Mammalian labyrinths

The year is once again half done and the grantees’ worries about their livelihoods return. Which grants to apply for next? What if you will not get any more funding? What if the source runs out, the nectar dries? You have still not finished what you promised to do — but you cannot explain why that is because your life does not fit into these neat documents or bend to the laws of efficiency stipulated by the members of a faceless board. No school or fantasy of artist life prepared you for grant economy, for your annual date with that pile of paper.

Complaining that a life of expressive freedom with an (almost) tax-free income is hard might sound like the whining of a pampered libertine spoiled by his privilege, but I have never met anyone who has not been driven to neurotic symptoms by grant applications. The Finnish word for grant, apuraha, translates literally into ‘help money’. Sometimes I think that it is the word itself that makes you feel helpless: because you are unable to support yourself, you are like a child, not an adult who is making it on their own. It does not exactly make life easier that the grantors are often as mute as strict parents, traumatizing their children by acting cold and not explaining why.

I am not being literal, of course. At the same time, however, I’m not sure how to discuss the affective meaning of institutions without sounding like a clichéd sentimental fool. Still, it is inevitable that social institutions who assume the role of the guardian become objects of complex emotional transference. Should they recognize their responsibility in this matter more openly? How could we ask institutions and offices, the parental substitutes that they are, to understand us, to reveal why they love certain children more than us? How could we tell them that every year we are overwhelmed with fear of abandonment because we feel that we have not deserved the love of our guardians?

Even if we could – then what? It is obvious, for example, that the grant award criteria are not revealed in order to protect the objectivity of the committees and the fairness of the distribution of funds. Social relationships and personal feelings should not play a role in how an artist’s work is perceived. This is because the whole modern system of evaluating art is based on the idea of artwork as an independent entity: the belief that the value of an artwork stems only from the piece itself, not the life of the artist. Grantors are not responsible for the personal growth of an individual. They are only interested in the artistic outcome.

The division between life and work, private and public, perception and the perceived, spirit and matter, labour and leisure, object and goal is closely connected to the many cultural divisions and habits, technical and administrative practices, on which our society is based. It is fuelled by faith in the rationalization of productivity, increasingly efficient and precise measurability, which transforms anything into raw material for technology. This industrial theology is difficult to question. We believe, especially in the West, that the solution to societal problems is the same as in industry: to make things more simple, efficient, and affordable. Because of this rationalizing faith, when we attempt to determine the value of art, we always proceed by separating life from work, objects from subjects, the knowable from the unknowable, in order to make things less complicated and easier to measure. It is difficult to imagine any other way of evaluating art — and therefore it is also difficult to imagine a grantor that would get involved in the life of the artist it supports and that would value this life as highly as the art the grant enables.

Yet it would not hurt to remember every now and then that we are not rational beings but mammals who build labyrinths for themselves to get lost in; that our institutions are not independent structures we have found in the wild, but civilized herds with their own subconscious world of instincts, just like individuals. Because of this secret life, no board or committee is objective, and no artist’s individual merit can be separated from the messy pasture of entangled wants and lusts, causes and effects — history — where everything that happens takes shape as a world the obviousness of which we are hard put to question, because we have lived through it.

This obviousness is not, however, necessary: we can imagine differently at any given moment, escape the old labyrinth and enter a new architecture. It is not easy. But the more we maintain the division between life and work, the more we separate reason from emotion, artist from society, individual from herd, conscious from subconscious, cause from effect — and the more we construct and support procedures, practices and structures where the division is inbuilt, the less we understand our history, and the less the past is understood, the muter and neurotic our institutions, offices and boards, the more distant our relatives and the more broken our families become. Our society and its institutions are as much the offspring of our art as our children of our nature, and comprise not only what we do but also who we are, and therefore we must find new ways of finding each other as each other’s parents and care for the children we have built; at least this is what I’m thinking today but perhaps only because I am a sentimental fool, or because I am so stressed out about applying for funding once again.


Teemu Manninen

Poet and a literary critic. Photo by Leena Lahti