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Digimag 66 - July/August 2011: "A new Dark Age for Dutch Culture"

Digicult presents:
by "Sonic Acts" Festival
This text was written specifically for the new Digimag 66 - July/August
2011, and is signed by the entire staff of "Sonic Acts" Festival in Amsterdam:
Arie Altena, Lucas van der Velden, Martijn van Boven, Annette Wolfsberger, Nicky
Assmann, Femke Herregraven, Gideon Kiers
Link to the Italian version: http://www.digicult.it/digimag/article.asp?id=2113
Link to the English version: coming soon…

The letter ‘Meer dan kwaliteit’ (‘More than Quality’) by the State
Secretary for Culture, Halbe Zijlstra (VVD, People's Party for Freedom and
Democracy) arrived in the electronic mailboxes of Dutch art and cultural
institutes on Friday, 10 June 2011. It stated that €200 million would be
brutally slashed from the arts and culture budget, starting as early as 1
January 2013. Apparently, Zijlstra, who admits that he lacks any understanding
of art and culture, has blatantly ignored all the recommendations made to him on
this subject, including those from the Arts Council (the government’s official
advisory body). Subsidies for a limited number of ‘world-class institutes’ such
as the Nederlandse Opera, which already receive a substantial portion of the
existing budget, will be maintained. As far as Zijlstra is concerned, most of
the other institutes can disappear – they will no longer be able to rely on
structural support from the government. This not only applies to all the
production houses for theatres, half of the orchestras, the Muziekcentrum
Nederland (formed in a recent merger), the Foundation Art and Public Domain
(SKOR), renowned exhibition spaces and research facilities for visual art such
as De Appel, but also to the entirely new media sector with its internationally
acclaimed institutes such as V2_, the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk),
Mediamatic, WORM, the Waag Society and STEIM, as well as to the Rijksakademie,
de Ateliers and the Jan van Eyck Academy. Support for critical-analytical
journals such as Open and Metropolis M, and for the literary magazines,
including De Gids, will be discontinued. Furthermore, the budget that will be
allocated to project subsidies, i.e., for individual artists, one-off projects
and festivals, will be more than halved. Only ‘international world-class talent’
and art that has already proven itself will remain.
This is not merely the austerity plan that was anticipated from a
centre-right minority cabinet that is at the beck and call of the populist PVV
(Party for Freedom): it is a direct attack on art, an attack on anything that
does not fit into a market economy, on anything that refuses to, or cannot be,
adapted to a populist-tinted, neo-liberal mindset. It marks the end of a
cultural sector that was birthed with a great deal of effort and difficulty. His
letter does include a few obligatory sentences that could fool a hasty reader
into thinking that there actually is a coherent vision behind this policy, but
each substantive phrase is contradicted by the proposed regulations. The letter
brims with resentment towards innovative and investigative art, towards
groundbreaking art, art that cannot survive if it is only supported by the
market. The letter expresses contempt for artists’ works, contempt for the
wealth of experiences that art can provide, and contempt for people who enjoy
it. The contributions that art makes to society and innovation have been
completely ignored. The idea that sustaining art and culture is in the public
interest is negated; in fact, the notion of the public interest is ignored
altogether. The right for works to exist is reserved only for those works that
‘the market’ – whatever that might be – or wealthy patrons will support.
Zijlstra’s letter is nothing more than a dictatorial ruling. We are being
spurred to our downfall by populist neo-liberalist policies.
There are absolutely no policy reasons for the €200 million of cutbacks.
This deal was struck with the PVV in exchange for its support in parliament of
the minority cabinet. The intention is to inflict irreparable damage on an
entire profession. Zijlstra is striving to decimate and eliminate this
professional group’s creative, innovative and critical potential. Not a single
member of his own party (VVD), or anyone from its coalition partner, the CDA
(Christian Democratic Party) has opposed him. As far as they are concerned,
traditional art is merely the superfluous ornamentation of a society.
Contemporary art is labelled as alienating, and even, although no one actually
says it out loud, as ‘degenerate art’.
Prioritising world-class talent implies that the State Secretary makes a
distinction between ‘art that has already proven itself’ and all other art. This
is illogical and downright ignorant. Art is in a state of constant change, it
reflects on a society and the time in which we live, it is frequently at odds
with accepted norms and values, and reveals new and unexpected perspectives.
Zijlstra is of the opinion that there is only room for art from the distant
past, for cultural heritage such as centuries-old ballet, opera, classical music
and visual art. But classical art only has meaning in the context of new art,
they enhance each other and validate each other’s existence.
This means that from 1 January 2013 no money and thus no time will be made
available to create unique or ambitious artworks, for fundamental research, for
developing complex technological works, for art that critically examines our
complicated world, for artworks that enrich society and people in sometimes
unparalleled ways. What remains is ‘music for the millions’; all the rest will
be amateur art. Artists who are driven by their craft will have to create their
art in their spare time. Cultural vitality will disappear, as will the economic
vitality that is driven by art. We can forget about innovation and international
allure entirely.
Of course, the situation as it stands at the moment can and should be
criticised. For a long time many of those who are active in the sector have been
dissatisfied with the ways in which funds are allocated. But Zijlstra’s plan has
brought an abrupt end to this discussion, as well as to the discussion about how
funds can best be used to stimulate culture. He has opted for the simplest
solution: get rid of it all.
Reactions to the proposals have been manifold, and they have naturally
provoked a rebellion by artists and the employees at the affected institutes. It
has also inflamed a furious backlash from private funding organisations, wealthy
right-wing culture aficionados and patrons – after all, Zijlstra’s intention is
that they should fund the arts sector. During the parliamentary hearings they
repeatedly reminded Zijlstra that the Netherlands is a country where private
sponsorship of the arts has always been in short supply, and that there are
almost no financial incentives for patrons. They stated resolutely that they
feel betrayed, burdened with the impossible task of saving art, and declared in
no uncertain terms that the government has revealed itself to be an
untrustworthy partner. In their opinion, the proposed policy is offensive,
irresponsible and counter-productive. Rick van der Ploeg, a leading economist, a
former State Secretary of Culture and a proponent of professionalising the
economic aspects of art, wrote in the NRC (national newspaper) that it is “a
measure of their brazen brutality that this cabinet wants to be remembered for
its irreversible butchering of a closely-knit, high-quality and multi-faceted
network of cultural opportunities in our country,” and continued, “The policy
being proposed lacks the standards of quality which are necessary in a
democratic, constitutional society.” This sentence is worth reading twice.
It should be a cause of concern for everyone that a minority cabinet with
the feeble support of a parliamentary majority of only one seat would take such
draconian and drastic measures without paying any heed to the other half, which
has only one seat less than the ruling coalition. Zijlstra shamelessly admits
that the proposals have no basis in fact, and display a total lack of sympathy
for the field. This undemocratic attitude only compounds the suspicions about
this government’s much more drastic proposals for cutbacks in health care,
education and pension schemes, and it underscores the steps they are (not)
taking to discipline the financial sector.
Despite all the government’s hollow arguments, nobody has actually
explained why these cultural cutbacks are necessary. All those who were asked to
make recommendations about the plan advised against it in the strongest possible
terms, and all of the unsolicited recommendations were negative too. There is
unanimous agreement that the plans will have disastrous consequences. A
staggering number of institutes will have to be closed and there will be very
little funding for artists. There will be a wide-scale destruction of capital,
costs will not be offset by the profits, and the Netherlands will be downgraded
to a cultural backwater. It is clear what the implications of this will be for
the cultural and economic business climate: international companies or
professionals working in the knowledge industry will no longer consider basing
themselves in the cultural wasteland that the Netherlands will become.
The government has disdainfully cast aside all the recommendations and is
bulldozing ahead with its plans. The only possible conclusion that can be drawn
is that they are intent on the wide-scale eradication of art and culture in the
Netherlands. Halving the project subsidies – in an arts budget that was one of
the lowest in Europe, even before the cutbacks – means that art in the
Netherlands will cease to exist in its current form and diversity. After 600
years of growth and progress that started in the Renaissance, the Netherlands
will once again find itself in a Dark Age.