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Elitist, yuck?!

Understanding the music of Kaija Saariaho, rock-club audience profiles, and a government minister’s alleged contempt for high
culture. The ‘arts elite’ is once again a topic for debate, but the coordinates have shifted, just as in the world outside the arts.

Linda Linko’s view on legendary Helsinki rock club Tavastia.

BY Sini Mononen

Understanding the music of Kaija Saariaho, rock-club audience profiles, and a government minister’s alleged contempt for high culture. The ‘arts elite’ is once again a topic for debate, but the coordinates have shifted, just as in the world outside the arts.

Kaija Saariaho, one of Finland’s leading contemporary composers, was 60 in October 2012. To mark the occasion, the leading Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat published an article by one of its editors, Ilkka Malmberg, in its monthly supplement describing his experience of Saariaho’s oratorio La Passion de Simone. His aim was to establish whether the uninitiated could ‘understand’ her music.

Malmberg listened to the oratorio and read a biography of the leading character, Simone Weil. The result was baffling: he told his readers he did not understand the music.

The article caused a considerable stir. First, there was talk about the nature of contemporary art and how to approach it. Does it need to be understood? How well-educated does the art consumer need to be, and then again: how difficult can art be? The consumers and makers of contemporary art were accused of elitism.


The debate on elitism in the arts is not new. Many Finns will recall arguments among the cultural opinion- leaders of the 1960s over the status of ‘low’ and ‘high’ culture. Composer and cultural activist Seppo Nummi accused audiences of ‘Arctic symphony phobia’. His slogan has lived on and is still quoted in defending the status of classical music.

The issue may be examined via the Helsinki Festival, first held in 1968. Seppo Nummi was one of the organisers and thus makers of its history. A festival offering a wide variety of artistic genres to the public at large, it nowadays goes under the slogan ‘Art is for All!’. Nummi also wanted to ensure that the festival would offer cheap tickets for students. But then some might regard this democratising gesture as elitist, seeing that the festival’s fundamental mission was to cure the public at large of its ‘Arctic symphony phobia’.

There were also attempts at educating people in the opposite direction in the 1960s. In 1963, ethnomusicologist Pekka Gronow criticised the traditional elite in an article in the student magazine Ylioppilaslehti reprimanding professor-composer Joonas Kokkonen for speaking of ‘primitive music’. For according to Gronow, all music is art, and there is no such thing as primitive music. In other words, music is art, regardless of genre, and all art is for all people. But is the public at large worthy of the art it is offered? Or is this, too, an elitist question? Is it right to expect anything of an audience?

Which elite?

Looking back over the previous ten years in 1969, composer- musicologist Erkki Salmenhaara claimed: “The concepts elite and pop have become crystallised as opposite poles, as slogans, often with no attempt to define their content and meaning.”

Two types of elite clearly emerge from the ongoing debate. The first is an ‘intellectual elite’, i.e. a group privileged by virtue of knowledge and better taste. Representatives of this group are to be found in both the classical and popular music camps. The second is a ‘moneyed elite’ able to buy itself into a chosen circle. Again, this division only partly explains the concept of elite. An elite is always in some way a privileged group, or one that has won itself privileged status. Its status may, on the other hand, be wounded by a change in the social environment. A music critic, for example, may be surprisingly influential in moulding the prestige of a particular genre, or in making or breaking the career of an individual musician. But the same critic is anything but elite at a sporting event.

This being the case, many can be accused of elitism: artists in receipt of grants, composers who write music that is too inaccessible, critics seasoning their texts with jargon, lovers of conventional high culture, buyers of pricey concert tickets.

Or the punters who attend sporting events and about whom the ‘arty folk’ have not a clue!

The moneyed elite

Whereas the intellectual elite may spread itself over many genres of the arts and thus be difficult to identify, the moneyed elite is easier to spot because of one crucial factor: money.

Finland does not face the problem, familiar to the visual arts in the United States, of the mega-rich investing astronomical sums in works by certain artists – regardless of content – and then hiking up the value with a view to future profits. In other words treating art like a stock-market commodity.

Compared with the moneyed elite, the traditional intellectual elite may even look quite attractive. When Helsingin Sanomat asked Finnish cultural opinion-leaders to assess the state of the arts in the first decade of the millennium, one author, Juha Seppälä, replied: “Art died when elitism vanished from culture. The basic premise is that we don’t need art in contemporary culture: it is useless, enfranchised, impossible to commodify, measure or calculate.”

The type of elitism based on social capital is possibly the most traditional. This elite does not need to make money or worry about what others think. The most aristocratic of all are the artists who can do whatever they like with no consideration for trends.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to be totally free from considerations of money.

The freedom of the artist is a great romantic myth that has been bandied about as the power of money has grown. In music, both popular and more ‘serious’ genres have a moneyed elite. Huge sums are paid for tickets to both operatic spectacles and pop concerts. True, an opposing trend can also be observed in both fields. Bands are distributing music free on the web, and classical concert organisers want their tickets to remain reasonably priced. Finland’s public subsidies mean that low-priced seats are also available for operas and symphony concerts.

The intellectual elite

The elite debate of the 1960s was mainly conducted by authoritative experts in the prestigious cultural press. Today, it has been democratised by the internet and blogging, and it is easier for the active aspirant to join the intellectual elite. Far more people are entering the debate in Finland today than they did in the 1960s – both Members of Parliament and ordinary folk.

The forum for one of the main items in the Saariaho debate was Facebook. Even Paavo Arhinmäki, Finland’s Minister of

Paavo Arhinmäki. Photo: Anders G. Warne.

Culture and Sport and a man accused of showing contempt for the arts, joined in. Voices were already being raised against him before Kaija Saariaho’s birthday, especially when he failed to attend the official opening of the new Musiikkitalo (Helsinki Music Centre) in August 2011. He was still defending himself on Facebook the following year: “I’ve been to the opera four times this year. How many more times do I need to go?”

A vociferous defender of popular art, and especially graffiti, left-wing Arhinmäki soon came to epitomise the anti-high-culture brigade. He jokingly called himself the “beaniehead-and-sneakers minister”, which was interpreted as demonstrating an interest in popular culture at the expense of high culture.

Opinions differ on whether the status of high culture has suffered a blow under Arhinmäki. But the roots of his pop-minister image lie more in the elitism debate of the 1960s, which was even fiercer than today’s. For the dominant image at that time was of a working-class, left-wing intellectual elite with an interest in popular culture that set itself up in opposition to the (moneyed) high-culture elite.

In a way, Mr Arhinmäki is regarded as a member of an ‘anti-elite’ elite. This is, however, an artificial construct. The division into popular and high is not as sharp today as it used to be. Like Mr Arhinmäki, many confess to a liking for both popular and more traditional high culture.

Pop culture is not, however, entirely without its own elite. In winter 2012, Helsinki graphic artist Linda Linko drew a map of the clientele of the oldest Helsinki rock club still up and running, the Tavastia. The map became a hit on Facebook. It showed where people choose their place in the club. The nerds and rock cops position themselves near the doors, the less active members of the audience at the back of the hall. Many recognised the familiar conventions on the map. The Tavastia, a mecca of counter-culture, also had its own social code: one area set aside for the ‘elite’ and another for the ‘others’.

Elitist art?

The Helsingin Sanomat article led Kaija Saariaho and Ilkka Malmberg to engage in public correspondence. Malmberg had found Saariaho’s music difficult – the sort that maybe does not appeal to a young audience. He wrote: “The younger generation in Finland no longer has this upward yen for high culture. It has a thousand scenes of its own; it’s perfectly happy for everyone to do whatever appeals. Without having to struggle.” The fact that a musical genre is not immediately accessible to all does not, however, make it elitist. It is absurd to call the people who enjoy the music of Kaija Saariaho elitist any more than it is the youngsters who feel at home in their own scenes.

Kaija Saariaho tried, in her reply, to draw her music closer to the public at large. She asked Malmberg: “What exactly did you expect of the concert? Why did you feel the need to prepare for it? Because from the listener’s point of view, a concert is a spontaneous situation; you just sit there and let the music flow over you! You don’t, to my mind, need to understand it; it’s an abstract empirical world that reaches each listener in a different way. If it does, that is, because people don’t all like everything in any walk of life, let alone in art.” Indeed. The arts-elite’s biggest gift to other elites is surely art that all can access as if for the first time, without any prior knowledge, money or social status. It may also generate a sense of elitism – an elitism that is, at that very moment, a personally defined luxury. Looked at from this perspective, elitism may be a good thing, a guarantee of a quality worth striving for.

Sini Mononen is a freelance writer and a postgraduate in musicology at the University of Turku.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo