in Columns

Talking of stalking

by Sini Mononen

What is the societal function of music – and art in general – in addressing violence? Should art depict violence, and if so, how?

Music is generally associated with positive things in life: celebrations, fond memories, happiness and affection. Yet music can equally well accompany negative and traumatic experiences such as sorrow, anxiety or fear. Music can also be violent. We often forget this aspect of how music reflects the dark side of life.

The relationship of violence and art is not entirely uncomplicated, however. While art offers vehicles for processing violence and can serve to make violence visible, it can also enable a culture of violence. A good example of this is sexual harassment, which recently became a hot topic in public debate thanks to the #MeToo campaign, Finland not excepted.

This topic is not without relevance in art. The history of Western art is full of examples of violence and inequality rooted in gender and sexuality. Yet a proper debate on the relationship between art and violence has yet to emerge, particularly in the music sector, where the societal function of music remains a marginal interest.


Perhaps one reason for why representations of violence in art are discussed so rarely, especially in music, is the difficulty of perceiving a connection between music and violence. This is partly because of a conception of art that considers music to be at least somehow aloof from societal issues, and partly because of the way in which we understand violence.

If we do not perceive a particular form of violence, we cannot notice its representations.

While the #MeToo campaign has focused on inappropriate and violent behaviour such as persecution and rape, other forms of harassment and interference have been completely ignored. For example, the campaign has said nothing at all about a relatively common and serious form of sexual harassment and interference – stalking.

Stalking is a fairly common and serious form of violence. It is considered gendered violence against women, although anyone at all can become a stalker’s victim. While stalking was defined as a crime elsewhere in the Western world beginning in the 1990s, Finland was a latecomer; stalking was criminalised here as of the beginning of 2014.

Stalking is an example of the kind of violence that has remained invisible in our culture for a long time.

Invisible violence is violence that goes unnoticed. It may simply be ignored, either not considered violence at all or otherwise overlooked. On the other hand, the very conception of what constitutes violence may lead to some forms of violence not being recognised as such. The ignoring may thus be unconscious.

In both cases, the invisibility of violence comes down to how we understand the concept: what violence is, at whom it is aimed, who perpetrates it and why it occurs.

Enduring Love.© Paramount Classics & Pathé Pictures.


So what does violence have to do with art?

Stalking is an excellent example of how our conception of violence evolves. Although stalking behaviour has always been around, it was only very recently that it was named and understood as a form of violence in Finland. Art has been instrumental in informing our conception of stalking as violence. Orit Kamir, who has studied stalking legislation and films featuring stalking has shown a correlation between films and legislation criminalising stalking. When legislation on stalking was being prepared in California, there was very little academic research on stalking, and popular conceptions of stalking were mainly based on how it had been depicted by Hollywood.

Films can influence conceptions of stalking through explicit stalking narratives and, more subtly, by references to the themes of stalking. Music is of crucial importance in this process; after all, music is used in films to express what the characters are feeling or what a particular thing means to them.

Sometimes the way in which film music depicts stalking has its roots far back in the history of music.

In the film Enduring Love (2004) directed by Roger Michell there is a stalking Leitmotif. Based on the eponymous novel by Ian McEwan, the film focuses on Joe, who becomes the victim of a stalker. The trauma caused by the stalker is reflected in the Leitmotifs that haunt Joe in the score of the film.

The Leitmotif technique as used in film music is derived from the operas of Richard Wagner, although musicologists point to an earlier manifestation of the concept in the idee fixé featured in Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique op. 14 (1830), a symptom of his obsessive and stalking relationship with actress Harriet Smithson.

In the film Enduring Love, the obsessive Leitmotifs literally stalk Joe while expressing how traumatic and oppressive the experience is. 

1024Px Gallen Kallela The Aino Triptych
Aino Myth by Akseli Gallen-Kallela has been a topic for debate in Finland.


While the cultural history of violence can be traced in the aesthetics of artworks, the question of how art and violence relate to one another is also a very practical one.

The #MeToo campaign has led in Finland to a discussion about the role of arts institutions as maintainers of representations of violence. Susanna Pettersson, Director of the Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, has defended Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Aino Myth (1891), a painting illustrating a tale in the national epic, the Kalevala, where the aged shaman Väinämöinen has designs on a young maiden named Aino. She drowns herself rather than succumb to his advances.

The triptych prompted the question of whether institutions and the art world in general should be more critical of the artworks they display and uphold, or whether the art depicting our cultural history should be reframed and re-examined from the point of view of culture today.

This issue is not without relevance in music. After all, in the history of opera female characters are often raped and very frequently killed (see FMQ's playlist here). In popular music today, gender equality and outright misogyny are a very real problem.

Perhaps we should ask: Should the music sector be more critical about the sort of culture it is promoting and maintaining? How can we re-listen to music and our sonic history? What can music tell us about the values of our culture?

It can be argued that representations of violence can have a constructive impact. In depicting violence, art makes violence visible and questions the values and worldview of our culture.

For instance, in exposing sexual violence, harassment and stalking, art poses the questions: Why do we allow a culture where harassment and stalking are possible? And who is responsible for the fact that violence can be both ubiquitous and ignored?

The flip side of the coin is that such artworks build a world where great value is placed on artworks based on a culture of cruelty. Perhaps it is time to take another look at this aspect of arts history.

The writer is a scholar and a critic finishing her dissertation on the cinematic representations of violent stalking experiences through music and sound at the Department of Musicology at the University of Turku.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Featured photo: From the production of Kaija Saariaho's opera Adriana mater at the Finnish National Opera. Photo: Heikki Tuuli.