Former Finnish President
Urho Kekkonen (1900-1986) has two debated monuments in Finland. The debates
surrounding these monuments contain
intense rhetoric which indicates a particular sentiment towards Kekkonen. This
attitude is described in the article in terms of cultic discourse. During
the first monument project at the end of the 1980s,
Kekkonen was still broadly seen as an official political icon, which was
approached through personality cultic discourse. The second monument was
executed in 2000 after large critical debates over the Kekkonen era and his
persona. As a result of these debates, the cultic discourse transformed its traits – Kekkonen
was consciously seen as a mythological figure whose features could be
exaggerated, ironized and turned into hilarious stories. In the postmodern atmosphere
of the turn of the millennium, the figure of Kekkonen was even aestheticized
as camp. This article explains how the cultic discourse about Kekkonen has
changed in Finland during the past two decades.
cult, cultic discourse, camp, monument, Urho Kekkonen, Finland
Cultic discourse in
Erecting a monument
for the commemoration of a person is a practice which frequently produces
public discussions on the meanings of the monument. Sometimes the monuments even cause severe debates, in which people are only
seemingly talking about the monument or the formal qualities of it, and in fact,
through these debates much ‘deeper’ juxtapositions in society come to the surface. On a ‘deeper’ level, discussion
and debates on monuments are often discussions on values, different
interpretations of history, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ memories, morals, identity and, especially, discussions
on power – who in society has the power to
define decent values, correct interpretations of history, ‘right’ memories,
proper morality and who we are? Often monuments function as channels for drawing
out social friction on these issues. The frictions are
particularly strong when they include discourse which can be described as
cultic, as monument debates often do. In this article I will focus on
cultic discourses in two monument debates which arose from monument projects
for a former Finnish President – Urho
Kekkonen (1900-1986). The first monument was unveiled in 1990 in Kajaani, where
Kekkonen was born. The second was unveiled in 2000,
in the Finnish capital city of Helsinki. Both of these monuments evoked intense
public debates, which were however, very different from one other.
The empirical material of the article, including texts on the
monuments published in several Finnish newspapers and magazines, was collected from libraries and several Finnish archives (Central Art
Archives of Finnish National Gallery, Prime Minister´s Office Archives and
Kajaani City Archives). The aim of the material collection has been to find all published texts on the
monuments. The data related to the first monument project consists of 284 pieces
of text, and the second consists of 187 pieces. The largest part of the material is formed by news texts and letters to the editor in local, regional and national
newspapers. The speakers in the
texts represent several positions such as journalists, art critics, artists,
officials, politicians from different parties, and so-called lay people. The voice of artists, officials, politicians
and ‘lay people’ is present in the texts both as self-written opinions and as
edited statements in interviews made by journalists. By ‘lay people’ I refer to people who do not have any
public position in cultural or social fields and who do not belong to any of the previously mentioned categories. Besides
the empirical material mentioned above, the points of view in the article rely
on texts which were published during the monument projects but which, instead
of the monument, focus mainly on Kekkonen.
These texts form a larger social context for analysing the meaning-making
processes in the monument debates.
The newspapers have an
essential role in the research of public discussions in Finland. The press has
had, and still has, a profoundly strong position in the country. Newspapers are
read carefully and regularly. Even though the time used for general reading has
diminished in the last decades, the time spent daily on reading newspapers among
Finnish readers has not varied significantly (Hujanen 2001: 38). Previous
research on Finnish media behaviour has shown that still in 2000, daily newspapers
reached 86 % of Finnish residents aged 12 to 69 – considerably greater
coverage in comparison to television, radio or magazines (Wiio &
Nordenstreng 2001: 14). Throughout the monument projects of Kekkonen, the press
seems to have been the largest forum in which people could take part in interactive
public discussion. Because of the strong position of the press, the texts
published in newspapers have often caused reactions and action both on the popular
and institutional levels of society. In addition, the debates of Kekkonen´s
monument projects caused public declarations, political action as well as an
active and vast exchange of opinions, which reveal for example, discursive
formations of cultic attitudes towards the president.
The press also efficiently
produces supposed public opinion. Letters to the editor and published Gallup
polls in newspapers effortlessly establish a myth of common public opinion as
an additive sum of individual views. Pierre Bourdieu has written on a produced
consensus effect in the formation of so-called public opinion: the impression
of public opinion legitimates certain political action and at the same time
makes it possible (Bourdieu 1993: 150-151). In the Kekkonen monument debates, many
of the politicians and lay people took the published opinions in the press as
expressions of the existing public opinion. Thus, it gave them reason and
‘right’ to take part in the debate and try to influence the progress of the
During the decade between
the erections of the monuments of Kekkonen, various kinds of changes in
cultural, political and social atmosphere have occurred both in Finland and in
the larger international scene. These changes have had an effect on the views
and representations of Kekkonen as a ‘Great Man’. Thus, the debates reflect a
change in attitudes towards Kekkonen, which has occurred in Finland from the
end of the 1980s through to this millennium. I define this change as a change of
cultic relation towards Kekkonen. The aim of this article is to demonstrate
this change and explain how cultic discourse takes on differing tones in
changing social and cultural contexts.
approach to monument debates enables the analysis of meaning-making processes, as
well as the construction of meanings, such as cultic meanings of Kekkonen. The
theoretical background of the article arises from approaches of social
constructionism which emphasize reality as constructions produced in language,
interaction and social practices. In social constructionism, language is not
just an instrument in communication, but is seen as producing, justifying and
changing practices in reality (Shotter 1993: 6-10, 99-101; Gergen 1999). Discourse
studies as a method, relies on the theoretical background of social
constructionism. Even though discourse studies include several different
orientations, a common point of view is in the emphasis placed on the constructed
character of social entities, relations and phenomena. In the analysis, some discourses
are seen to produce one version of reality, while some others produce another
version (Fairclough 1992a: 3-4). Critical emphasis in discourse analysis
stresses linguistic choices as a use of power (Foucault 1972; Fairclough 1992b:
8-9; 2001: 36-63). In this article I will define discourse as a particular way
of representing reality. These representations which are expressed in monument
debates, construct the monuments, events, concepts, memories, identities and aspects
related to them in a complex way. These representations also indicate the power
positions and hierarchies which are intertwined in language use and meaning-making
In discourse studies,
the concept of text usually refers to a larger category than just spoken and
written communication. It can be understood in the broader Barthian sense to also
contain visual representations, objects and other meaningful ‘language’
(Barthes 1973). Norman Fairclough has even used the concept of semiosis instead
of text in his theory of discourse analysis to emphasise the complex and
manifold character of meaningful expressions or ‘language’ (Fairclough, Jessop
& Sayer 2003; Fairclough 2004a; Fairclough 2004b: 112). In this article, a
discursive approach is used for analysing the empirical material. This material
consists of published texts written in several genres, pictures, caricature
drawings and different kinds of cultural products which have been inspired by Kekkonen´s
persona. All of these representations and expressions, in addition to their communicative
use, are perceived as contributing to the production of discourse.
The concept of cult is
defined profoundly differently in different research orientations. However, it is
often used relating to highly emotional, enthusiastic and socially charged
content regarding a public person or cultural product and devotion to a
phenomenon – possibly even in a fanatic manner (Saresma & Kovala
2003: 9; Kovala 2003: 189). Cultic attitude in personality cults is noticeably socially
different to cultic attitude towards products and phenomena in popular culture.
The starting points of personality cults are usually in ‘top-down’ produced
structures and ideology, as well as in political action in which objects of
admiration are offered and constructed for the people. Unlike political
personality cults, cultic cultural phenomena are often marginalised from
mainstream culture and even take on a kind of counter position to it – as demonstrated for example in cultic literature (Kovala
2003: 191). However, the common features of cultic attitudes towards a person
or a cultural product are unquestioning admiration, in addition to the experience
of belonging to and identifying with a particular group (Saresma & Kovala
Seeing cultic features
in monument debates depends on how we understand the concept of cult. Instead
of stressing cults as social phenomena, in this article I will discuss cults
and cultic features as discursive phenomena, which are expressed in texts and
language use. The approach transfers the focus of the research to linguistic
and discursive aspects in cultic meaning-making processes. This kind of
approach has been used, for example by Péter Dávidházi when writing about
cultic reception and cultic ways of using language (Dávidházi 2002: 8-21). In
his views, cultic language use or cultic discourse forms an essential component
in cults as a social practice. According to Dávidházi, cultic language is
characterised by preference for such glorifying statements as those which can
be neither (empirically) verified nor falsified, use of religious or
quasi-religious metaphors and similes, as well
as transcendental expressions (Dávidházi 2002: 8, 17). In this article, cultic discourse
is seen in terms of Dávidházi. The research of cults
is an interdisciplinary study field which has traditionally belonged to the
interests of anthropologists. However, cults have also been researched in the
fields of history, cultural studies, psychology, media studies and political
science. In the fields of history and political science interests have focused on
the research of personality cults of political leaders. Particularly, the
totalitarian leaders of the past century in Europe in addition to the practices
of creating as well as maintaining their position and image have been explored
in recent studies (eg. Apor, Behrends, Jones & Rees 2005). In cultural
and media studies, the interests have centered on communal cultural practices
and creation of cults in popular culture, such as fandom (eg. Harris &
Alexander 1998; Lewis 1992; Kovala & Haverinen forthcoming). This article
combines the points of view of researching historical personality cults and
cultic cultural practices. Additionally, the article highlights the research of
cults in the field of art history by using art historical concepts and
understanding as well as artworks themselves, as a basis of the study.
personality cultic discourse and critical views
Kekkonen (Agrarian League, later Centre Party) has been a greatly discussed
figure in Finnish society during the last decades. Public discussions on the
president and the phases of his era have been analysed, criticised, supported
and researched on the academic, political and popular levels of Finnish
society. Kekkonen was a charismatic leader of the state for four presidential terms,
from 1956 to 1981. This period of time saw a number of political and social
phenomena, such as rapid economic growth and Finlandization, Kekkonen´s
presidency and his persona in Finnish social memory. The image of Kekkonen was produced,
formulated and controlled during the years of his life, and particularly in his
later presidential terms. Negative representations of him were suppressed and
positive ones stressed by several media forums, his supporters, his office and himself
(eg. Paavinsalo 1995: 102-109, 189-190; Tuikka 2007: 311-319, 345-346, 360-361).
Besides the suppressed critique, Kekkonen also faced open adoration. Thus, we
might say that there was some kind of political personality cult of Kekkonen that emerged in Finland during the years of his life. This
personality cult was fostered and strengthened by the people who shared a
common political background to Kekkonen. Part of the production of the
personality cult was the telling of heroic stories about him and his actions along
with making up benevolent jokes, where the president had the role of a clever
and smart man of the people.
Kekkonen died on
August 31st, 1986. Only three days after his death, the Finnish media started a
public discussion on his commemoration. The opening of the discussion was published
in the national newspaper, Iltalehti, on
September 3rd, 1986. It was featured in a large article wherein ten well-known
citizens from different societal sectors and ten people ‘on the street’ were
interviewed. As a result, the newspaper article’s title stated: “Man on the
street wants: a figurative statue” (Iltalehti 1986). Kajaani, the
former home town of Kekkonen, soon decided to commemorate
his life with a public monument and a public monument competition was launched
shortly after Kekkonen´s funeral. An abstract monument proposal made by
sculptor Pekka Kauhanen was chosen as the winner by the monument committee. The
monument proposal immediately caused an intensive public debate both in the
local and national media. The debate reflected both the old personality cultic discourse,
which still existed, and the more critical views of him, which were now after
Kekkonen´s death more openly drawn into public discussion. Thus, the monument
project offered a channel for a public and politically attuned conversation
from a seemingly cultural stand point.
Picture 1, Caption: Urho
Kekkonen monument The Great Era, Pekka Kauhanen, 1990 Kajaani, bronze.
Photo: Tuuli Lähdesmäki.
In the personality
cultic discourse of the debate, Kekkonen’s persona was depicted as a true hero,
whose greatness was taken for granted and needed no justification. His deeds
and characteristics were praised and seen in a sublime, idealistic and
romanticized light. Even religious expressions were used in depicting his value.
In the following letter to the editor extract, from the regional newspaper Kainuun
Sanomat (Kajaani), Kekkonen was seen as fulfilling the will
of God in international peace politics:
No earthly memorial can depict the task of that
era, because it was so big, difficult and unique. To us Finns, one very
difficult thing was taught back then and it was this: Do not hate but love your
neighbour nations. There too lives similar people as us, thus the word of God
teaches: bless, not curse. This
was exactly the secret, which was the task of Kekkonen. God had commanded to him this great task of
making peace with the neighbour nation. Urho Kekkonen couldn´t have solved this
task only with the power of his own. He was just a man, but sure he could ask
wisdom and power from the God. (Pseudonyme Ei riitaa 1989.) 
Even though Kekkonen
was depicted in the discourse as an admired hero, the discourse was not totally
denying all the critique towards him. However, when there were any negative or
arguable features to be seen in him, they were presented as necessary for
achieving greater purposes.
In the personality
cultic discourse surrounding the abstract monument, the writers were profoundly
dissatisfied with the sculpture. People even went as far as to consider it a
mockery of Kekkonen, his supporters and even the entire nation. In the
following extract of a letter to the editor from the regional newspaper Kaleva (Oulu), the monument proposal is seen to offend the public opinion
of the Finnish nation:
In this case choosing this work as a memorial
is more twisted than the leg of the work. The nation-wide beloved and
appreciated, upstanding – though not crooked-legged – former
president Kekkonen is getting a vacillated-legged and vase imitating monster
memorial. In this case, the choice of Kajaani’s decision-makers offends the public opinion of the Finnish
nation. (Pseudonyme Ali-setä 1989.)
According to the views
of personality cultic discourse, Kekkonen should have been commemorated with a
figurative statue depicting his outward appearance in a heroic manner, or in
some romanticized action usually attached to his persona, such as fishing, skiing
or doing traditional physical work. In the following letter to the editor
extract taken from Kainuun Sanomat, the writer wants Kekkonen´s figure
to be depicted realistically in the monument. In the text, the writer gives his
own romanticized proposal in which Kekkonen is depicted in the midst of
traditional log-rafting. Log-rafting was an important source of income for many
men and was a central local industry in Kajaani during the years of Kekkonen´s
youth. It also has strong symbolic meaning in the region’s culture:
The Great Man Kekkonen lived most of his study
years in Kajaani. He lived and adopted his friendly attitude towards lay people
with lumberjacks and people. Thus, we need a monument in which Kekkonen is
standing with a log hook leaning on his shoulder and a thought being cast from his head to the end of the log
hook as though it were a bolt of lightning. In his left hand would be an open
book, because the poor student has to read even when working. A shining light
would imitate the thunder or thought. This entity would be on a pedestal which
would depict rapids in which logs would seem to being floating on the ripples
of water. (Kinnunen 1989.)
Although Kekkonen was perceived
in the personality cultic discourse as a national hero or as a Great Man, he
was also depicted as a kind of father figure or a friend known to everyone. Even
in press news items he was referred to by familiar nicknames. This kind of
rhetoric emphasized Kekkonen´s character as a kind of ‘Father of the Nation’,
increasing his cultic position.
discourse was particularly strong in the local and regional newspapers
published in the northern part of Finland. However, the newspapers in
the south published also letters to the editor which followed the rhetoric of
the discourse. Besides the letters to the editor, the discourse was followed in
many columns, causeries and interviews of politicians and so-called lay people.
In particular, many older people who shared leftist or Central Party-related
ideology, used personality cultic discourse in their comments. Thus, the
political world view, generation and geographical location had an effect on the
production of the discourse. In the views of the discourse, the Great Men needed
to be remembered by heroic figurative monuments. The ideas of proper and heroic
monuments in the discourse followed the traditions and conventions of monument
sculpture dating back to the 19th century.
Speakers of the personality
cultic discourse positioned themselves and their points of view in the debate above
the people who had critical or neutral views of Kekkonen. The rhetoric in the
discourse often included uncompromising expressions in which other kinds of
views were seen as wrong, absurd or dismissive of Kekkonen. Speakers of the
personality cultic discourse saw everyone who had critical views towards
Kekkonen as opponents in the debate. Even the supporters of the abstract
monument proposal could be seen as opponents of Kekkonen.
Thus, the personality
cultic discourse clashed with views in which
Kekkonen´s persona and era were not seen in an uncritical light. Quite the contrary, Kekkonen´s presidency was seen in these
critical views as an era of a political power game, undemocratic decision-making
and Finlandization of the society. In these critical views, the abstract
monument served as an instrument to bring out analytical critique of Kekkonen.
The form of the monument was, for example, interpreted as hinting towards Kekkonen´s twisted character and his tendency to do
politics in a construed way. The following
opinion is an extract from the regional newspaper Pohjolan Sanomat (Kemi). The opinion was included
in an article on the basis of newspaper readers’ telephone calls:
Mikko Oinonen from Kemi thinks that the
sculpture is otherwise good, but the name of it is wrong. A good name for the
sculpture would absolutely be “The Great Crooked” . This way the statue would clarify the life path of Kekkonen from the strong
beginning to the political and diplomatic corruption and to the clarification
and sobering of old age. (Korhonen 1989.)
interpretations which showed the president in a negative light were brought up
in newspapers’ letters to the editor and in articles whereby so-called lay
people were interviewed. In a changing political and social atmosphere the
criticism towards Kekkonen was more openly expressed and published in local and
Even though the
disagreement in the debate arose from different interpretations and views on
Kekkonen´s political actions, the political disagreement was often discussed in
the debate through the artistic and aesthetic questions of the monument. The
debate was polarised between views in which the abstract form was accepted and
views in which a heroic figurative monument was demanded. In general, this kind
of polarisation between abstraction and figuration has been a typical starting
point for art debates in the 20th century. Modern art with its strive for simplified,
deformed and abstract expression has also widened the distinction between the
different kinds of art audiences. Particularly the distinction in the views and
tastes of so-called art experts and non-art experts, or lay people, has been
polarised. (Bourdieu 1984; Burstow 1989: 472; Gamboni 1997: 132-133, 155, 170.)
The demands for a
heroic figurative monument in the first Kekkonen monument debate were uncomfortable
for the art experts and some culturally-orientated politicians of the time.
This was due to the political connotations of such monuments. For art experts and
culturally-orientated politicians, a heroic monumental figurative form connoted
socialist realism and monuments erected in socialist countries. This kind of
politicization of form had influenced the western understanding of the visuality
of public sculpture for decades. The influential American modernist art critic Clement
Greenberg formulated this kind of distinction in western art criticism already
in the 1930s – abstraction was linked to the free West and figuration to the
suppressed totalitarianism of the East (Greenberg 1939). Since then, the
politicization of form has influenced the connotations of public sculpture of
the ‘East’ and ‘West’, even though the production of figurative or abstract art
has not been bound in practice to the political systems of societies (Burstow 1989:
483; Gamboni 1997: 129-130; Benton 2004: 2). Because of connotations of the
figurative form, monumental abstraction was seen as the only proper monument style
for Kekkonen in the eyes of the art field of the time – a figurative
monument would possibly have stigmatized Finland as a socialistic society in
the views of other countries. Even during the preparations of the second Kekkonen
monument project in Helsinki, these kinds of views were brought up in public.
For example, the head of the monument committee, former Prime Minister Harri
Holkeri, stated in an interview in the national newspaper Ilta-Sanomat that
“in his opinion there is only one figurative monument in Finland, which he is
for and that is the equestrian statue of Marshal Mannerheim” (Ilta-Sanomat 1995). Holkeri had held the main speech in the celebrations of
the unveiling of the Kekkonen monument in Kajaani. In 1995, the Prime Minister’s
Office asked him to chair the new monument committee of Kekkonen. In the Ilta-Sanomat interview, Holkeri commented on the
question of the forthcoming monument’s form as follows:
Holkeri poses three criteria for the
- It has to be good art, it has to be related
to Kekkonen and it has to take into account its place next to Finlandia Hall. Not just anything can be located on this site.
Holkeri presumes that Kekkonen would not
necessarily have wanted a figurative monument.
- I have an impression that he was horrified over the idea that the statue would be placed next to other statues in a sort of horror
Holkeri got confirmation for his views in his
recent visit to Hungary.
- There they had transferred the statues of the
command art of the soviet time to separate parks, which were quite astonishing.
This tells something of the direction of art, towards which we should not go. (Ilta-Sanomat 1995.)
Overall, sensitivity towards
political connotations of the figurative monuments was reflected in the typical
Finnish fear of being seen as a socialist or former soviet state in the eyes of
western foreigners (Lähdesmäki 2007, 213-214, 307-308).
In the personality
cultic discourse, in which the figurative monument was emphatically demanded,
the figurative form was not understood in a politicised way. An interesting
example of this comes from the reception of another Kekkonen monument –
Finnish folk artist, Matias Keskinen’s huge sculptured monumental portrait of
Kekkonen created in 1984. The portrait was situated on a private piece of land
in the small town of Vuolijoki, near Kajaani. In
the personality cultic discourse Keskinen´s sculpture was seen as an honour to Kekkonen
without any political connotations of socialism. For example, in the following extract
of a letter to the editor from Kainuun
Sanomat, the writer sees Keskinen´s sculpture as a good example of a
President Kekkonen was a president of the nation.
Let the nation decide what kind of statue the statue of the president
should be. Do it for instance of bronze, marble or granite, but do it looking
like President Kekkonen! Though, we and our children would say: “It is President
Kekkonen”. This is what the children say when we pass the village of Vuolijoki and all think warmly about the great
president. (Pseudonyme “Vuolijoellako patsas kansalle ja Kajaanissa herroille”
However, art experts
and some officials and politicians interpreted the same portrait in a very
different way. For example, when the portrait was exhibited in the city centre
of Oulu in 1989 at the same time as president of the
Soviet Union Mihail Gorbatshov visited the town, the mayor of Oulu ordered the
sculpture and another of Keskinen´s statues of
Kekkonen to be moved from the eyes of the international press. This was for the
reason that it might have given them an embarrassing image of the town. The
mayor explained the decision in an interview to the national newspaper Helsingin
Sanomat as follows:
The need for explanations for the
international press, which the statues would have produced, is so hopeless,
that we do not want to take that risk. One might just guess how the statues of
Kekkonen would have been interpreted in the world’s press. In Finland, this
has already caused a noted media event. (Helsingin
In general, figurative
sculpture, which was seen as referring to socialist realism or the personality
cult, was regarded as a very negative phenomenon in the Finnish art field at
the end of the 1980s and in the beginning of the 1990s. For example, the public
sculpture called World Peace, which was a gift from the city of Moscow
to the city of Helsinki and erected in Helsinki in 1990, was very heavily
criticised and slated by the art experts because of its socialist realist idealism. For example, an art critic in the
national newspaper Uusi Suomi stated in the
title of his critical commentary: “Not worth offering to Hungary, East-Germany,
Poland or Romania. Kirjuhin´s monument will only do for Finland” (Routio 1990).
Picture 2, Caption: Portrait of Urho Kekkonen, Matias Keskinen, 1984
Vuolijoki, concrete. Photo: Heikki Hanka.
Picture 3, Caption: The
World Peace, Oleg Kirjuhin, 1990 Helsinki, bronze. Photo: Tuuli Lähdesmäki.
Thus, the Kekkonen monument
project in Kajaani reflected political contradictions towards the president
– on one hand the personality cultic discourse,
and on the other hand the heavy criticism. The monument project in Kajaani can
even be seen as an opening to broader political debate over the Kekkonen era in
Finland. Kekkonen became a heavily discussed figure in Finland at the same time
as political contradictions were eased in Europe at the
turn of the decade and in the beginning on the 1990s. Finlandization was also
critically discussed in Finnish media during this time period.
ironic return to Kekkonen
The second monument
project of Kekkonen started five years after the monument in Kajaani was
erected. The second project was part of a larger monument project in which the
Prime Minister´s Office purchased monuments to commemorate the three Finnish
presidents whose monuments were still lacking in the capital city. Kekkonen´s
monument was the last of these projects. The monument proposal was chosen
through a public competition. The monument committee chose an environmental artwork
designed by sculptor Pekka Jylhä as the winning
The monument project
of Kekkonen in Helsinki proceeded in a very different kind of political and
cultural atmosphere to the one in Kajaani. The discussions about the past
decades had brought new openness to the political atmosphere of the country. After
the economic crisis in the beginning of the 1990s, the state’s economy started
to grow again on the basis of the fast development of information technology.
The crisis, which was partly due to the collapse of foreign trade with the
Soviet Union, as well as managing the crisis, changed the history of the former
economic and political ties with the Soviet Union. Additionally, reforms in the
Finnish constitution after Kekkonen´s death had an effect on the political
atmosphere of the 1990s. The reforms increased the power of Parliament and the Prime
Minister at the expense of the president.
Thus, in the second
monument project of Kekkonen the personality cultic discourse played a much
smaller role than in the first one. The positive enthusiasm towards him had
subsided in the decade after his death. The most eager supporters, who had
personally experienced Kekkonen´s most powerful years, were also getting older.
This perhaps had an effect on the marginalizing position of the personality
cultic discourse. The heavy criticism of Kekkonen had also softened by
the end of the decade and the second monument did not give rise to any
aggressive interpretations of him. If some critical interpretations were made,
they were expressed in a more or less humorous
sense. For example, the columns in the monument and the hands at the end of the
columns were often ironically perceived as the protecting or blessing hands of
Kekkonen, or God, as for instance, art critic Dan Sundell interpreted the
monument (Sundell 1997; 2000). The whole monument project in Helsinki was
perhaps not taken as seriously as the first one and the discussions generated
by the monument were not as contradictory as ten years earlier.
Picture 4, Caption: Urho
Kekkonen monument Spring, Pekka Jylhä, 2000 Helsinki, bronze, water pool
and granite. Photo: Tuuli Lähdesmäki.
The easing of the
contradictions in the monument project can be linked to the more general
cultural views, which became common in Finland during the 1990s. These cultural
views are usually described in terms of the concept of postmodernism. During the
1990s many ideas and views related to postmodernism were adopted in general everyday
cultural discussion (Lähdesmäki 2007: 25-26). So-called Grand Narratives were
questioned, national myths were deconstructed and traditional heroes were
ironized in cultural discussion, art and media. Due to this, the monument
sculpture as a genre lost some of its previous prestige.
monument sculpture and personality cults in general were also changing due to
world politics. In the beginning of the 1990s the Finnish media followed the
demolishing and displacement of the heroic monuments in former socialistic
countries with great interest. In the Finnish media these monuments were often approached
with humour and even treated as camp; as artefacts whose clumsiness were
ironically admired because of the bad taste that they were seen to represent (Sontag 1987: 105-110). As Susan
Sontag has observed, camp is a cultural phenomenon which is always consumed or
performed “in quotation marks” (Sontag 1987: 109). This kind of consuming of
culture was introduced to Finnish newspapers and art magazines, for example in
1993 when writer and academic Paavo Haavikko purchased a monument of Stalin
from Estonia and placed in his backyard. The monument featured Stalin hanging
his coat over his arm, thus Haavikko renamed the statue ironically as the
monument of coat turners (Helsingin Sanomat 1993). In
Finland, a similar kind of interest in quotations marks was focused towards
socialist realist art and products of soviet propaganda.
exhibitions in Finland displayed socialist realism and socialist related
objects during the mid-1990s. The point of departure for several exhibitions
was to treat the exhibition objects with irony. For example, in an international
exhibition called Monumental Propaganda, 150
artists from Russia, the USA, Canada and various European countries exhibited ironic
proposals in terms of how to recycle the communist symbols and monuments which
were pulled down in the former socialist countries. Several art critics and
other cultural journalist in Finnish newspapers approached the proposals with
humour and camp attitude. The idea of the exhibition was linked in some
articles to Finnish monuments of Great Men. For example, in the regional newspaper Aamulehti, a critic made the following suggestion: “What
should we do with the old soviet monuments? 150 artists around the world
thought about the reuse of Lenin and Stalin statues. The ideas could also be
useful in another country of dull monuments – in Finland.” (Tuominen
At the same time,
alongside the second Kekkonen monument project, people
were debating in the Finnish press about purchasing a monument of Lenin for
Helsinki. The idea of purchasing an old Lenin monument from Russia or Estonia
and erecting it in Lenin Park, Helsinki, originated from a private initiative
of a Helsinki resident. The project was supported especially by some art
critics and art experts from the art museum field, who took the project as camp
humour – the art experts were not worried about generating an inappropriate
image of Finland as a former socialist country. For example, an ironic article
about the project in Helsingin Sanomat was titled:
“The park calls for Lenin!” The art critic commented on the project and the
idea of placing a small Lenin monument in Lenin Park in the article as follows:
The Lenin of Helsinki could represent softer
park values. Lenin Park in Kallio would be an excellent place for a small
statue. The beautifully rising rocks, slate stone stairs, several rear rock
plants and pine species create beauty of contrasts to the scenery. Rough and soft, rise and fall, stone and grass, high and low is intertwining in the
harmony of the park architecture. But green would long for some red as a
counter effect, growing nature some marks of human hand. Thus, the park is
actually calling for Lenin! The portrait of Lenin of red granite is like made
for the Lenin Park! (Moring 2000.)
In 1999, the Helsinki City Museum board of directors gave permission
for the museum to purchase the Lenin monument for
its collection from a Russian businessman, who offered the museum an old Lenin
monument. However, the deal was cancelled due to the businessman being no
longer interested in selling the sculpture. Thus, in ten years what was
considered to be embarrassing art had become a funny and light issue in the
Finnish art field.
By the end of the
1990s, due to political changes in Europe and the spread of postmodernist views
in art, figurative monuments as such were no longer heavily attached to
political connotations as they had been during the beginning of the decade.
Attitudes towards so-called Great Men had also changed – ‘Great Men’ as national heroes had lost their
previous meaning in postmodernist culture, which questioned the basic
structures and values of traditional cultural phenomena (Jameson 1984). All
these political and cultural changes which occurred or strengthened during the
1990s had an influence on the second Kekkonen monument project, as well as on the
interpretations of the monument and views of Kekkonen
himself. In the second monument project, the personality cultic discourse and the
critical approach softened and partly gave way to a new kind of discourse,
which contained a new kind of mythology whereby the approach to Kekkonen was
not especially serious. Yet, there was still curiosity in seeing him as a
legendary leader – both good and bad. This new discourse was used
particularly by journalists, politicians and art critics, as well as so-called lay
people, who participated in the public discussion of the second Kekkonen
monument. The use of the discourse indicated the acknowledgement of the history
of Kekkonen´s era and its undemocratic features, in addition to phases of
Finlandization. Thus, the use of the discourse reflected an atmosphere in which
writers were no longer ashamed of past events. Further, the past and its events
did not need to be explained. From criticism arising during the 1990s, the official myth or cult of Kekkonen had turned into a
metamyth, a myth which was recognised in public as a myth. This kind of view
was for instance, expressed in an editorial of the weekly magazine Suomen
Kuvalehti, during the celebrations of the new monument and the anniversary
of Kekkonen´s birthday:
The tones of the celebrations of Kekkonen are
still those of moaning, explaining and even defending. Old
decision-makers in the celebrations of the House of the Estates in
Helsinki brought out a fading trace of the history of UKK . The fictive agent story by young writers about Kekkonen, who was changed to
younger, depicts well the forthcoming time: UKK will be transformed from
historical character to fictional material. Different representations can be
formed from this material and fitted to a particular need and intuition. A
myth, a glorious story of Gods, was generated from Kekkonen, and it is
developing all the time in different directions. It is typical for these kinds
of stories that the central figure is not only a national hero but also a sexual
athlete, genius of economics, a great singer of his nation, and over and
outside of the critique in good and in bad. [--] What is left for the artists is their own Kekkonen, who will not dry
up as a source of inspiration and who hardly anyone will mix with the historical persona. His
personality will inspire to ponder eternal questions on wretchedness, lust for
power, rule, love and the revenge of man – everything from which
the literature has drawn on from the time of antics. Additionally, Finland has its own hero, lion-hearted, on whom
there will be more stories the more time goes on. (Ruokanen 2000.)
This myth of Kekkonen
was also exaggerated in various columns and causeries during the second
monument project, without any fear of being taken as serious adoration of him. This
kind of benevolent humoristic rhetoric was much used during the second monument
project, even at official occasions and in media
texts. For example, in her speech during the unveiling ceremony of the Kekkonen
monument in Helsinki, the head of town council compared Kekkonen to heroes of
the Finnish national epic of Kalevala, who “had their own weaknesses and cruel
features like all other human beings” and “who travelled through lands and the
seas, built and created, but also fought and robbed and took maids as their
brides and wives” (Rihtniemi 2000).
The reception of the second Kekkonen monument reflected the general
change in public attitudes toward Kekkonen. At the turn of the millennium, myths of Kekkonen were also carried on in
several cultural products, such as in fictive novels, as well as in a cabaret
and a theatre play about him. A similar kind of play with history and fiction
was also used in Matti Hagelberg´s award-winning cartoons, drawn during the
beginning of the millennium and collected in a book in 2005. In Hagelberg´s
cartoons, Kekkonen is pictured as a sort of ironic superman, who e.g.: as a child,
floats in a basket on a river like Moses; gets swallowed by a whale, like Jonah;
travels to the moon in the Apollo space shuttle; and rescues singer Alla Pugatshova in Soviet Union. The cultic discourse of Kekkonen seems to
have been shifted to another level in the beginning of the new millennium. As
Helena Sederholm states, camp can be defined as an exaggeration of cultic
attitude (Sederholm 2003, 166). This kind of exaggeration has started to
characterize the cultic attitudes toward Kekkonen.
Even though the Grand Narratives and national myths have been criticized
in postmodernism, history, past and tradition are present in the logic of
postmodernism as nostalgia (Huyssen 1993: 253; Jameson 1984). Thus, the
relationship between postmodernism and the past,
history and tradition is in a way quite paradoxical – on the one hand the
relationship is deconstructive, and on the other
it is nostalgic. This ambivalence can be seen in attitudes towards Kekkonen in
Finland during the 1990s and in the new millennium. The nostalgic tone has
especially marked the attitudes towards Kekkonen in recent years. The mythical
figure of Kekkonen has become a sort of popular culture icon, which is besides
nostalgic, attached to humour, irony and a camp attitude. Kekkonen´s figure and
face has been used in recent years in different kinds of popular culture
imageries, which are not just the repetition of personality cultic discourse
and not just criticism. The image of Kekkonen has been transformed into a trendy postmodernist icon which is being used in
contemporary culture as a camp image. This kind of use of Kekkonen imagery seems
to be the most popular among the culturally oriented people who have not yet
reached their middle age. For them, Kekkonen has not necessarily represented a
personally experienced political figure, but rather a historical figure
mystified with stories in public memory. Thus, the camp attitude towards him or
a camp interest in him is not similarly politically attuned as the previous
personality cultic relation. As Sontag has noted, camp attitude is not
political but rather focused on style instead of contents (Sontag 1987: 107).
However, the camp attitude towards a politician can also be interpreted as a
political act – whether conscious or unconscious.
Commercialised popular culture and its forums disseminate cultic
phenomena efficiently in contemporary society (Saresma & Kovala 2003:
16-17). In this process, cult and camp attitude turn into products which can be
used and consumed. In fact, camp requires commercialised popular culture and
cultural products from which camp attuned consumers can choose what and how to
consume (Sederholm 2003: 166). In the beginning of the 21st century the image
of Kekkonen was also commercialised as a product. For example, different
manufacturers in Finland have designed trendy t-shirts, caps and wristbands
with the face of Kekkonen. These clothes have been popular among the urban
youth and even some fashionable Finnish celebrities have worn them on TV. Kekkonen´s
iconic face has also been printed on an album cover of the
Finnish humour rock band Sleepy Sleepers, who titled their hit collection after
Kekkonen in 2003. Posters of Kekkonen have decorated a stage in a rock concert
with the theme of Kekkonen. Kekkonen´s face has been used as a mobile logo
alongside other iconic faces, such as Lenin, Che Guevara, Marilyn Monroe and
Jim Morrison. In addition, some Finnish companies have been inspired to use
Kekkonen´s figure for commercial purposes in advertisements. For example,
during recent years the Finnish mobile company TeleFinland has advertised their
products by use of a superman figure, whose appearance resembles that of
Kekkonen´s. On some occasions, the image of Kekkonen has been aestheticized for
the use of trends and fashion. For instance, in the Finnish trend magazine Trendi, the Kekkonen era was turned into
a nostalgic retro trend for a wedding. An official portrait of Kekkonen was
used in the fashion pictures as a trendy retro decoration. In the magazine,
Kekkonen was even turned into a style. This kind of nostalgia and aesthetics
was produced by and for the generation whose own experiences of Kekkonen came either
from their childhood or from stories and images used and recycled in culture.
For the new generation, views towards the political realism of Kekkonen were
already a phase in the past and a chapter in history.
Picture 5, Caption: T-shirts with the face of Kekkonen in the museum
shop of Kekkonen´s home museum. Photo: Tuuli Lähdesmäki.
Changing cultic relations
During the last twenty
years, from the late-1980s to the present day, a complex change has occurred in
cultic relations to Kekkonen in Finland. In this article I have described and
explained the change through two monument projects of Kekkonen and the
discussions these monument projects generated at the
end of the 1980s, throughout the 1990s and in the beginning of the new
millennium. During the first monument project in Kajaani at the end of the
1980s, Kekkonen was still broadly seen in public discussion as an official
political icon. The monument, as well as Kekkonen´s persona, was often interpreted
using personality cultic discourse. However, among the art experts and some culturally-orientated
politicians, the whole idea of erecting heroic
monuments appeared to be a problematic gesture referring unwittingly to Eastern
practices and socialist realism. Highly polarised views were especially
generated through the relationship drawn between socialist realism and
figurative sculptures of Kekkonen.
The second monument project in Helsinki was executed after large
critical public debates had taken place regarding the
Kekkonen era, his persona, and Finlandization. During the 1990s the
contemporary art field also underwent changes, which at the same time reset
monuments in a new light. In postmodernist discussions the ‘Great Men’ and the
Grand Narratives were ironized and socialist realism was even seen as camp. In
public discussions launched by the second monument project, the personality
cultic discourse was barely visible. Instead, the cultic discourse of the president had transformed its traits –
Kekkonen was consciously seen as a mythological figure whose features could be
exaggerated, ironized and turned into hilarious stories. This change in cultic relations
to Kekkonen can be interpreted as a shift from the political personality cult
figure to a nostalgic camp image.
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 All translations are by the writer.
 The writer uses the Finnish word liero, which means both a
dew-worm and crooked.
 UKK is short for Urho Kaleva Kekkonen.