The following is a text written to the occasion of a gathering of a group of artists concerned with the new Dutch government’s art-policy and the overall change of attitude taking place in the West.

Rune Peitersen 2010

If we have only come here tonight because we are protesting against the planned budget cuts, because we think it is unfair that the art sector is being asked to cut 25% instead of 7%, or because the WWIK is being repealed –  if those are the only reasons to be here tonight – then we are what we have been made out to be; slaves to the subsidies and only really concerned with preserving the financial status quo, and saving our own asses. If those are the reasons we are here tonight, then I believe we should all go home again.

I believe the real reason we are here is because our society is reaching a dangerous tipping point, and we recognize, that it is time to start putting our weight on the right end of the scales. We realize we have to engage ourselves in a different way. Maybe there is some truth to the argument that the ‘people’ have become estranged from art, and maybe we, the artists, have been too complacent, too content with the privileges we have come to take for granted. The same complacency can be found in every single sector of society, from politicians, bankers and journalists to social welfare recipients, small business owners and creatives; however, that is no excuse. If we have been asleep, then it is time to wake up, not because others tell us to, but because we must realize we occupy an important position in society, not only as artists, but as intellectuals.

As such we owe it to ourselves and to society to use our capacities as intellectuals. We are trained in portraying ‘the other’ and we have developed skills to look at ourselves, our surroundings and our histories, and reflect upon what we see. But more importantly, we owe it to ourselves as individuals with a strong belief, that the foundation of any decent society, is that you care for and stand up for the weaker one – and, that it is not the amount of money you can take from your neighbor but the defense of the weak and the pursuit of knowledge we must use as a measure bar for civilization. We lend our voice to those who do not have a voice of their own, and question stagnation and dogma wherever we encounter it.  That is the challenge of the intellectual in society, that we have neglected and that we need to rise to again.

This needs to be done internationally. All over the Western world, the rightwing leaders are exchanging experiences and knowledge with their allies in other countries, propping up new parties and movements. If we mean to make a difference we cannot stay behind our own borders, we have to reach out and seek friends abroad. In recent years a wave, a tsunami if you will, of rightwing anti-intellectual sentiment has washed over the West. Now, let us turn the tide and flush the streets and gutters of society with a counter-movement based on intellectual ideas and values.

The question remains, what do we do? What course of action can we take? How can we possibly hope to accomplish a radical shift in the minds of millions?

We cannot use our art, either because we don’t make politically motivated art – and why start now – or, more importantly because it won’t be heard, seen or understood by anybody ‘outside’ the art scene – people who already agree with our cause.
We cannot strike, who would notice? Another 2.000 artists on the Malieveld will not impress anyone. Even 20.000 would not matter; it would only reaffirm the opinions held by the majority, that the artists are a small and insignificant minority, which only shows itself when its funding is threatened. And, like it or not, we need to mobilize people other than artists and art lovers because this is not just about us and art. We need to let everybody know what is happening and what it might mean for all of us if we do not change the course. We need to offer alternative visions, new modes of thinking , seeing and talking about the construction of society.

And, luckily, this is exactly what we do best. As artists, we are storytellers and image makers, we are well versed in getting our ideas across to an unsuspecting audience. We can take over and re-frame the political narrative. We can use our skills outside the studios, galleries and museums. We can participate actively in the discussion about society, tell our side of the story.

This can happen organically, we do not need a central command. Strict lines of authority or hierarchical divisions have never been our strength. We can work as individuals or as small groups, we can be cells in a larger structure unaware of the others, but united in telling variations of a single story; that the agreement we call society owes its very existence to the promise to protect the weak from the strong. We must reiterate, that a civilized society never puts profit before people and that all humans are different, yet equal. Each individual or group will know that their letters of dissent, viral videos, flash mobs, public interventions or even organized protests will be part of a larger movement. They will be the individual chapters in a story about a society where art, knowledge and human dignity, regardless of creed or ethnic background, are regarded as its rock solid foundations. Not as a Utopian ideal but as the daily duty to each other we all share as humans and as citizens.

We need to retell the story, patiently and with pride, and reclaim responsibility for the society we wish to create and live in. Only then can we be more than just another one-off protest, more than disgruntled subsidy recipients. Only then can we make a real difference.

Rune Peitersen