithstanding, it is not too difficult to concur with Koitela’s observation about the extent to which nationalism and liberalism have become entrenched in the wider social debate. However, Koitela’s critique begs a number of questions. What gives rise to his experience of nationality as a straitjacket that limits other possible identities? Who drives the pressure to succeed that he describes? Have art and arts sector professionals not always been engaged in generating alternative realities and new debates?

The nation state, within which, granted, nationality is always an imagined concept, as per Benedict Anderson, remains the dominant blueprint for societies and democracies around the world. This holds true despite the growing importance of large cities and supranational political structures. Nation states are a well-established measure of and method for distributing social responsibility, power and resources globally. As it functions, the nation state is also clearly engaged in constructing the identity of the community that lives within it, sustained by the stories that community tells and actively involved in generating new ones.

Without focusing too closely on fascism or the many brands of nationalist thought, I wonder whether it would be possible to update, rather than oppose, the meaning of nationalism? Instead of seeing it as a sclerotic master ideology, it strikes me as natural to view nationality as an index, an element in the multiplicity of building blocks that make up our identity. Given the globalised nature of our societies, surely nationality is a rational and widely accepted way of making sense of the arts sector, though by no means the most important way of assigning meaning to it.

Similarly, the notion that nationality could serve as the starting point for an individual artwork or for wider debate in the art world has also seemed rather outdated for some time. Parallel discourses thrive and alternative ways of framing the debate on individual works have always been proffered. The relationship between nature and culture, for example, has been a central preoccupation since the earliest cave paintings. Postmodernism and feminism for their part have paved the way for a whole host of other paradigms that shine a critical light on our power structures and realities.

Our era is defined, not just by our national narratives of heroism, but by the deconstruction of the great narratives; the exponential rise of parallel meanings and alternative realities that, in fact, is one of factors driving the increasing importance of curatorial engagement. The fragmentation and expansion also take place horizontally; the feverish desire of the postmodern era to reach ever higher towards new levels of “meta” happens in parallel with the increasing abstraction in technology and society highlighted by Jussi Koitela.

This trend is reflected in the Checkpoint Helsinki model. I see it as a structure created for the purpose of choosing the people, who choose the curators, who choose the artists, who work in Helsinki, commissioned by the organisation. This is not intended as a criticism of that model, quite the opposite in fact, though it is also reasonable to point out that, when you launch a new venture, it will take time to generate tangible results and that those who provide external funding to the arts may struggle to fully understand what is being achieved.

Indeed, one of the key roles of arts organisations is to act as a facilitator in the interface between the artist and the funder (including state and local authority funding sources) – to engage both parties in debate in their own language and, as the middleman, to ensure that artists have the means to continue to work independently. It is certainly true that people are actively engaged in creating and shaping the structures around them. However, arts organisations have a useful role in defining the playing field and acting as a platform for interaction. At the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux, in our role as an independent public benefit purpose entity, we strive to promote artistic and cultural exchange between Finland and the Benelux countries. Our residencies are designed to provide assistance and support to artists, without any expectation of conventionally-defined success.

What, then, is the role of the arts within the nation state? In Montesquieu’s model for the separation of powers, firmly back on the agenda following the events in Poland, it has none. To pursue the allegory of the arts organisation as a watchdog a little further, I wonder whether perhaps there might also be room for a free-thinking cat in this house of cards, a cat that enjoys being petted but is no less independent for it and not afraid to scratch the hand that feeds it.
To be clear, art, like science and education, does not exist to for the purpose of bolstering national competitiveness. Left to their own devices, tapping into the very source of what it means to be human, all three are a force for good and the benefits of that force are also felt in economic terms. After all, our economic system is in many ways modelled on our human reality. When arts organisations use this idea of interconnectivity to make their case, it is often too readily, and in my opinion, incorrectly, interpreted as a willingness to harness art and artists to the competition state’s cause.

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Aleksi Malmberg

The writer, Aleksi Malmberg, is the Director of the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux.

© Pirita Männikkö

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