President Alar Karis: We as a nation must feel pride in Estonian art

President Alar Karis.
President Alar Karis. Source: Meeli Küttim

Estonia needs spokespersons who have a clear voice and a wide view of society from across the cultural sector, to avoid the national mind-space being dominated by economic, pragmatic and political thinking and finding room for spiritual needs, human goals and deeper thought, President Alar Karis said in a speech marking the 101st anniversary of the foundation of the Estonian Artists' Association (EKL), which follows.

Dear, respected Estonian artistic family, congratulations on the EKL's 101st anniversary.

It was but a few years ago that you marked your 75th birthday, and yet now it is the 101st anniversary. How quickly time flies. However, in fact, it is clear that considering yourself the legal successor of the Estonian Association of Visual Artists (EKKKÜ, which existed during the period of the First Estonian Republic-ed.) is the only way to go. It is also very typical of you artists to mark your 101st birthday in a major way – a centennial would have been too unoriginal and ordinary for artists!

If you take a brief look at the initial impulses and activities involving the EKKKÜ, founded on March 14, 1922, one might get the impression that nothing has changed in a hundred years.

After all, the association's task was to bring together Estonian artists, in order to protect their material and spiritual interests and to deepen and spread the culture of the arts, in Estonia. However, this ideal did not last long: Already after a year there was to be a gap in the association, as the chairman offended, and was changed.

These early years were described most wittily by the artist August Jansen (1881-1957), writing in the monthly magazine Olion (published 1930-1936 in Tartu and Tallinn, and 1956-1960 in Sydney, Australia-ed.), in 1932, who said: "If our artists have had some bad instincts, they have developed with the birth of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia (Eesti Kultuurkapital). Things have never been as personal or intolerant as they are now. These instincts also dealt a new blow to the EKKKÜ later on. After seven years of cooperation with the "Palladians" Society of Artists /.../ God forbid their members being members of a Society of Artists. In the meantime, you are looking for ways to create some kind of vague art hub, but the last congress of artists, in Tallinn in the spring of 1929, demonstrated once and for all that artists can produce more with their mouths, than with their deeds. At that infamous congress, where, among other things, a large number of dilettantes and art students were recognized as artists by referendum, a type of 'Collection of Artists' was founded, which was intended to fill the void left by the Society of Artists."

Hopefully, this was the final hurrah, to bring together art people under the one umbrella, because it would be too much if we were to obtain a third general organization for our little art family. It would be better for each and every artist to ask of themselves, whether it is with our nation that the fault and the lack of understanding of a common language lies, or in each individual self; Isn't it up to everyone here to create a more solid organization between mouth, head and heart?"

Yes, the superficial juxtaposition of the past and the present does not bear up in any way. Nowadays, the situation is incomparably better.

We have a cohesive artistic family, with so many unique and unique exciting creators. The new Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA) building has given the whole field a new lease of life and a focal point; there are many active and talented young people there, who want to study art and connect their lives with it, and who EKA grants a great circle of acquaintances to; a network of people, in a closed art guild, for life; our artists are present at major international events and residencies. An ever-wider cooperation between different fields, from visual and applied arts to architecture and the performing arts, can be seen. A great example of cross-sectoral cooperation is definitely this year's Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Furthermore, the artist's salary has become somewhat of a natural phenomenon in our society. There have also been a small number of creators who make a living from their output, plus entrepreneurs who appreciate and support art are quietly added along with private individuals who purchase art.

A lot of so-called "Percent for art" has entered the public space, which – it is true – could be better directed and thus increase quality, and yet many worthy works have come to life even now. The work of curators has also become more and more valued and their fees have increased significantly.

All this is topped off by our loyal and considerable art audience, whose numbers are also gradually finding their way back to galleries and exhibitions after the artificial break of the coronavirus pandemic.

Yes. So far so good, but still…

We are still talking about the insufficiency with the state's art funding and the placing of excessive burdens, the options of health insurance for all creators, the painful situation facing the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) , the limited space at EKA, the placing of the renovation of Tallinn Art Gallery on hold; that our art field relies too much on private organizers and people's sense of mission; that lecturers are unable to persuade their friends to join them in becoming lecturers, because of the low salary; that it is not possible to make a living from art.

None of this could be described as normal.

I completely agree with that assessment. This is not a normal or sustainable situation. These things must and will change, but the changes will take time. This is too time-consuming for our small country. As a nation, we have to make an effort so that we can look at Estonian art without feeling ashamed, because the attitude towards our culture makes a state a state.

IN this, I thank and praise the tireless advocates from your field – Elin Kardi, president of the EKL, and Kadi-Ell Tähiste, CEO of the art institutions union (Kael). But I challenge all of you to make art more visible and audible, within the public discussion space.

Your thoughts are valued, and enrich the public opinion space. The more people who write and think about art, the more social resonance there is for the field as a whole. I am talking here about art criticism and reception as well as artist monographs and approaches. This also applies to today's creators.

We also need spokespeople who have a clear voice and broad social vision, from within the entire cultural field. This will stop our thought space not only from being dominated by economic thinking, pragmatism and politics, but also by spiritual needs, human goals and deeper thought. No one else but you can do that, either. Herein lies also your responsibility.

Finally, I would like to quote August Gailit (1891-1960), a member of Young Estonia (Noor-Eesti,  a neo-romantic literary group established around 1905) who played an important role in the creation of the artists' union, and was later a member of the Siuru literary group, and who said: "Since man is created for a certain task, some deeper thought is given to him in the cradle, but it cannot be power, glory and the birthing of pain for your fellows. To find the deeper meaning in your task, to ennoble and beautify life - this alone separates you from the predator and endures pride in your house.

"You water your flower so that it will bloom longer, so why don't you water your joy and love, so that it does not wither the very next day? Why have you opened all the doors of your heart, so that evil and doubts rush in like winter storms, yet you turn your faces away from faith and hope, as if you had spied something ugly?"

"That is why the artist paints, to show what we ourselves have not wanted to notice or what we have become habituated to; that is why the writer writes, so that you read what your heart and eyes have not reached; for this, the composer writes music, so that you sing and shout along with those sounds which you have concealed within your hardened heart."

"All of this reveals a strong, bubbling life, because in your greed and hustle you have forgotten the main thing - that you are living!"

Dear Estonian artistic family, never tire of showing us the deepest task and thoughts of mankind. Never fatigue in showing us that we are living. Thank you. I'm relying on you.

This piece first appeared on ERR's Kultuur portal.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Kaspar Viilup

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