Can you make money critizicing the capitalism? At least you can do art

Journalist Mikko Aaltonen met acclaimed painter Sampsa Sarparanta.

Mikko Aaltonen, 08.07.2015

Long form

Acclaimed painter Sampsa Sarparanta has an alter ego of a relentless punk rocker, but  his two distinct forms of expression share the same message: criticizing the power of money. Journalist Mikko Aaltonen caught up with the artist in both of his worlds. 

 The painting isn’t the most astonishing, but it does catch the eye. 

Many of the paintings at the opening of artist Sampsa Sarparanta’s exhibition are visually striking and dynamic, but most people seem to pause in front of this one. Especially two invited the National Coalition Party MPs spend a lengthy stretch of time staring at the painting. The reason is quite apparent – the work features a rather startled-looking Coalition Party Chairman and Minister of Finance, brushing his hand through his hair. His eyes are turned towards a striking nude woman against a backdrop of a herd of wild horses and a fading horizon. 

A couple of days after the opening of the exhibition, Sarparanta receives an email from someone at the party: “Is the painting up for sale?”

Sarparanta mulls over the proposition for few days before deciding to go for it. Five years on, he looks back at the turn of events with some amusement. “Maybe the painting has ended up shoved in the Finnish Parliament Building cellar in a black bin liner”, he laughs. 

The artist wonders whether he was actually the subject of an old trick: a figure of mainstream culture first flatters a controversial representative of subculture by praising their work and talent – then pays them to be silent.

In the end, the answer to Sarparanta’s existential ponderings came in the form of the controversy around the construction of a new reactor at a Finnish nuclear power plant. A group of Sarparanta’s friends wanted to travel to the plant to hold a demonstration, but didn’t have the money to rent a big enough coach they could also sleep in. A friend happened to mention the dilemma to Sarparanta over the telephone. 

“I’d just been paid 2,000 euros for the painting. I decided to keep five hundred, and told my friend they’d get 1,500 euros for hiring a vehicle and organizing a great demonstration.” This way, Sarparanta sees the politicians ended up funding the demonstration.

Sarparanta has since gained approval also from conservatives: his paintings have been ranked among the hundred most valuable Finnish works of art to collect, sold at art auctions and bought by Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art alike. 

But how does anti-capitalist art and selling it on a capitalist market fit together?

***

Seated in the middle of his studio, Sarparanta explains that in his youth he had no reason to turn into a rebellious critic of capitalism.

He was brought up in a good, middle-class home without strong political affiliations. His father was a chef and his mother a nurse. 

The November landscape outside the studio window is gray and bleak. 

But it’s exactly the kind of November gray that paints the surroundings of Perniö station just outside Salo with that timeless, rugged quality reminiscent of Aki Kaurismäki films. Sarparanta points towards a derelict business property with curtains tightly pulled across the windows adjacent to a huge silo (“It’s still in some sort of running order, at least one person works there”).

That’s where the artist had his studio space some years ago, sharing the property with the local Pentecostal church. The artist and churchgoers were separated only by a partition that didn’t block any of the sound.  

 “We weren’t a very functional community. It was pretty desperate. My paintings were getting grimmer by the minute.”

Sarparanta has moved on since. A local builder offered to revamp the back room of the business property across the street for Sarparanta to use. Now he works in the only heated part of the building, but without the amenities of running water or a bathroom. “There’s no choice but to focus on what matters”, he grunts. “You can’t even make coffee.”

Apart from his civilian service and eight years of studies at the Lahti Institute of Fine Arts and the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki, Sarparanta has always lived in the Salo region. Despite being appreciated among locals, sometimes small-town life gets a bit much. 

 “Since Nokia closed down in Salo, the town has had a Chernobylian mood with low incomes and hopelessness about the future, as if covered by a dome of depression.”

Nokia’s large handset factory in Salo closed down in 2012. 

But the desolation of the city has offered Sarparanta plenty of raw material for his artwork. Punk rock originally hailed from similar conditions as where Salo has wound up in recent years, providing plenty of inspiration for the lyrics of Sarparanta’s No Shame band established locally in 1996. 

 “The lyrics of ‘Take the Money and Run’ became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The album cover features a caricature I drew of (Nokia’s ex-CEO and chairman) Jorma Ollila, and then there’s the song ‘Empty Promises’ written from the angle of my children’s future: I hope that you won’t end up on these empty streets with the same glaze of ‘I am nothing’ in your eyes.”

***

According to Sarparanta, he is first and foremost a punk rocker and only then a visual artist – although his artworks bring home the bacon.

Despite having held a number of exhibitions with nearly all of the displayed works selling out, and regardless of a bunch of faithful fans, Sarparanta confesses that the bacon does usually come in thin rashers from grants and works of art sold at irregular intervals. 

No Shame’s gigs and albums do not bring much revenue, and the little that does come in  trickles back into making the band tick. 

Sarparanta was already in his twenties when he found punk rock. Three particular albums and bands were the turning point. Rancid’s And Out Come the Wolves, Descendents’ Everything Sucks, and Social Distortion’s White Light, White Heat, White Trash were all released in the mid-90s, representing so-called American Neo Punk.  

 “They weren’t exactly Green Day pop, but did have catchy tunes, elements of pop music, and an understanding of songwriting in common. Of course the most hardcore punk rockers look down on a pop sound, as it smells of commercialism.”

We arrive at one of Sarparanta’s paradoxes. Generally known as a controversial, political artist and musician, originally Sarparanta was more drawn to the form rather than the content of music and visual arts. 

 “Before punk, I’d even listen to Bon Jovi, if the song was good. As with my drawings of American Indians, first punk was inspiring because of the music itself and only then for its message – not the other way round.”

***

Sarparanta lived at home until he was 21, when he moved to do his civilian service at an old people’s home. 

“I’ve always had a close relationship with my mum and dad, and still do. They gave me freedom to be myself.”

Sarparanta was only 16 and studying at upper secondary school when he met his future partner. Today, she is a yoga teacher and the couple are parents to two school-aged children. “Of course I’ve done everything I swore I wouldn’t: got married, returned to my childhood landscape, bought a house, had kids.” 

Working at the old people’s home in the suburbs, Sarparanta began to suffer from bouts of boredom and invested in painting materials. He painted all evening long, only Native Americans at first. Like many others of his age, Sarparanta was brought up watching and reading Westerns, but unlike most, he always sided with American Indians. 

 “I was no John Wayne fan. I was upset when the American Indians would keep losing in all of the battles with white people. Over the years, I grew more fascinated and began to study their history and mythology.”

Sarparanta applied to the Academy of Fine Arts seven times before being accepted in 2000. 

 “Classical realism has always been my thing. The style was as unfashionable as can be when I was applying. Now it’s enjoying its heyday.” 

At first, Native Americans represented the most sacred form of realism for Sarparanta, allowing to delve further into the situation of a subjugated group of people while condemning their suppressors. 

 “At one point, a third of my works of art were so-called abstract art, which I refer to as color mess art. But it’s actually really hard to create. If you can’t just blast it on the canvas, it ends up looking crap.” 

***

The studio is dominated by a massive self-portrait of Sarparanta standing in the middle of a field in western Finland wearing only a pair of rubber boots.

The unfinished piece goes under the working title of Valkoisen miehen taakka (Engl.transl. White man’s burden).  The artist unravels the piece further:

“Its theme is the burden carried by an idealistic human being over the state of the world, but it also depicts the relationship with nature that was already present in my early works of American Indians.”

Usually Sarparanta has one bigger exhibition jotted in his calendar for the spring, with works and a theme beginning to take shape during the previous fall. But this fall has been different: an exhibition location and date haven’t been set, and Sarparanta doesn’t even have a theme in mind. He has had more time to write songs and strum on his guitar that is tucked in one corner of his studio.

“It doesn’t worry me. This self-portrait may well push the whole process in motion. And once things are moving, I work day and night. But I’m still not quite sure whether the self-portrait will be the key piece, it could be a bit much.”  

Surely any true fan would want to snap up a nude portrait of their icon?

 “I think the opposite is usually the case. People like to attach an element of mystique to their role models, and protect their myth. Standing there with one’s balls showing does strip off any element of mystique that may have surrounded me. There’s more of a risk that this painting will destroy the entire upcoming exhibition, but that’s a risk I need to take.”

Sarparanta himself looks up to Albert Edelfelt, one of the most significant Finnish Golden Age painters from the end of late 19th century. Like Edelfelt, Sarparanta wishes to leave his mark on history as an artist who crystalizes archetypal people of their time. 

“Edelfelt used his sisters, family, and lovers as models. What’s crucial is that today, no one looks at Edelfelt’s paintings through a filter that makes the viewer think ‘those are his sisters or lovers’, but his paintings are viewed and studied as representations of archetypal people of his time. I hope that this nude self-portrait I’m working on will one day be a similar example of an archetype.” 

***

According to Sarparanta, he has nothing against international success, but it should happen at his own terms.

“Or at least I’m not prepared to sacrifice my principles in order to succeed”, he clarifies. 

Sarparanta is currently looking for a manager, or actually a gallerist, who could preferably distribute his art internationally. “In practice, I’m on the lookout for a partner who would be ready to do all the dirty work for me, such as negotiate finances and contracts. I’m darn lousy at that sort of thing.”

Does dirty work get less dirty, if someone does it for him? In the world of visual art, the question usually boils down to the value of the pieces. Business around established and acclaimed artists, which is what Sarparanta has set out to become, is about old-fashioned capitalism in its simplest form. 

 “I’ll give you an example from the world of rock ’n roll: we could be performing at a rock festival with the billboards of some big sponsor on either side of the stage, but I need to have the freedom to shout down the microphone that No Shame has nothing to do with the products in question. If I was told not to, I wouldn’t go to that festival with my band.”

Sarparanta is well aware that the principles at work in the art world differ from those in rock music, but he does believe that it’s possible to establish one’s boundaries even in the case of an international breakthrough. A good agent could help maintain and define those boundaries.

 “American art capitalism can be brutal. A wealthy gallery there could make a deal with an artist for 100 million dollars, requiring the artist to sign up to work solely for the gallery for the rest of his or her life. Even large record companies, which seem to be all about money, are softies compared to what goes on in the art world.”

***

In addition to the artist’s self-portrait, the studio walls are dotted with sketches of nude or semi-nude women. 

Mentioning the extent of nudity in his works causes the artist to exclaim.

“Don’t focus on that! The only time my art was totally misinterpreted – or interpreted totally differently to what I’d intended – was five years ago, when I painted a lot of these so-called porn chicks.”

How were they misinterpreted?

 “Almost without exception, modern art links nudity to a desire of the artist to pinpoint the role of women. Of course I could shine the light on their status in society, as a lot remains to be improved, but in this connection it wasn’t my point.”

What was the point? 

“Women’s beauty, desirability, and nudity represent freedom and an ideal, which is also present in my buck naked self-portrait. Nudity represents freedom and liberation. I like to consciously use clichés, but without irony. My recent self-portraits see nudity as courage to be honest with oneself and others, and perhaps also being unprotected against all the shit in the world.”

A pinch of social criticism can be scratched beneath the surface.

“My intention was to communicate that we lack real freedom, as we run after money - indefinable basic security we think can be achieved with money. But it’s like chasing a ghost.”

Sarparanta continues that the intriguing part about the discussion sparked by his “porn chicks” was that middle-aged women interpreted the paintings as objectifying the female image, while under 30-year-olds typically didn’t see this as a gender issue. 

“But the interpretations did demonstrate a clear divide between generations, which shows how quickly the world has changed – for better in this case.  A ten year difference between viewers makes people see nudity in a whole different light.”

***

It would be easy to argue that Sarparanta veers towards nudity in his paintings because that’s what sells.

Sex has always been used to sell, art being no exception. “Later on I’ve come to the conclusion that I just wasn’t a good enough artist back then. I wasn’t able to convey what I wanted clearly enough.”

Sarparanta thinks it would have made more sense to follow in the footsteps of controversial Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, who uses American pop art that appeals to the masses as his stepping-stone. He was fined for stealing a plastic Ronald McDonald statue from a McDonald’s restaurant in Helsinki, and then destroying it. 

“The outrage that followed Leinonen’s prank showed that mocking capitalism is the worst thing you can do these days. Capitalism is the main fundament of our time, so making fun of it is a taboo that’s even thought of as unintelligent.”

Sarparanta speaks against the same issues in his artwork as he does in his music, but a different bunch of people will attend his exhibitions than his No Shame gigs. Sarparanta believes that the function of his creations is nevertheless the same for both audiences. 

“People who buy my paintings and come to all of my exhibitions are genuinely interested in the message my paintings convey. They just probably wouldn’t be as receptive via punk rock, so both channels are necessary.”

“Someone did approach me at an art exhibition opening once to say they’d bought my band’s album, but found the music really awful, encouraging me to just focus on my painting.”

***

‘You! You! You!” Sarparanta stands on the edge of the stage at Tavastia club in downtown Helsinki pointing at people in the audience, getting them to join in the chorus.

At the end, he jumps down from the stage and heads through the crowds towards the bar. 

The evening’s main act is pioneering British punk rock band Stiff Little Fingers, the main attraction for most of the audience. The audience is mainly made up of 40-50-year-old fans of nostalgia punk, who have watched the gig rather phlegmatically, but warm up towards the end. No Shame gets a huge hand of applauds, returning to the stage for an encore.  

Dripping with sweat after the gig, Sarparanta sits behind the bar counter. “There weren’t that many people during our gig, but I guess we got the message across.”

Queues of people wanting to buy No Shame t-shirts and albums begin to form behind the bar. 

 “There is no free ride, as Burce Springsteen would say. A gig can’t just be entertainment. It has to feel dangerous. And disturbing. At least make you feel something. Even a schlager music star can’t just be an entertainer. It would feel like an insult, if someone called me an entertainer”, says Sarparanta, as he hands over a fan’s change.

****

Aalto University's Point of View

”Shared Value is a Must”

Dr. Pekka Mattila, Group Managing Director, Associate Dean, Aalto University Executive Education and Professor of Practice, Aalto University School of Business comments on the article.

Sampsa Sarparanta’s interview is enough to stop many company directors in their tracks – often different worlds intersect only thinly. The growing power of citizens, consumers, or consumer citizens receives its most concrete form in the weekly scandals affecting companies that disregard what happens around them. Barilla, Lulu Lemon, Abercrombie & Fitch… Examples abound, whatever the industry. 

In recent years, strategy experts Michael Porter and Roderick Kramer have written about shared value with a focus on an in-depth understanding of the needs, expectations, and concerns of stakeholders. Devoting oneself solely to the needs of customers or owners is no longer enough for staying in the game. At times, an interest group that may seem marginal or even insignificant can actually clinch an organization’s entire fate – with catastrophic results in the case of disappointment or upset. 

Considering the business model and logic from the perspective of shared value is not a sacrifice for a company, but can at best even boost operations. The campus of SAS Institute headquarters caters for the diverse needs of the families of employees, ensuring an exceptional level of commitment, while, in its time, Body Shop’s brand was built on the promise of an ecologically and socially sustainable value chain. 

Also economist John Kay has examined the mechanisms of achievement. His book The Obliquity is a convincing account of the way companies and individuals that aim for something other than direct financial profit outshine their rivals also when measured with the narrower indicators of success. Those that openly seek financial profit do often amass a fat wallet due to the sheer determination at play, but still lag behind peers that have the greater good of society at heart or that are driven by a desire to solve the challenges of some marginal group. 

A good story is always appealing – also in the case of Sampsa Sarparanta.  

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