Dutch Culture Wars: on the politics of gutting the arts

“No one is safe.” With these words Halbe Zijlstra, the State Secretary of Education, Culture and Science, announced the slashing of the cultural budget on the Dutch national news in December 2010. Whereas cutbacks are generally accompanied by at least the pretension of reluctance or regret, Zijlstra delivered the message with a sardonic smile. It’s a rather uncommon spectacle: a State Secretary of Culture who publicly flaunts his disdain for culture. Zijlstra described artists as being on a “subsidy drip” and took care to present himself as an avowed fan of Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, McDonalds and Metallica. Known amongst artists as “Halbe the Wrecker,” he has become the embodiment of the anti-artistic and anti-intellectual sentiment in the Netherlands. Zijlstra became the figure of the philistine that the cultured classes love to hate. And he welcomes that hatred.

The slashing of the cultural budget is a symbolical centrepiece of the Dutch culture wars, initiated during the recent rightward turn in Dutch politics. It is a conflict framed along similar coordinates as its American counterpart, where the conservative Right channels popular discontent in the direction of cultural elites, instead of the economic establishment. What distinguishes the Dutch culture wars from those on the other side of the Atlantic, is that conservative Christian values are largely absent from the debate. The American focus on religious values is replaced with a secular “Judeo-Christian” anti-Islamism and opposition to multiculturalism. These differences notwithstanding, the overall effect is similar: the egalitarian critique of culture, described by its right-wing populist detractors as a “left-wing hobby” or an “elitist plaything,” allows the Right to push an economic agenda that is decidedly less egalitarian. In this sense, the Dutch culture cuts illustrate the powerful appeal of what Wendy Brown has described as the contradictory convergence of neoliberalism and neo-conservatism.[1] Where the neoconservative attack on “liberal elites” allows for a popular appeal that neoliberalism would otherwise lack.

Culture ≠ commerce ≠ entertainment

These contradictions are visibly present in the new art policy. It states that the cultural sector should be more entrepreneurial and attract larger audiences. At the same time, taxes on cultural products will be tripled (a measure that has been partially revoked, after the fall of the government in April 2012), turning cultural consumption once again into an elite privilege. Similarly, the art policy states that culture should be left to the market and artists should attract private funding. Then again, this does not apply to museums and the so-called ‘top-institutes’ – the most prominent institutions for opera, dance, and classical music – the only organisations with enough public visibility and reputation to have access to private sponsorship in the first place.

This contradictory character can be reduced to the three different political agendas that converge in the new art policy: a populist agenda, that vilifies cultural producers as subsidy junkies on the basis of a populist friend-enemy distinction; a conservative agenda, that promotes a conservative notion of culture, under the rubric of cultural heritage and the preservation of the classic and elitist culture of the top-institutes (opera, ballet, classical music, fine art); and finally a neoliberal agenda, that pleads for state retrenchment, and appreciates culture purely on the basis of its market value and international competitiveness. The combined result of these different agendas is that the cuts disproportionally target the more experimental, contemporary and small-scale forms of cultural and artistic production.

The opposition to the cuts from within the art world is not simply directed against the 20% reduction of the budget. Rather, it is the explicit ideological nature of the cutbacks, and the seemingly wilfull destruction of existing infrastructure that has upset people. According to the State Secretary, the government is cutting three times as much on art and culture as on other policy terrains, because otherwise it would not be possible to effect real change:

“If one would choose for only six percent, the cultural world would try and accommodate the cutbacks within existing structures. If you really want to make a break with the past, taking out a slice is simply not enough.”[2]

For the right-wing government, then, the budget reduction is not an end in itself but rather a means that serves the larger goal of restructuring the cultural field, while eliminating some of the more progressive aspects of Dutch culture. Apart from the aforementioned ambiguity, a common thread connects the Dutch discussion on the future of culture. It appears to have become completely normal – in the media and amongst the wider public – to think of culture according to the logic of commerce. An editorial in the Dutch establishment newspaper NRC Handelsblad cited a poll showing that the predominant sentiment of Dutch citizens (40%) is to see culture as ‘entertainment’[3]. It went on to argue, in rather pedantic fashion, that cultural producers should listen to their public. In other words: entertain more. The same section featured an interview with a worker, otherwise a rare presence in newspaper of note NRC Handelsblad, who was of the opinion that museums could be abolished because he could access the reproductions on the Internet.

Culture came to be represented in the public debate as one of the last bastions of unwarranted privilege, in need of democratization through the liberating force of the market. In this context, the plea of the state secretary to value the quality of a cultural product according to the size of the audience it attracts became an accepted, if not dominant position. Zijlstra reframed culture as a competitive enterprise in need of market discipline. According to this logic, those institutions that would fail to attract large audiences should be punished, not compensated with subsidies. In the words of Zijlstra: “It cannot be so, that the government intervenes as an automatic compensation when bad management of a cultural institution occurs.”[4]

“Entertainment is betrayal”

What all these arguments have in common is that they ignore what was long taken as a given: that the logic of culture is at odds with that of commerce and needs to be organized as its counterweight. In stead, what we experience presently in the Netherlands, is the complete victory of what Adorno and Horkheimer described in negative terms as the “culture industry”: the reduction of culture into a product like any other. In their Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception essay, Adorno and Horkheimer write:

“The shamelessness of the rhetorical question ‘What do people want?’ lies in the fact that it appeals to the very people as thinking subjects whose subjectivity is specifically seeks to annul.”[5]

In their view, entertainment is betrayal.[6] It is culture packaged as a promise of happiness that capitalism never quite delivers. It is society’s apologia, for to be entertained means to be in agreement. In contrast, Adorno and Horkheimer maintain a role for culture as critique. Aesthetic experience, in this perspective dating back to the Romantic tradition, is invested with emancipatory potential. Over the years, the high culture that Adorno defended, if not for its social premises, but for the superiority of its form, has been shelved as a bourgeois project. In Distinction, Bourdieu mercilessly dissected the function of high culture as a marker of the superiority of the educated classes, thereby legitimating social inequalities.[7] According to Bourdieu, artistic autonomy serves to produce art that is only legible by those with a proper aesthetic education, requiring a distance from the necessities of everyday life that economic privilege allows for. Cultural studies played a similar role in critiquing Culture for its class bias in the Anglo-Saxon world. In an ironic twist of fate, these leftist critiques have now been recuperated in the right-wing offensive against art and culture. Zijlstra defends his cuts by refuting the “old fashioned” arguments for cultural funding:

“People continuously told me that art serves to elevate the people. But if only the higher incomes make use of art, this argument no longer holds true.”[8]

A return to autonomy?

In response to the cutbacks, prominent Dutch art critics such as Camiel van Winkel have blamed the present crisis on the departure from artistic autonomy and the turn towards participatory art in the 1990s:

“What happened is that artists, with their socially engaged projects, were supposed to set off the damages incurred after state retrenchment. Artists happily joined with bureaucrats and real estate developers. A heavily ideological discourse circulated concerning the healing properties of art; art supposedly offered identification and orientation, and strengthened social cohesion. A paternalistic art practice that pretends to know what is good for the people, appears to much like the old social-democratic welfare state to be tolerated for long by a neoliberal regime.”

Apparently it is the social engagement of artists that has caused the present legitimacy crisis. The solution is a return towards autonomy:

“Over the past fifteen years it has been a taboo in the art world to speak of the autonomy of the arts. Autonomy is equated by many with ‘an artwork that only refers to itself’ — a nice piece of toddler semiotics. By sacrificing the autonomy of the arts to its social relevance, it was taken for granted that art lost its sacrosanctity, while autonomy is exactly where art shows itself in its most social form.” [9]

There is a problem in the uncritical return towards a classic notion of autonomy and the purposelessness of the pure work of art that Adorno maintained. For one, it ignores the neoliberal, Blairite nature of artistic participation in the 1990s, mistakingly equating it with the leftovers of the emancipatory agenda of social democracy. The emergence of participation as a dominant practice in contemporary art instead coincided with the embrace of neoliberalism under the rubric of the Third Way. Art was instrumentalized for the sake of urban development agendas, real estate branding, or as a form of raw material for the Dutch creative industries. Moreover, the romantic (and conservative) Kantian view on autonomy is far from a taboo in the Dutch art world. In fact, it is immensely popular and forestalls reflection on the political nature of the arts.

The reserve of the arts

Institutional critique has revealed artistic autonomy to be an inherently relative notion. At times, the idea of autonomy even serves as a smokescreen that obscures the entanglement of art with dominant political and economic agendas. The classic example is Hans Haacke’s conflict with the MoMA about Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings or his project On Social Grease, which quotes Exxon executive Robert Kingsley as follows: “Exxon’s support of the arts serves the arts as a social lubricant. And if business is to continue in big cities, it needs a more lubricated environment.”[10] As opposed to the US, where primarily the market and private individuals aim to make use of the lubricating qualities of art, culture is a state affair in the Netherlands. This does not mean that state-sanctioned art is not instrumentalized. In the 1980’s, the Dutch Minister of Culture, Elco Brinkman, famously compared art to a lubricant, using a combination of classic orchestras, Rembrandt, and modern dance, to entice Chinese and Japanese trade delegations. Instead, the state and its cultural funds both shape and curtail the autonomy of the arts. This curtailment applies specifically to the political nature of art.

The Dutch interpretation of autonomy departs from the classic notion of the 19th century liberal Thorbecke, that politics should not concern itself with the content of art. On the other hand, it is expected of artistic and cultural producers not to meddle with politics. Of course this does not take the form of an explicit dogma, rather an implicit and sometimes even unconscious rule that art schools, critics, funds, and artists all subscribe to. It is the reason why the Netherlands has no strong tradition of political engagement within the arts. As the avant-garde literary critic Jacq Vogelaar once explained, through its subsidies, the government organizes the different cultural disciplines into separate reserves. Relative isolation leads to a negation of the social impact of art. Such a strategy of containment, the denial of the social nature of art, forms a core element of the Dutch notion of autonomy that one finds repeated incessantly in art magazines and reviews of art critics.

A prime example is the review of the solo exposition of the English artist Mark Wallinger at museum De Pont in Tilburg, written by the established critic Hans den Hartog Jager in the NRC Handelsblad[11]. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a carefully constructed imitation of the protest installation of Brian Haw, a demonstrator against the Iraq War, who resided full-time on Parliament Square from 2001 to 2006 with an ever-growing collection of protest signs. On the 23rd of May 2006, 78 officers were employed to take down the installation. Under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, unauthorised demonstrations within a one-kilometre radius of Parliament Square had become prohibited. Mark Wallinger’s reproduction of this installation under the title State Britain is, of course, charged with symbolic meaning. According to the press release of Tate Britain, the exclusion zone ran right through the middle of the Duveen Hall. Mark Wallinger had marked the one-kilometre radius with tape, exposing that half of the exposition illegally resided in the no-protest zone. Whatever one might think of the nature of the art work, it is difficult not to read it as a critical comment on the state of British democracy, in which the museum functions as a replacement for public space and as a shelter for critical dissent. The curator of Tate Modern mentioned that the artist’s aim was to foment debate on freedom of speech. It is surprising what Den Hartog Jager transforms it into:

State Britain, as he titled the installation, is now the pièce de résistance of the Wallinger solo exposition in De Pont in Tilburg. What stands out immediately: the work’s impotence. It’s not only because State Britain is too large and screams too loud, but especially because it is emphatically placed in the wrong spot: in that beautiful, decent Tilburg museum. For a moment, you are inclined to get angry, to turn your back, until you realize that this misplacement is exactly Wallinger’s intention: by setting up the work in such a way, by transforming protest into art, he shows that Haws emotional protest was indeed sincere, but an utterly powerless primal scream – and in that respect, surprisingly resembles art.”[12]

The critic’s first reaction evinces an almost classic bourgeois indignation about the desecration of the sphere of the arts —a “beautiful” and “decent’ museum”—by an artifact from everyday life. Den Hartog Jager perceives the work as an interruption, an unwarranted intrusion into the museum. However, the critic’s ability to interpret the artifact as an expression of impotence reassures him, thus rendering the artwork harmless and ridding it of any aesthetic and political power. After reducing the artist’s work to the theme of powerlessness, and thus politically castrating it, Den Hartog Jager becomes “immediately more sympathetic to his oeuvre.”[13]

The theme of powerlessness is an invention of the critic, which indeed has little to do with the intentions and artistic practice of Mark Wallinger, who generated controversy around his exhibit extending far beyond the realm of the arts. Wallinger was awarded the Turner Prize for State Britain in 2007. According to the jury, the artwork combined “a bold political statement with art’s ability to articulate fundamental human truths.”[14] Hans den Hartog Jager’s analysis again seems decidedly different:

“Much as Haw was an outsider in the world of politics, that had nothing more to express than his inspiration, his sincerity, and maybe even the truth of the matter, Wallinger seems to share a similar sentiment. This feeling pervades his entire exhibition: whatever you do as an artist, however loud you scream, it is impossible to really exert an influence on the world, to leave something behind that is meaningful outside the artistic realm.”[15]

It is a recurrent criticism that the artistic representation of political topics within the walls of the museum tends to lead to a certain neutralization of its significance. Think of Walter Benjamin and his remarks concerning the photography of the New Objectivity that even “succeeded in making misery itself an object of pleasure, by treating it stylishly and with technical perfection,” with which it managed to communicate nothing but: “the world is beautiful.”[16] Here, however, the critic performs this neutralization and even demands it as an existential precondition of art, in accordance with Bourdieu’s description of Kantian autonomy as a “denial of the social”.[17] In direct opposition to the nature of the work, the critic engages in an ideological intervention with the aim of silencing an artwork. Reviews of a similar nature appear almost every week in the Dutch press, but it is hard to find a more explicit example of the neutralization strategies employed by the gatekeepers of the Dutch art and culture reserves. It illustrates the depoliticizing nature of the Dutch conception of artistic autonomy, which revolves around the compelling demand that art renders itself socially impotent to generate meaning. At this point, the autonomy of the arts turns itself against the communicative power of art as such. It is not difficult to see how this vision of autonomy has contributed to the poorly argued resistance against the cuts and the declining public relevance of modern art in the Netherlands. To arrive at an art that fulfills a much-needed critical function, we need to depart from a different conception of autonomy.


The artist as a “baron in the trees”

The basic ingredients for such a vision can be found in the work of Jacques Rancière, who states that the aesthetic regime of art departs from the inherent entanglement of autonomy and heteronomy. Autonomy refers not so much to the artwork itself, but to the space that art is given in society. This space implies a particular sphere of experience, meaning that one is supposed to approach objects in a different, as Kant and Schiller would say “disinterested”, manner than in everyday life. Heteronomy means that art always relates to everyday life. It is impossible to perceive art separately from day to day experiences such as landscapes, bodies, objects, or social and political realities. The avant-garde ideal of the fusion of art and everyday life or the Dadaistic incorporation of everyday objects in the artistic sphere is based on a similar logic of heteronomy. According to Rancière:

“A critical art is in fact a sort of ‘third way,’ a kind of specific negotiation between those two constitutive politics of aesthetics. This negotiation must keep something of the tension that pushes aesthetic experience toward the reconfiguration of collective life and something of the tension that withdraws the power of aesthetic sensibility from the other spheres of experience. It must borrow from the zones of indistinction of art and life the connections that provoke political intelligibility. And it must borrow from the separateness of art works the sense of sensory foreignness that enhances political energies. Political art must be some sort of collage of the opposites.”[18]

According to Rancière, the tension resulting from the negotiation of autonomy and heteronomy conditions the force of critical art. It can easily be applied to Wallinger: the productive tension that a collection of everyday protest signs and a state prohibition zone incite, if reproduced in another sphere of experience, that functions according to a different set of rules. The critic Hans den Hartog Jager then tried to suppress the heteronomy of Wallinger’s work by reducing the parallel between art and life to powerlessness. In this respect, the Wallinger review shows that critical art practice needs to ascertain the preconditions for its intelligibility.

An art practice that employs such a hybrid strategy implies a different form of engagement than the commonplace notion that a political stance inherently results in a sacrifice of artistic autonomy. It is exactly the adherence to autonomy, intervening through the material or sphere of the arts, that generates the tension that determines the critical force of the intervention. In the Netherlands, the last decade has seen the arrival of the so-called “new engagement”, which implies an extensive restriction of artistic autonomy. The classic idea of engagement—based on the notion developed by Sartre—is hybrid, in the sense that it implies political intervention from the autonomy of the university, literature or the arts. What has now been called the “new engagement”, parallel to international trends such as participatory or relational art, abandons this autonomy to intervene in society in the service of the state or private actors. We learn from Dutch philosopher Karen Vintges that the “new engagement” is “post-ideological” and individually “ethical-spiritual”.[19] Here, the engaged artist fulfulls a role the English critic Claire Bishop once compared with the female protagonist in the film Dogville: her uncritical desire to serve the community only furthers her subjection.[20]

An interesting metaphor for a more hybrid form of political commitment is the allegorical novel The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino.[21] The story opens in Liguria in 1767 at the moment that the twelve year old baron Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo is served slugs for lunch by his sadistic sister. A fight ensues, and the young baron takes to the trees of the estate with the promise that he will never set foot on the ground again. His family’s hope that this promise derives from some sort of youthful folly proves unfounded: Cosimo will live in the trees for the rest of his life. His decision initially presents him with many problems. He must learn how to survive, to make a home for himself, to hunt, and defend himself. But his unconventional position is not simply a restriction of his abilities. It increases his freedom of movement, since Cosimo is now able to leave his parents’ estate and associate with other inhabitants of the valley. On the trees, he reads enlightenment philosophy and literature and corresponds with Voltaire and Diderot on the ideals of a universal society. From the treetops he organizes a local fire patrol, helps the impoverished youth steal fruit, fights off a pirate raid, publishes his own newspaper, helps Napoleon’s troops, and develops a troubled love affair with a girl who would prefer that he come down. What the tale of Cosimo tells us is that by taking distance, by living in another world, he was able to develop a critical perspective and associate with others. At the end of his life, Cosimo understands “something that was all-embracing, and he could not say it in words but only by living as he did. Only by being so frankly himself as he was till his death could he give something to all men.”[22]

In a similar vein, critical artistic practice implies the need to survive in a different world—and subsequently to associate, to deepen critical understanding, and to intervene politically, from the treetops of autonomy.

[1] Wendy Brown “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization,” in Political Theory 2006; 34; 690-714.

[2] Thijs Broer en Thijs Niemantsverdriet, “Halbe Zijlstra ‘Van Gogh kreeg ook geen subsidie’,” Vrij Nederland, 72 (2), 15 januari 2011, pp. 24-29, author’s translation.

[3] “Kunstenaars moeten naar publiek luisteren,” in: NRC Handelsblad, 3 September 2011.

[4] “Culturele Instellingen moeten van het subsidieinfuus af,” in: Elsevier, 13 December 2010. Available online: http://www.elsevier.nl/web/Nieuws/Politiek/283863/Culturele-instellingen-moeten-van-subsidieinfuus-af.htm?rss=true, author’s translation.

[5] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Philosophical Fragments. Stanford, 2002/1987.

[6] Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry, London, 1991.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge, 1979/1984.

[8] “Bezuinigingen op kunst ten dele eigen schuld,”in: Het Parool, 3 July 2012, author’s translation

[9] Camiel van Winkel, “Wat er is misgegaan,” in: MetropolisM 2011, p. 4, author’s translation.

[10] Hans Haacke, “On Social Grease,” in: Art Journal Vol. 42, No. 2, Words and Wordworks (1982), 137-143.

[11] Hans den Hartog Jager,“Mark Wallinger trekt de kunst in twijfel,” in: NRC Handelsblad, 27 oktober 2011.

[12] Hans den Hartog Jager,“Mark Wallinger trekt de kunst in twijfel,” in: NRC Handelsblad, 27 oktober 2011, author’s translation.

[13] Ibid., author’s translation.

[14] Chris Weigand,“Reviews roundup: Turner prize 2007,” in: The Guardian, 4 December 2007. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2007/dec/04/turnerprize2007.turnerprize

[15] Hans den Hartog Jager,“Mark Wallinger trekt de kunst in twijfel,” in: NRC Handelsblad, 27 oktober 2011, author’s translation.

[16] Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” in: New Left Review 62, July-August 1970, p230.

[17] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge, (1984/1979), p5.

[18] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, Unpublished lecture at Aarhus University, Denmark, September 2003. Available online at: http://www.16beavergroup.org/mtarchive/archives/001877.php

[19] See: Boomgaard et al (eds), New Commitment in Architecture Art and Design, Rotterdam, 2004.

[20] Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,” in: Artforum, February 2006, 178-183.

[21] Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees, Boston, 1977/1957.

[22] Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees, Boston, 1977/1957, p.214.