Kaisa Rönkkö’s speech speech at the open­ing of the aca­d­e­mic year 2023-2024

In her speech, Director of the Arts Promotion Centre Finland (Taike) Kaisa Rönkkö discussed the role of art in society and the freedom of art as part of securing democracy and a free society.

Dear audience,

Iranian artist Sadaf Ahmad was meant to open her exhibition Concrete in Borås, Sweden, on one of these days. The exhibition consists of two parts: one features concrete statues that depict women in fabrics that cover everything. According to the artist, the piece portrays women who the Iranian administration murdered because they didn’t agree to wearing the obligatory hijabs.

The other part deals with women who have stood up against the Iranian regime and died in protestations against it – the portraits are revealed after the exhibition visitors have scratched the concrete off from the surface of the pictures.

This year, Sweden has had to raise its terrorist threat level, because the relations between Sweden and Iran have worsened due to the tension after Quran burnings. The Borås cultural centre had to make a risk assessment of the safety of the exhibition together with security authorities; having the exhibition at a cultural centre with free entry would have required heightened security measures.

The first part of the piece was “cancelled”. Censored, the artist accuses.

“It could be a trigger for polarising forces”, the cultural centre stated.

Islamic fundamentalists can’t take control of our freedom, Victor Malm wrote in Expressen and criticised the decision as shameful.

This happened in Sweden! This case shocked me deeply. It’s a matter of freedom of art and whether we dare to utilise it.

How should we interpret this? Art that criticises misogyny is a taboo. Art that highlights religious oppression, especially Islamic oppression, is also taboo. Not here in Finland, but for example in the Middle East and countries that have turned into dictatorships.

Sure, art may also entail embellishment and half-truths. Art may only tell the stories of winners through one-sided histories and iconised monuments. Throughout the ages, art has served as a sneaky weapon for propaganda and various other purposes. Forcefully integrating art into the power structures is the clearest sign of an authoritarian administration and the loss of freedom. There, the purpose of art is to influence people’s minds by creating fear and hate and by reinforcing stereotypes of the oppressed. Like propaganda is interested in our feelings, so is art.

Then again, art has tremendous potential, it’s a mirror of the good and evil that also shows what lies between them. Art involves a responsibility that we can’t run away from. My reference is Theodor Adorno, whose concept of autonomous art states that art has the potential of having a political meaning without being a tool for politics.  “Art is the social antithesis of society, not directly deducible from it”.

Sadaf Ahmadi says she escaped from Iran’s oppressive administration that she now criticises in her art. In Iran, her art was often censored. The artist says that her art stems from the present moment but also her childhood. She has nothing against the hijab as long as women have the freedom to choose whether they wear one or not. Why must a Muslim man control a Muslim woman?

Art has the freedom to make the community and individuals think and express feelings, even act.

Another reason for cancelling the exhibition was that some people could have been offended by the content of the exhibition. Why?

“The piece could generate various interpretations,” Borås authorities commented.

Isn’t that exactly what art is meant to do?

Burning a Quran and defending women’s rights and human rights are two completely different things. That is exactly what Sadaf Ahmadi aims to explain through her art.

The freedom of art and expression concerns everyone, not just artists. –  Freedom means a voluntary act. We have the freedom to choose whether we participate and if we do, in what way.

Could we rework your art a bit? Make it smaller? Make it lighter? Move it to the side? Leave a scene out?

No, you can’t.

Either there is freedom of speech or there isn’t.

If hate speech and fear limit the freedom of art, we lose a driving force behind society. And even here, we’re not talking about the “political nature of art” or reflecting on its “instrumental value”.

L’art pour l’art, it lives on.

We’re talking about how art has the freedom to change the reality so that it could bring truth to light. Because truth comes out through facts, not feelings, no matter how strong they are; Art can’t change the truth with declarations, but by opening a central tension hidden in the reality or sounds that haven’t otherwise been heard. This way art digs up the truth and truths dissolve in each other in the arts.

Limiting art as a way of exercising power in society isn’t a new phenomenon. To name a few recent examples: Anna Politikovskaja’s murder from 10 years ago and the terrorist attack to the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris claiming 12 victims 8 years ago. Two years after that, Jan Böhmermann’s satirical video where he criticised the Turkish president blew up into a dispute over the limits of freedom of speech and art in Germany, resembling the Charlie Hebdo case. Contemporary artist Ai Wei-Wei has been detained due to his criticism about the state of human rights and freedom of speech in China. Salman Rushdie has lived a big part of his life hiding because of a kill order that was given 33 years ago, and he lost sight in one eye after being stabbed. The Japanese translator of his novel, Hitoshi Igarashi, was stabbed to death, while the Italian translator survived a knife assault and the Norwegian publisher an assassination attempt.

The recently published preliminary investigation material for a suspected terrorist offence reveals that two Lahti-based neo-Nazis motivated by accelerationist thinking planned terrorist attacks to the Vastavirta Club in Tampere and Turku Book Café, for example. Extremism in Finland isn’t limited to this.

For the time being, however, on a global scale Finland is a free fortress where peace in society is secured, with no real threat of terrorism. It makes us privileged, but not all of us. Self-censorship is no longer only the problem of totalitarian countries. Also in Nordic countries, artists and art institutions are afraid of bringing up certain topics due to fear of being pressured by certain groups.

In my view, with freedom also comes responsibility. It also brings possibilities. These concern the promotion of democracy.

Still, the relationship between art and freedom of speech has changed.

How has the situation changed? For example, through changes in the operational environment and through the subsequent societal tension.

The freedom of art has always been regulated and restricted by the surrounding world, first by the church, court and guild. The limits of freedom and appropriateness have been defined legally, politically, morally and within the framework of interpretation that applies for art at a given time.  Freedom is still relative in many ways. Both science and art are under pressure from market forces and impact assessments: who gets the most streams and who is worth giving funding for and on what grounds.

A whole new kind of pressure comes from audiences, even from those who perhaps have not been in contact with the art that they’re talking about. The pressure comes from the internet and social media platforms.

Social media is created for everyday communication, but gradually those platforms have ended up being part of traditional societal structures, and factors that influence the freedom of expression have fundamentally changed.  Anyone can pose as experts and use their freedom of expression with no limitations. The unwillingness to understand and listen and the desire to exaggerate and be blunt happens also in Western democracies.  It’s ”us” and ”them”, ”we” and ”others”. Either-or.

We talk about polarisation; dichotomy that is fuelled by political confrontation where the opposing party tries to demonise the other party through insults. Its driving forces are hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories. The polarisation of society is a global problem accelerated by the internet.

It’s sped up by agitators and exaggerators – who may even be political authorities. Just recently the USA had a president who lied over 30,000 times during his term according to the fact checkers at Washington Post. In August, he was photographed in jail like a hero.

Accelerated by the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the value of free society and reliable media has become powerfully evident, but both media and art are restricted by ethical self-regulation codes, whereas in social media, individuals can declare almost anything to a big audience.

If the polarisation of societies grows hand in hand with social media and muddling the truth has become a political guideline, should art’s tactic then be outspokenness and honesty or revealing of different realities, standing behind values in the name of freedom?

For freedom? Whose freedom are we talking about?

“Freedom is an everyday practice”, says Iranian artist Sadaf Ahmadi. This is exactly what she has wanted to portray through her art, the reason she moved from Iran to democratic Sweden – where, ironically, censorship follower her.

Our collective challenge is that the foundations of democracy are falling apart. What totalitarianism and authoritarianism have in common is the lack of freedom.

According to the Freedom in the World 2023 report published by Freedom House, global freedom has declined for 17 consecutive years. The state of democracy is deteriorating; half of the world’s democracies are regressing and in half of the non-democratic countries, the government is oppressing its citizens more and more. What’s also alarming is that people’s view of an authoritarian administration is more positive than before.

What options did the Borås cultural centre have in order to secure the freedom of art in the name of democracy?

Organising the exhibition in its original form at the cultural centre that’s open for everyone and taking the risk that it results in disturbance in the peace in society, violence, disorder and attacks.

Organising the required security measures, promoting cooperation between security authorities and private security firms: night patrols, heightened protection of the exhibition and metal detectors.

Diplomacy: Trying to build a dialogue between the extremes and inviting people from the opposing side to the opening event, like in a peace negotiation. Organising panel discussions, trying to understand all the parties involved – sharing perspectives on culture and history, hearing Muslim men who oppress women as well as Muslim women who express their religiousness and cultural identity in ways that, in the public debate, are often interpreted as a symbol of women’s subordinate position in Islam. After all, Ahmadi’s work doesn’t constitute criticism against the hijab but against not having the freedom to choose whether to use one or not.

Moving the exhibition to another space that doesn’t have free entry for everyone, making the organising of security measures easier.

Actually, the city of Borås did make this decision later on. The exhibition will be opened in its entirety in the Borås Art Museum in October. Strong civic activism had a big role in making this happen.

The fear of the Swedish authorities is completely understandable and justified. And we still have work left to do.

Autonomous art that defends freedom should be freely accessible to all.

Dear audience,

today I’ve wanted to talk about the freedom of art as part of securing democracy and a free society. Now I’m talking human to human – to each of you who make art, enable it, train arts professionals or work in its structures. To you who participate in debates and make free choices in your everyday lives.

In Borås, part of the reason why art was censored was its explosive power. And that’s what art is. Throughout the ages, autonomous art has been able to raise its voice even under totalitarianism. From prisons and hiding places, through secret messages, underground, by smuggling, under threat of torture and death. Bold art has made individuals and communities fight for their values even when artists themselves have been denied this possibility.

Even now, political elements and activism are major themes for art, and more and more artists are also activists, even to the extent that art comes to life through activism, through acts that openly promote a certain ideology. But free democracy is not built by just political activism or political acts, and not through panel discussions at art institutions, either. Art gives us the opportunity to exchange our diverse opinions and have debates; it’s not just about being likeminded and seeking beauty. It connects groups and nations. It can prevent polarisation from escalating into conflicts and also support the defusing of conflicts.

“Art creates the future” is the mission of Uniarts Helsinki. That can happen only as a part of society, by reflecting on its phenomena and by engaging in a dialogue. On an individual and on an organisation level. Because securing democracy is integral to our freedom of speech and expression.

We must support artists who are scared but dare to use their influence and favour them as promoters of strong messages. We can’t leave those who use their freedom of speech and expression alone. We need to listen to marginalised phenomena and voices that are pushed aside by polarisation. We need to enable the freedom of art and creating, also by allowing failures and miscalculations, stand behind the makers of art – stand behind values that we believe are right, even if they stretch the limits of freedom that we’ve set for ourselves or our institutions. I, myself, could do more.

We must live and act the way we teach. We must demand ourselves and our organisations that our concepts of freedom and safety are defined in relation to the values that we promote. Defending and securing freedom also requires that some of us are ready to leave their comfort zones and put themselves out there. On the other hand, in a democracy, it’s inevitable that some people choose a better position or safety thanks to their freedom to choose.

We should make ourselves resilient in crises and learn to protect our activities, become aware of safety threats and how to prepare for them. 

It’s self-deception thinking that we don’t bear a responsibility, including for the fact that we and the generations before us have violated our unlimited freedom to the extent that it has chained us to an eco-crisis bullet train speeding towards the earth’s destruction. Stopping it is everyone’s responsibility – nobody is exempted.

Dear Uniarts Helsinki students,

I’m aware of how naive it sounds when a middle-aged exerciser of power who is part of the white cultural elite encourages you to be brave.

I’ll do it anyway.

The mission of the Arts Promotion Centre Finland is to ensure the conditions that allow art and culture to promote a democratic, sustainable and diverse society through art and culture. The same themes recur in the strategies of the Ministry of Education and Culture. Supporting inclusion and democracy are also highlighted in Uniarts Helsinki’s visions for education in performing arts and fine arts. When there’s a conscious effort to showcase various kind of content, to be open, diverse and multicultural, it would be contradictory to think that discussing certain topics would be undesirable.

Uniarts Helsinki’s vision is “Art creates the future.” This means that art has an increasingly important role in keeping society diverse, appreciative towards others and free for thoughts that we don’t even yet know we’re thinking. Fear is our biggest enemy and there are plenty of fearmongers around us.

It’s you who create the future. Freedom of speech and expression are stated in our Constitution – art supports these freedoms. 

Use the freedom that feels right to you, use it with discretion, use it spontaneously and use it boldly if you want to make a difference. If we want to introduce change, we must promote the same things together – over and over again. 

Be ready to have conversations − to listen and understand, because the future isn’t built on simply fawning over people who think alike. Don’t be afraid of life.

What’s more important than the complete freedom of art might be the feeling of freedom in one’s creative work and expression, feeling of choosing freely. Your most important freedom is choosing what kinds of values you will fight for, regardless of how you do it.

I wish you a fulfilling, safe and inspiring new academic year and extend my congratulations to the 10-year-old Uniarts Helsinki. 

Keep on rocking in the free world.