It feels wonderful being with you in this moment, celebrating the ten-year-old Uniarts Helsinki and ceremoniously starting its 11th academic year. I feel proud and happy but also humble.
The founding and building of Uniarts Helsinki has been a huge effort, and it plays an important role in the history of Finnish arts education and research. According to the team that reflected on the merger, the goal was to “strengthen (…) the position and autonomy of art in society and the Finnish artistic and cultural scene as a whole”.
Uniarts Helsinki also plays a small but important role in the long history of the entire Finnish university institution. This chain of office that was just placed over my shoulders now links us also symbolically to the university institution and its legacy spanning over several hundred years. Among the esteemed group of old universities, we’re like the slightly unruly ten-year-old that looks at the world differently and, if need be, dares to ask if the emperor is wearing clothes. Our society and the university institution need this kind of a bold approach.
So what changed on 1 January 2013 when Uniarts Helsinki was founded? Actually, the change was only legal: instead of three legal entities governed by public law, there’s now only one. One rector, one university board, one set of university regulations, and so on. If the change is considered from a solely technical perspective, it may be hard to see how it could strengthen the entire Finnish arts and cultural sector. I think the very essence of Uniarts Helsinki is not in the administrative construction, at all, and instead, in interaction between communities, networks and ideas.
A university cannot be described or represented through organisational charts, strategies or facilities, no matter how important they are. It’s the wide network of researchers, educators, artists, students, supporters and partners around the globe that create the university. The boundaries are thereby not in the walls, and the university community is not defined by employment contracts. Instead, Uniarts Helsinki is like a mushroom that grows out of the mycelium, through the symbiotic interactions between society and of the many global communities connected to us. Each of you in the audience are actors in this wide network that shapes the future of our university and humanity.
That is why, my friends, we are celebrating not the legal entity governed by public law, but each of you individuals who are tied to our university one way or another. Together we form a community of diverse voices where we can learn from each other and draw inspiration from each other.
So we celebrate the mycelium, not the mushroom. A mycelium that includes thousands of children and young people who pursue the arts as a hobby. We celebrate the babies and small children along with their parents whose highlight of the week is the joint music class; the students who, through their instrument, piece of clay, body or thinking, seek their own way to live and ponder the fundamental questions of life; all artists and researchers who feverishly try to find a way to express the thing that they intuitively know wants to be expressed; theatres, opera houses, galleries and art institutions that offer thousands of people a place to be connected to something greater than themselves; teachers who walk alongside students on diverse paths of learning; people in drama clubs, art schools, choir classes and book clubs all over Finland – all of us who are touched by art or whose art touches others.
So the focus of our celebration is not an ivory tower but a small mushroom that pushes from the ground with the strength of its enormous mycelium and symbiotic relationships, spreading its spores widely.
The literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuven coined the term ivory tower to describe the attitude of scientists and artists who focus on the theoretical or abstract, while curling up in their inner worlds instead of facing the external reality. Such an attitude is ill-suited to us.
Major changes are going on around us, and we must find and build a bridge between our current dead-end development paths and a sustainable future. If our guideline is that the current crises aren’t solved by the thinking patterns that created them, educational thinking that is based on prior knowledge and skills can end up being part of the problem. Our mission is to get the next generation to question our thoughts and values and to break away from our own way of seeing the world, while also taking advantage of everything we’ve already learned. That’s why I want to extend an especially warm welcome to our new students. We need you, your questions and your ability to reflect on possibilities to do and think differently. We don’t know the answers to everything, but we promise to walk beside you and do what we can to help you.
Now I depart from my written speech to show my support to students who have protested around Finland in the last few days. Yesterday, this courtyard was occupied, and the occupation is still ongoing. Students are concerned over their future. Even though financial readjustments are needed, I ask whether it’s right that my taxation will be reduced while students’ conditions will be worse by introducing an index freeze on student financial aid and cuts to housing allowance. In terms of generation equality, it’s not fair or wise that we well-off and middle-aged people secure our livelihood and then leave our children with a deteriorating planet and make cutbacks on their livelihood. My message to the Government is: students must be able to focus on their studies, not on funding their studies. Their competence is the backbone that our country’s future rests on, and it must be taken care of.
I’m perhaps not the only one who has found it depressing following the public debate in the recent months. We’re less skilled at wondering and being surprised and being able to engage in a dialogue with people who think differently than before – sometimes it feels it’s not even the goal. How did we lose the idea of collectively promoting education and culture – the goal that accelerated Finland’s great positive development? When did the Finnish sisu change into fearfulness towards everything unfamiliar? It’s no use being stunned by the worsening learning results, increase in mental health problems and lack of innovations that could bring success to Finland if we foster an atmosphere where boosting support for our own thoughts by intentionally misunderstanding other people is more appreciated than the intention to understand others and learn about things we don’t know enough about. This a real threat to democracy, too.
The core of learning is the ability — even just for a moment — to view the world from completely new perspectives. To do that, we need each other and a genuine desire to expand our thinking. That’s why discussing how we can combat racism and polarisation is important not only from the perspective of human rights but also in terms of the development of our entire culture. It’s also a practical question: each barrier set as a hindrance to recruiting the best students and experts to our higher education institutions lowers the standard of Finnish art, science and competence and diminishes the country’s competitive edge. The challenges of immigration must be taken seriously, but the fact that we cannot make it on our own here must be taken at least equally seriously.
Uniarts Helsinki’s mission is to form an environment where the dialogue between various perspectives expands people’s thinking and gives birth to something new. We have to be self-critical in this regard: the responsibility for strengthening the position and role of art also entails a strong responsibility to avoid the ivory tower syndrome – we must dare to be bolder in getting out of our familiar surroundings and seek a dialogue with people who view the world differently. But establishing this dialogue requires that people want to listen to us, that the value and importance of art for the development of society is recognised also outside of our usual circles.
We can be happy that the importance of education and the need to invest in research and development activities are recognised also in the Government Programme. We need innovations so that Finland, the humanity and the entire planet could have a bright future. This isn’t enough, however, if we expect that technology-based RDI activities solve all our challenges. Technological and economic development can be worthless or even detrimental if it’s not steered by a responsible, wise person who understands the more profound and wider consequences of the changes.
Art has a major role in this respect, too. Through art, we can ask ourselves where we are headed and whether it’s worth going there. Art gives us a chance to weigh the value and ambitions that we want our future to be built on.
In times of dystopias, we need something more than just entertaining ourselves, satisfying our ever-increasing needs and, as a by-product of the first two, depleting our planet. With the help of art, we can imagine futures and create a society that has goals that feel meaningful, resonate with us and lead us to a world that we can and want to help build. A world that all of us feel like fighting for. This work opens up futures, and the research that Uniarts Helsinki carries out draws from the special ways of knowing that art makes possible, and the research has an important role that differs from other universities. This comes up also in today’s Helsingin Sanomat editorial, which also states that the position of research should be further promoted at Uniarts Helsinki. Even though our history in educating artists goes back to the 19th century, we’re still young and hungry in this area.
Dear members of the mycelium,
let’s work together to make sure that the mycelium spreads. Let’s create new linkages and symbiotic relationships. Let’s dare to make use of the chances where art can make an impact. Let’s reinforce Uniarts Helsinki’s status as a preserver of education and culture that encourages inquisitive and appreciative interaction. Because Uniarts Helsinki is not only a mycelium, but also an attitude and a basis of values – a burning and an aspiration towards a better, more meaningful and more authentic world where each of us are travel companions for each other. This gives us plenty of things to work on for decades to come.