column

2013 2012 2011 2012 2011 2012 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006

Everybody loses?

In June the State Secretary, whose portfolio includes culture, announced how he intends to flesh out the cuts in his budget for the years commencing 2013. In total this (State) budget will be cut by over a quarter (200 million euro from a total of 950 million). This time, it ‘only’ involved the measures for a sum of 125 million. Put briefly, it boils down to him opting for the successful, for the institutions that already have a substantial share of the market in the cultural economy. The central ideas in his policy statement, which is revealingly entitled More than quality, are: less dependence on state subsidies by cultural institutions, more public outreach and more entrepreneurship. Artistic quality, the desire for innovation, the responsibility for nurturing talent, or culture as a socially binding phenomenon seem to have become of minor importance. The most conspicuous consequence of this new approach, which is, very deftly, worded as if concerns a blessing, a liberation for the country, is a rigorous reorganization of the cultural establishment, insofar the State bears primary responsibility for this. As a ‘top institution’, the Kröller-Müller Museum is relatively spared, but despite our successful cultural entrepreneurship, the high quality of our projects and an extremely innovative educational programme, in 2013 with a sizeable financial deficit, we will be forced to make a restart. This is partly due to cuts in the administration fees that the State has already imposed on us in recent years.
From the above, you will have noticed by now that this change of perspective comes as no surprise to me. The obvious next step is now being taken in a development we have been gradually working towards since the late eighties: the withdrawal of the national government, followed by the local authorities, as the financial engine of culture. A government may, of course, alter its policy and if this is passed by parliament then every citizen must accept it. What has surprised me is that this accelerated process of withdrawal is taking place in an atmosphere overtly hostile to art and culture. The gospel according to the market currently being preached is not accompanied by any nuanced view of culture’s role in society. On the contrary, across the country there seems to be a mood of satisfaction that it’s now finally possible to say out loud that culture has been liberated from the elite who held it hostage for years, that it is just a consumable and that it can now be given back to the people. This line of reasoning overlooks the fact that only now can culture truly become the property of an elite, namely as a hobby for the wealthy. These, incidentally, should not first be put off by the government’s cultural negativism.
A richly stratified, varied culture is the humus layer of a society. It is a cliché image, but it’s also a fine image. The heroic aspect of humankind is that from the outset, individually and in groups, humans have distinguished themselves from nature by the desire to become civilized. Depending on all kinds of factors, construction and destruction have both played a role in the development of cultures. We now appear to be in a destructive phase, heading towards a monoculture, in my opinion under the influence of overindulgence, laziness, abundance and fatigue. Destruction can also release new creative urges and can be necessary for this reason, but, given the risks of going off the rails and the permanent loss that involves, this particular means must be employed wisely.
Going exclusively for success from now on is a dead-end street. Adventure, challenge, renewal, development, all stimuli for an innovative society, will ebb away. Obviously success is necessary in due course, but it is always harmless and leads to laziness. Choosing only for success is also an obvious way to get rid of manifestations of culture considered undesirable. Is the government’s attitude of indifference perhaps the mask of shame for our culture or is it a deliberate step towards a monoculture, to which old and new Dutch citizens must conform? If that is the case, then I urge the political elite of the moment to immerse themselves in Simon Schama’s exceptional study of Dutch culture in the 17th century, The Embarrassment of Riches (1988). It describes how they transformed their shame into a sense of guilt and actually allowed culture to flourish in all its diversity using the big money they made on the market. If the fear of a diverse, refined and consciously developing culture is to dominate government policy, then everybody loses.

Evert van Straaten
Late June 2011

Image: Cornelis Veth, That you must see!