Matti Linnavuori(Finland)[1]


If we critics are to survive, we should also get paid for what we do. In the internet, this is rarely the case. Meanwhile, the traditional print media no longer feels that carrying arts coverage adds to its prestige.

On the internet not just anyone can proclaim her or himself a rocket scientist, but anyone can be a critic of the arts. This has generally been hailed as a good thing. I am delighted that people have opinions about art, even when they are not familiar with the particular piece under discussion, but I wonder why suddenly an expertise in arts is considered undemocratic, futile and obsolete. Not everything in our societies follows the same logic. There are fields of expertise, which remain exclusive and beyond democratic control, e.g. sending rockets into foreign territory.

Is criticism then unnecessary? Is there anyone who actually needs arts criticism? Yes of course, the arts. The arts need to be discussed seriously. They need to prove to the rest of the society that they make a difference; that the arts leave a spiritual or intellectual trace in their spectators—I was about to say “consumers.” The arts need to establish that this trace is a justification for the subsidies and sponsorship they receive. If artistic content were to be replaced by sheer show business, according to our current capitalistic ideals, the business should be left to survive on its consumerist merits, or perish. The philosopher Ville Lähde writes (Teatteri & tanssi 1/2013) that the market economy is a poor guide to art, because if the best-seller is also the best art, there can never be any development. He compares this to a school which would teach only the things that the pupils already excel in.

Theatres should become publishers

I am aware of at least two locations where criticism can still be encountered, before its final extinction. Let me borrow an idea from Sweden. Because media houses have lost their interest in the arts, it should be theatres who publish criticism. Theatres should then invite spectators to comment reviews which they, the theatre companies, then publish. This means that critics would be employed—on a freelance basis, no doubt—by theatre companies and not by media houses. There are several ways that this can be realized, in order to ensure that criticism does not slip into advertising the company’s productions. Firstly, each critic serves each theatre for a pre-determined term, say one season or one year, and then critics rotate to the next theatre company. Alternatively, each critic of one company also reviews other major companies’ productions in the same town, so that each production receives several reviews. I e-mailed this outlandish, Swedish initiative to the director of the Finnish National Theatre, Mr Mika Myllyaho. It took him five days to produce this answer: “People need the theatre, and that is enough.” (Krititiikin untiset 2/2012)

Critics could perform live

The other means of survival for criticism I borrow from France. In Comedie de Caen in Normandy, I have had the pleasure of participating in live criticism on stage immediately after the performance in front of not only the spectators but also the director and actors. Did I really say “pleasure”? For someone who has expressed himself in writing all through his professional career, performing live criticism can be a nerve-racking experience, but it is also a huge adrenaline rush. Of course, one reaches far less people than on the internet, but the quality of the contact may be unique. And what is even better, live criticism needs to have more than one critic present to produce more than one opinion; but then again, not really more than three critics, because then peer pressure will persuade everyone to agree on everything. In Normandy, because we critics have originated from different countries and different cultural backgrounds, we have produced varying interpretations of what we just saw, and hopefully kept our listeners interested.

Clicks don’t lie

I am an old-fashioned critic. My species is becoming extinct. My fatal mistake was to write for people who want to acquire more knowledge. But knowledge is no longer a reason for people to use media. If people are not in search of titillation, then they seek support to their mixed bag of misunderstandings, prejudice and biases, and media houses cynically manipulate us into treating all that as a worthwhile ideology. Counting clicks, media houses—and U.S. intelligence—know the very core of our behavior. They actually brag that they will only offer us the kind of news we are already interested in. I think this goes counter the very idea of what “news” means, i.e. getting unforeseen information, but modern news media insist on treating me to this sort of news: yes indeed the earth is flat, and you heard it from us!

My second, equally naïve mistake was to think that the educated middle class would survive anything; that enjoying the fruits of civilization would be a lifelong passion to a considerable number of people; that being a cultured person would always be perceived as a goal in itself, because having wider perspectives on life would be somehow valuable. Remember that not too long ago there was even a material value to it; I mean a modest fee from practicing one’s expertise on cultural matters. It is a huge disappointment to see that intellectual or moral growth should stop the very moment economic growth stagnates; that we actually possess no bank of spiritual wealth. What about all those artworks, where a wrongly imprisoned nobleman takes refuge in questions of philosophy, and as a byproduct teaches his fellow inmates a moral lesson—was Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment just a rotten lie?

Now that economic growth gets a mention, let me introduce Continuous Growth, a Scottish production at Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2012. It was translated and adapted from a Finnish play by Esa Leskinen and Sami Keski-Vähälä, who first started criticizing the practices of economy with their adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s story The Overcoat (2009); The Group Theatre (Ryhmäteatteri) whirled poor Akaki Akakiyevich into a contemporary office. This series of productions maintains that from a globally ecological point of view, continuous economic growth equals voluntary self-destruction.

We never spoke to Brecht

As a Finnish patriot, I now describe Finnish cultural products and practices in a shameless effort to promote them. Bertolt Brecht fled from Nazi Germany to Finland, where he stayed long enough to writeMr Puntila and his Man Matti (1940), before continuing to the United States. The play is based on an earlier play by Hella Wuolijoki, herself originally Estonian, but firmly established in Finland, a business lady but politically on the left. After the war she became the director of the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Brecht felt uncomfortable in the company of us sullen and quiet Finns. His often quoted remark says that the Finns keep bilingually silent, referring to the two official languages of the country, Finnish and Swedish. It seems to me that by silence Brecht means that it is socially unacceptable to express views different from majority opinion.

Finns still continue in this tradition. Strictly speaking Finland was not a satellite of the Soviet Union, and there were no dissidents who would have fled the country. Therefore, we have no exiled intelligentsia, which would provide a second opinion. In comparison, take a look at our neighboring Estonia, where the current president Toomas Hendrik Ilves was born to refugee parents in Sweden, he was educated in the United States and after a university career in Canada he worked for Radio Free Europe in Germany. The Finnish expats, in their hundreds of thousands, moved to Sweden in the 1960s. They were farmers, who overnight became assembly line workers. It was the fastest urbanization process in European history, but it is only now that significant art works are being created about the experience, e.g. the novelSvinalängorna (2006, in Swedish) by Susanna Alakoski, and the feature film Beyond (2010), based on the novel and directed by Pernilla August.

Instead of producing and celebrating a variety of opinions the internet commentaries in the webpages of Finnish media tend to repeat unanimity. Take any respectable medium which does not allow just any outbursts, but actually moderates the comments, and you will find that it takes less than ten contributions for any and every discussion to turn into a vicious attack against minorities, be they linguistic, ethnic, sexual, religious, or against women, who are not a minority. University researchers are afraid to publish their results on multicultural studies, because they will receive threats of violence toward them and toward their children.

Maria-Liisa Nevala was the director of the National Theatre from 1992 to 2010. In her memoirs (Mieleni talot, 2012) she writes that in the early 1990s she hoped for a Finnish playwright to tackle the question of racism and xenophobia, but none took it up. She felt that translating a foreign play would allow Finns to treat racism as not our inherent social problem, but something which only concerns them, the others. Finally, The National Theatre was very brave to produce The Paper Anchor (2011), which was devised from interviews with asylum seekers, and subsequently also telecast by YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company. On the webpage of the show, the fourth comment written under the name of Brainwash disapproves with these words (my translation): “An unusually one-eyed piece of propaganda in support of a foreign invasion.” The last two words I am not quite sure about because the pen-name Brainwash makes errors in orthography.

NOTE: The above combines the best moments from two papers I gave, one in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, in April 2013, and one in Bucharest, Romania, in November 2013.


[1] Matti Linnavuori edits the Performance Reviews section of Critical Stages. He is a regular contributor to Parnasso, a literary journal in his native Finland. He has written, translated from English and directed several radio plays for YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and co-written one stage play, In Search of the Lost Baseball (2006) for Koko Theatre (Helsinki).

Copyright © 2014 Matti Linnavuori
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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The Critic Waves Goodbye to the Middle Class