This text was written for the Canadian publication, Le Merle Vol.3 No.1 Spring 2015.
I am quite shocked by recent developments in Dutch politics.
I thought it might be interesting to get together to see what we can come up with in the way of creative action. Maybe we could find a way to combine art with a demonstration.
Would you like to participate?
The Alarm Clock
The quote above is from an email I received in December 2010 from a fellow artist whom I had met only a couple of times. We had briefly exchanged our concerns on the direction of Dutch (cultural) politics and she therefore included me in the list of people to whom she mailed her small call for action. I was happy to receive it and immediately sat down to put a few thoughts on paper, preparing for the meeting. I thought it important to emphasize that although the cultural sector was being hit hard and deliberately, and out of proportion compared to other sectors, the real concern was the change in discourse[i]. Almost overnight ‘art’ had become the politicians’ favorite scapegoat for many of the problems caused by the policies of the same politicians[ii], and even though the budget cuts would be disastrous to the cultural sector, the main focus of any kind of call to action should look beyond the symptomatic budget cuts and try to address the core of the problems.
I believe the real reason we are meeting tonight, 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 realize we occupy an important position in society, not only as artists, but as intellectuals.[iii]
Two years, a lot of meetings, arguments, manifestos, demonstrations, excitement and disappointments later, The Platform for Visual Arts (Platform Beeldende Kunst, PBK) was officially launched. Although the road to PBK started with the email and meeting mentioned above, both the people involved and the scope of our goals and actions had changed. After the initial shock it quickly became clear, that the reason behind the budget cuts was not a matter of sound economic choice, but an implementation of an ideological vision. In the words of Merijn Oudenampsen in a piece he wrote as part of our ‘Retort’[iv] project:
The ambiguousness of the budget cuts can be traced back to three different political agendas that run criss-cross through the new cultural policy; a populist agenda that propagates a friend-or-foe type of thinking and rejects art and culture as subsidy guzzlers; a conservative agenda which banks on a conservative view on culture, consisting of heritage and the conservation of classic and elite ‘top institutes’; and lastly the liberal agenda which propagates the market and the withdrawal of the state.[v]
With PBK we hoped to be able to halt the trend and, in time, even reverse it. We wanted to mobilize and arm the cultural sector with arguments against the neoliberal thinking behind the budget cuts. This meant trying to join the many different voices of the cultural sector, not to create one harmonious voice representing us all, but by power of example demonstrate that the multitude of voices is our strongest asset. Both as cultural sector and as an open society in general. From this multitude we hoped new arguments and narratives would develop to form a critical mass, which would eventually spill over into the media and political discourse – something we would obviously try to facilitate and force.
Off to Work
There was no way we could hope to achieve full agreement on either tactics or strategy within the arts sector. Nonetheless, we needed some basic causes to set out a course which would be considered important enough for people to rally around. Also, we needed these causes to be both abstract enough to represent an ideological statement and at the same time concrete enough to be able to manifest themselves as practical demands or suggestions for improvements. In other words we had to argue for the abstract importance and role of art in an open society and also be able to translate this importance into concrete proposals for better funding for the arts. In another Retort, artist Barbara Visser describes the situation:
Of course artists will persevere, no matter what, perhaps even more so when the going gets tough. That may be a solution, even though it’s only temporary. But what is not considered here – and this is evident when you look at the problems in the financial and housing markets – is that society will be living on a cultural credit off those producing image, music, and text. For a few years people will be excited about so much initiative and professionalism in the arts. ‘See, it is possible!’ is what we’ll hear. But when that cultural credit runs too low or inflation too high, the atmosphere can turn miserable and grim in a society where the market is the only measure of standard.[vi]
Since the budget cuts and malicious discourse were specifically targeting the experimental, contemporary and critical art, we decided to first try to formulate the importance of what we have later dubbed the ‘hummus’ layer[vii]. Art historian Christel Vesters in her Retort ‘We congratulate the Rijksmuseum’ written to the occasion of the reopening of the newly restored National Museum:
He [Simon Schama] also refers to our historian Johan Huizinga, who believed that books, objects and texts are inextricably connected in the birth of a civilization. If we follow this train of thought, we come to the conclusion that a new master (such as Rembrandt) could never have emerged without the ‘creative force of the milieu’ in which he developed himself. This train of thought is diametrically opposed to the idea of the solitary creative genius or a singular institution; in fact it underlines that context, insertion and a vigorous base are the necessary conditions for a thriving cultural climate.[viii]
An intrinsic part of this layer or ‘thriving cultural climate’ is the plethora of different artists’ initiatives and collaborations in The Netherlands, as these are often the first places new ideas are tested, experiments are carried out and young artists exhibit for the first time. We initiated a project, The Initiative[ix], in which we try to map them all. This way we can showcase the existing creativity in collaborative models and the ‘embeddedness’ of art and artists in local society, as well as create a marker for an ongoing investigation of the impacts of the budget cuts on the general artistic climate. The latter resulted in a beautiful silkscreen poster and an online archive published in 2014 under the title Neoliberal Iconoclasm[x].
These projects also played an important part in trying to achieve a primary strategic goal, the injection of facts into the media discourse. Too often politicians and media outlets base(d) their stories on art on outdated or mythical information about the cultural sector. ‘Lazy’ and ‘subsidy-guzzling’ were common terms used about artists intended to contrast the image of the ‘hard-working Dutchman’ conjured up by several rightwing and liberal parties (and in the meantime used by almost the whole political spectrum).
Possibly more alarming, this kind of thinking has also become somewhat accepted within the cultural field itself. Irene de Craen warns of the consequences hereof in a Retort:
The rhetoric at play here is spreading and indicates a turning point in the discourse within the cultural sector, in which art is expected to serve a political agenda which we were fighting against not so very long ago. By eagerly wanting to fulfil new criteria regarding audience numbers and entrepreneurship, we’ve lost sight of art’s fundamental values and needs. And once the autonomous position of the arts in society will have evaporated, due to the continuous repetition of qualifications such as “hermetic” and “distant”, politicians will not have to worry about future austerity rounds being disturbed by screaming masses on the Malieveld, for there won’t be much left to defend.[xi]
Such internalization of market-based thinking (especially among younger artists), is a warning sign that further politicization of the cultural field is paramount to understanding the political and economic forces at work. In order to achieve this goal, we organize debates, set up meetings, do research, paint with logos[xii] and many other things. As we engage in a very diverse range of activities it is sometimes difficult for outsiders to get a good understanding of what PBK is exactly.
We see PBK as an active think-tank – sometimes acting as a pressure group. We have positioned ourselves between the many individuals working in the cultural field on one side, and the media, policymakers and other organizations (e.g. lobby, unions) on the other side. This way we lower the bar for cultural workers wanting to take action and try to facilitate this action whenever possible. We have built up a good network and have close ties to the most important organizations in the field, which enables us to ‘feed’ the cultural ministry, lobby organizations and unions with relevant information on the ‘on the ground’ situation of the cultural field.
We offer our experience and research to fellow organizations in other countries and at the moment we are trying to map out similar organizations abroad (starting with Europe). We are convinced that we need to be able to connect the problems facing the cultural field with the problems facing society in general. This way we can combine forces with other sectors and join the general fight against neoliberal hegemony and rising inequality, so that one day we might wake up in a fairer world.
[i] A very strong analysis of the neoliberal rhetorical trickery can be found here: http://www.platformbk.nl/2012/11/retort-2-the-venomous-heritage-of-halbe-zijlstra-2/?lang=en
[ii] A thorough analysis of the political climate leading up to the ‘budget cuts’ can be found here: http://www.platformbk.nl/2014/02/the-dutch-situation-2/?lang=en
[iv] Retort, Dutch Weerwoord, was one of our first and most successful projects. We assembled a ‘team’ of artists, writers and curators who were on ‘stand-by’ and whom we could call upon to write an opinion piece as a direct counter to any misleading or inaccurate articles in the mainstream media on the subject of arts and/or artists. Although only a few were published in the national papers the editors quickly got to know about us and seem to have tempered their coverage in recent years. Also, each Retort acts as means of disseminating arguments amongst and rallying the cultural sector.
[vi] Measuring Standards, http://www.platformbk.nl/2012/12/retort-3-measuring-standards/?lang=en
[vii] The Dutch term hoemoes really means fertile soil, but is pronounced like hummus, the chickpea dish. This made for some confusion during a presentation in Budapest which ended with us sticking to the somewhat weird term ‘hummus-layer’.
[ix] This collection is called The Initiative (Het Initiatief) and can be found here: http://www.platformbk.nl/2012/11/schap-2-het-initiatief/. It has turned out to be a fantastic resource for art-students, trying to orientate themselves in the art world.
[x] The English title unfortunately doesn’t do justice to the Dutch Verbeeldingsstorm. It is a great untranslatable pun on the Iconoclasm of the Reformation, where not the images but the imagination is the target. http://www.platformbk.nl/2012/11/schap-3-de-verbeeldingsstorm/