Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Mohammed Cartoons and Local Ethnocentrisms – A Finnish Perspective

A Guest Post by Rita Dahl

In this essay I will discuss the Finnish case involving the Mohammed cartoons, as well as mentioning some other recent situations that have again brought art and ethics back into the spotlight. Where does the line between art, general ethics, and especially the artist’s individual ethics go? According to the general opinion of western, liberal democracies, art needs more liberty than do individuals, although it cannot escape national law, which ultimately sets the final frame for art.

My general point, which I hope to prove along the way, is that perhaps for Islamic Arab countries criticizing one´s own beliefs, particularly religion and its basic truths, is the sore point, whereas in western countries we are especially sensitive to criticism that touches upon our national history and historically influential national figures. To continue my point, I would like to add that both the Islamic and Western world have their own ethnocentrist traits that we would like to especially protect. I intend to illustrate, through concrete examples, some of them.

We are dominated by our political correctness in both (all) worlds. This means for example, in a western country constant reluctance toward Islamist fundamentalism. In this way a free speech organization can also condemn something which they call "hate speech". These kinds of attitudes provoke monologue, never dialog.

Some decades ago – during the 60s - the Lutheran religion was one of the delicate topics in Finland (and a few other western countries), nowadays however the criticism of religion has almost become a cliché. You need to do a lot to shock the audience today, especially in the field of visual arts, which has used religious imagery to scandalise during at least the last two centuries.

The cultural magazine Kaltio, based in Oulu, was the first magazine to republish the Mohammed cartoons in Finland. The 6-page-long comic appeared on the internet in September 2006 and was drawn by the Finnish comic artist, Ville Ranta. The prophet Mohammed was presented in the comic as a very furious, fundamentalist figure, who was wearing a mask and criticizing the Western world for the bad deeds it had done in the past to Arab countries and at the same time imposing the demand for freedom of speech in Arab countries. At the end of the comic the Finnish prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, and president, Tarja Halonen, burn the Danish flag in the hope that the Islamists would not get angry with them. (This burning of a flag refers to the apologies already made by Vanhanen and Halonen in February 2006, after the Finnish magazine, Suomen Sisu, had published the Mohammed cartoons for the first time in Finland.)

We call this heritage of bending the knee to other countries Finlandization. I will shortly explain what this way of reacting (still common among Finnish politicians) means. Finland has a long history of being suppressed, first by Sweden, then by the Soviet Union, until our independence in 1917. Even after that our political leaders continued to bend the knee to Russia whenever it was considered to be politically wise. Our country became famous for its unique foreign policy-- Kekkonen´s and Paasikivi´s line. That meant precisely that--bending the knee. Finlandization became another term for that foreign policy.

In my opinion, Ranta criticizes in his comic both Western and Islamist countries for their own kind of fundamentalisms. His starting point is that it is never good in the long term for anything--be it religion or politics—to be presented and heard only by its most fundamentalist representatives. His argument is that it is especially not good for anything--be it a religion like Islam, or western politics—to be represented by its most fundamental figures, be they fundamentalist Islamists, or Finnish politicians, who in their fear of losing good relations with other neighbouring countries, bend in every possible direction.

In late February 2006 editor-in-chief Jussi Vilkuna of the cultural magazine Kaltio, based in Oulu, northern Finland, got fired, because two big sponsors of the magazine, Sampo Bank and insurance company Tapiola had announced that they would not place their advertisements any more in Kaltio, because of the stir the comics had caused.

Vilkuna did not understand the decision. His point was: it is the principal function of a cultural magazine to stimulate discussion of different topics. Furthermore, he thought the Mohammed cartoons, drawn by Ranta, combined both freedom of speech and tolerance for other religions, which is one of the guiding principles in the ethical rules for an editor. These rules are universally valid in all western countries.

After having published the controversial cartoons, the artist Ville Ranta, was removed from another job, for which he had already been commissioned. The city of Oulu was afraid of the interpretation Ranta might come up with of our national hero and nation-builder, Johan Vilhelm Snellman, whose life the artist was supposed to depict in an album addressed to little schoolgirls and boys. Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-1881) was a philosopher, author, and statesman, who worked during his life in many various professions, starting out as a headmaster in Kuopio, but also worked as an editor of the Finnish-language cultural journal Saima and Swedish-language Litteraturblad för allmän medborgerlig bildning. In 1856 he was finally--after a long struggle--appointed to professor at the University of Helsinki.

In 1863 Snellman became a senator, responsible for a language decree: Finnish became an equal language to Swedish. Snellman was not a religious prophet, but a very worldly man, national hero and one of the central nation-builders in Finland. The city of Oulu could thus not afford to take a risk on Ranta´s possibly blasphemous interpretation of our famous nation-builder. Snellman was comparable to the prophet Mohammed, and here may also lie the western double-morality: we are eager to criticize phenomena outside own cultural sphere willingly, but when it comes to our own cultural heritage, national history and the remarkable figures responsible for it, we suddenly become as sensitive as most Muslims about the publishing of the controversial Mohammed cartoons.

Liberty of Art – Thin Line Between Art and Ethics?

During the last couple of decades we have needed to ponder the relationship between ethics and visual art. This started in 1998 when visual artist Teemu Mäki made a video where he killed a cat with three blows from an axe and finally ejaculated on it. This scene lasted 6 seconds. The Finnish Board of Film Classification demanded that the artist remove the scene. Had he done so he would have been given permission to show the video in public. The artist did not accept the demand and thus the video is owned by the Finnish National Museum but can never been shown publicly.

Let´s make one thing clear. I do not accept the killing of any living creature, be it an animal or a human being, even for artistic purposes. Life is holy and should be respected both in real life and in art works. Killing a living creature is also illegal and against Finnish law and art should first and foremost respect that law.

This brings us to another, more recent censorship case, which has made it necessary again to ponder the relationship between art and ethics. Visual artist Ulla Karttunen’s work Neitsythuorakirkko (Virginwhorechurch)--which was shown in early 2010 in a gallery in Helsinki--included pornographic material she had found on the Internet, depicting adults having sexual intercourse with what were clearly minors. Her artwork was confiscated by the police and she was accused of sexual obscenity. In May 2007 a local court found her guilty of the “crime”, but did not order her to pay any fines. The artwork was considered illegal: using openly sexual scenes with minors is a crime according to Finnish law.

The artist was especially unhappy with this kind of conviction: it was the one she had feared most. She felt that this verdict “made her even more guilty. A person who had been left to be punished.” Karttunen had since the beginning announced that this artwork was conceptual and political by nature: her intent was to show that in the margins of the Internet there was this illegal material to be found. According to the court decision, artistic freedom of expression differs from an editor´s and a scientist´s freedom of expression: the court’s statement was that the artist cannot represent “as part of his/her artwork illegal material in a way that influences societal opinion-forming.”

According to Karttunen the local court had understood the critical intent, but based their decision on an old-fashioned concept of art. In her opinion contemporary art is near journalism or science. She spoke for understanding the image[s] in different contexts: a pornographic image of a child in an artwork is not pornography. Its intent is completely different: showing the invisible mind-shaping forces in the groundwaters of our society, which--freely delivered on the Internet--pornography obviously is. Neitsythuorakirkko as an artwork was mainly political: its intent was to make visible these phenomena and criticize it.

Recently, animation director Katariina Lillqvist provoked discussion with her film about the Finnish national war hero from the beginning of the 20th century, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (1809-1917), with a scene where his Caucasian male servant flies to Mannerheim´s flat and they have sex together. Mannerheim was known for defending Finland against Germany and Russia in the Continuation War in 1944--there is no doubt about his stance in Finnish history. Nor was Mannerheim´s sexual orientation news--his homo/bisexuality has been under serious discussion for several decades, but for some reason it caused a stir in the media and among the public.

To get back to comic artist Ranta and his latest news, I can tell you that the city of Oulu did in the end decide to let him draw the educational album about Snellman for schoolchildren. However, in his own latest comic album, he has taken up another national hero of ours, closely connected with Snellman, namely the folk poetry collector and creator of our first national epic, Kalevala, who was also a medical doctor, Elias Lönnrot, as his main character. This album is called Kajaani and it has largely “humanized” our other national hero. Despite his being a hard worker, he also has a human side that has physical, even sexual and emotional needs--as we all do, but are not willing to acknowledge them in our heroes.

To conclude, both Islamist and Western countries like Finland have their own delicate points, their own ethnocentrisms, which they so carefully want to protect. Could these ethnocentrisms be somehow transcended? Could we reach the situation where respecting the face of the other, as philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggests, would be the guiding principle for our actions? People face to face are at the same time at their most fragile and at their most aggressive. It would help, if we would consider all the phenomena--be they connected with Islam, politics, or national history-- as colourful spectacles, which cannot be pruned to some trait only (for example fundamentalism), but vice versa: as phenomenon capable of containing all the sides, reaching from the most furious fundamentalism to the upmost tolerance.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Like everyone else, I have been eagerly awaiting Jonathan Franzen’s new novel. “Freedom” has been nine years in the making. Franzen just gave his first reading in New York City; he appeared on public radio, and his photograph made the cover of Time magazine with the caption “Great American Novelist.” Sam Tanenhaus in his New York Times review calls the book a masterpiece. He compares Franzen to Thomas Mann. Chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner, irritated by this ample publicity and the lack of such for many talented female writers, complained to her 15,000 twitter followers and termed the literary hashtag Franzenfreude.
Was she driven by what Germans call Futterneid (envy)? I can't help but be on Franzen’s side.”
“I became a writer because of German literature,” he said. His literary role models were Goethe, Kafka and Rilke. He spent two years as a Fulbright scholar studying German in Berlin and Munich. In an interview on German television he called 1981/82 in Berlin his most poetic year.
To Bernadette Conrad (Zeit, 8/04/05) he expressed his love for Thomas Mann’s fine irony and admitted to stealing some satirical passages from Karl Kraus for first novel The Twenty-Seventh City ( 1988). For a long time, he saw himself as a German writer. “Karl Kraus once compared French and German with a beautiful face and a face that has transformed itself into pure beauty," he said. "The attraction of German culture lies in the language. It is capable of horrific and wonderful things - incredibly ugly when spoken by the wrong people, but unsurpassable when used by others."
“What did you bring back from Germany?” Bernadette Conrad asked him. “An addiction to cigarettes, a higher tolerance for alcohol, skepticism about America, but also the certainty that I'd rather live in America than in Europe. I returned home cured from my longing to live in the old world,” he said.
Franzen was twenty-three in 1982 when he returned to the United States with a very German concept of literature. “Germans have a high tolerance for finding fun in challenging literature. American writers have to be entertainers; their readers expect to have a good time.” In Germany, he missed the playful, witty, and nonsensical in American literature.
Franzen once translated a book from the German. His translation of Franz Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening), made for Swarthmore College’s theater department in 1986, earned him $50 and was finally published in 2007.
Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain of others. Franzenfreude, according to Jennifer Weiner "is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen."
Freude is German for joy. I think all of us, writers and readers alike, should rejoice in his success. Why should only writers like James Patterson and Danielle Steele sell millions of books? Or to use Franzen’s words: let’s work a little harder, develop a higher tolerance and find fun in literature that makes us work.