It’s important for artists to take a critical look at the history of their artistic field, says Hanna Järvinen

Hanna Järvinen, who took on the position of director at the Theatre Academy’s Performing Arts Research Centre, Tutke, in the beginning of June, has settled at the intersection of history and dance research.

Why do we know the works of one artist, but have never heard of some others? Who is the author or creator of a work, and who merely serves as a medium for the artist’s vision? Whose artistic traditions are works inspired by and who gets the credit?

The internal exercise of power in the arts has become a topic of increasing interest among artists, and Uniarts Helsinki students, as well. Many people find it essential to understand the history of art from feminist, anti-racist and postcolonial perspectives in order to be able to act as artists in today’s Finland.

Hanna Järvinen, who has long worked as university lecturer at Uniarts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy, welcomes this interest. The discussion around these topics must be based on knowledge, however, not merely personal opinions. To help with this, Järvinen co-edited an online textbook about the history of dance as an art form titled “Näkökulmia tanssitaiteen historiaan ja nykypäivään” together with Kirsi Monni and Riikka Laakso. The English version of this book, “Dance Arts: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Practices”, will be published in October 2023. 

“I find it extremely important for artists to understand what kind of history the concepts that they use are based on and what kind of power has been exercised to shape the art field and its canons,” Järvinen says.

According to Järvinen, many of the key concepts in art – abstraction, avantgarde, the modern and so on – are rooted in racism, a history that emphasises the alleged superiority of white Europeans. When new generations of artists understand this history, they are better equipped to articulate their own practice. 

Järvinen took over as the Department Head of the Performing Arts Research Centre, Tutke, in June. Her research focuses on the history of dance, a field that she sees as quite deliberately construed as “white, heteronormative and compliant with the values of Judeo-Christian culture”. 

During her career, Järvinen has written over thirty peer-reviewed articles. In one of her most recent publications, Järvinen reflects on, for example, what kind of a relationship contemporary dance could have with modernism if neither of these concepts would be understood from a Eurocentric perspective. The chapter was published in June in The Edinburgh Companion to Modernism in Contemporary Theatre. Another article, coming out later this year, deals with racism in the ballet Pippi Longstocking.

“If I have to determine a common research topic or theme that permeates my career, it would be my interest in the intersection of art and power. Whose art is considered valuable and why? Ultimately, who gets to determine this value and where do these decisions take place? In what ways do we replicate these structures in teaching, for example? What is excluded and who do we forget and leave in the shadow of the so-called geniuses?”

From the analysis of genius to the research of art and power

Hanna Järvinen’s background is in cultural history. She earned a master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of Turku, but  also studied at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. When Järvinen is asked how she ended up carrying out research in the field of dance, she answers by telling an anecdote.

“My friend closed down his second-hand bookshop in Tampere in 1993. I bought a pile of books, and one of them was a biography of the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. When I started reading it, I had this odd feeling of knowing what was going to happen in the book even though I didn’t know anything about this person.”

Encouraged by Professor of Cultural History Kari Immonen, Järvinen ended up writing not only her bachelor’s and master’s theses but also her doctoral thesis on the production techniques used to create the stardom of the dancer-choreographer Nijinsky and the myth of his genius. 

The reason that biography of Nijinsky had seemed familiar was, of course, that the book reiterated a common cultural narrative about artists. Nijinsky’s gender, sexuality, “Orientality”, and a career cut short by a mental illness all made him suitable for the role of an artist genius. 

Researching the significance of genius led Järvinen to reflect on questions of power, sexism and racism beyond dance as an art form. At the time, these questions also interested other researchers at the Department of Cultural History at the University of Turku, including the current vice rector of Uniarts Helsinki, Marjo Kaartinen. The research community supported and encouraged this kind of work.

Järvinen notes that the same themes are still “terrifyingly topical”. In the 1980s, scholars who defined genius at the end of the 19th century were still being uncritically quoted – and their theories still echo in much of how our culture discusses the work of artists. 

“The myth of genius claims that art just comes into being, mysteriously, out of the grand emotions of a great individual. It still makes people expect that artists behave in toxic ways, causingscandals, having mental health problems or tragic relationships, for example. It is pretty obvious that the myth of genius does not give anyone tools for  understanding art as a profession, or the meaning of art or the significance of the arts sector or arts education in our society,” Järvinen points out.

At the intersection of research traditions

In the 1990s, not all dance scholars welcomed a historian who was not a dancer seeking to research dance. Nevertheless, Järvinen feels that she has found her place at the multidisciplinary intersection of history, dance and performance research, with the occasional tangents to some other fields. 

“Perhaps it’s exactly this multidisciplinarity that has led me to feel that Uniarts Helsinki is the place where I can carry out the kind of research that I’m interested in,” Järvinen says. 

As the director of Tutke, she has a ringside seat to follow the emerging research activities of a new university. 

“Uniarts Helsinki is a very new university. That’s why we have the freedom to define what research can be and how it connects to educating professionals in the arts. According to the Finnish Universities Act, all of our teaching should be based on research. We have the opportunity to build Uniarts Helsinki into a truly international research community, a place where art and research intertwine, a place  of study, teaching and scholarship that attracts people from all over the world. But this will require networking in the international researcher community beyond of the immediate circle of art schools.”

As a scholar who is not an artist but works at an arts university, Järvinen believes in the fruitful coexistence and interaction of art and research. It is important for an institution that teaches art to reflect on and deconstruct the history of the fields that it represents. 

Järvinen stresses that art and academic scholarship have not always been that separate from each other. Järvinen thinks that art has always infiltrated the deep structures of society. 

“In the best-case scenario, both art and research question those modes of behaviour and thinking that are taken for granted. And that’s what makes art and research so dangerous that totalitarian societies need to suppress them. In Finland, right now, it is time to defend art and research in all of their myriad forms.”