Hands-off policy for a thriving sector
ABOUT EIGHTEEN MONTHS ago, at the Rotterdam Film Festival première of Karim Traïda's film The Polish Bride, I was seated next to a critic from the American magazine Variety. He was an Australian who lived in Rome. The thing that struck him most about the film was the sheer ugliness of it all. The wallpaper! Were all our farms that ugly on the inside? And as for the two leads, what audacity to cast such unattractive actors!
A fresh perspective can produce interesting observations. Doubly so in this case, because the Dutch critics were very enthusiastic about the Algerian-born film maker's loving portrayal of the Groningen countryside. An outsider sees the beauty that we no longer see. Of course, not everything an outsider sees is beautiful, as a now classic dialogue from Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction aptly demonstrates. Returning from a European trip, Gangster 1 tells Gangster 2 about the disgusting Dutch habit of eating French fries with mayonnaise: "I seen 'em do it, man. They fuckin' drown 'em in that shit."
In general, the Dutch make poor chauvinists - except when it comes to art. Whether it be a jazz musician landing a contract with a prestigious American record label or a documentary maker winning a prize at an obscure Japanese film festival, every Dutch artist who achieves foreign success fills me with pride. Art is, after all, a barometer of a nation: the more exciting the art, the more interesting the country. On this scale, the Netherlands does very well. Not because of last century's great painters or the international allure of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Netherlands Dance Theatre. Not even because of the number of foreign languages into which the works of authors such as Cees Nooteboom and Harry Mulisch are being translated.
It is the design, the photography and the architecture that ranks current Dutch art amongst the best in the world. Benno Premsela, Anton Corbijn and Rem Koolhaas - the latter two are still very much active - paved the way for today's twenty- and thirty-somethings who share the same desire for renewal. There is always room at the Dutch Opera for exciting new guest producers and this has helped make it one of the most talked-about opera houses in the world. Although theatre is a much more difficult product to export, it is clear that the repertory theatre adaptations here are infinitely more progressive than those in neighbouring countries. Dutch art academies attract many foreign students, while at the same time many art institutions have foreign directors.
The current art climate in the Netherlands is free and innovative. The government makes sure the facilities are in place but otherwise takes a backseat approach to policy making. Liberal doctrine has clearly caught on. The Ministry of Education is even pulling out of the logistics of state subsidies and instead channelling funds for some institutions and individuals into a number of distribution agencies for specific branches of the arts. The state museums are being privatised. Value judgements are left to the Arts Council, the advisory body whose public image recently took a beating after it proved unable properly to defend its decision to turn down two subsidy applications. Subsidies are granted for a four-year period; the policy plans for the 2001-2004 Culture Green Paper will have to be submitted by the end of the year.
Until recently, politicians stayed out of the cultural debate, largely because the consensus was too great. There were differences of opinion on matters of sex and money, confirming the clichéd view of the Netherlands as a country of vicars and merchants. Dutch-based Iranian writer Kader Abdollah recently voiced his amazement at the excitement caused in a tolerant country such as this over the question of what forms of nudity were permissible in art. This year's Holland Festival drew extra publicity - and visitors - after the State Prosecutor's office confiscated nine photographs from the Attack! exhibit. A judge later ruled that the prosecutor had been wrong in deeming the images to be child pornography and that was the end of the matter.
Money is the other reason for public excitement about the arts. Last year, The Hague's Gemeentemuseum (Municipal Museum) bought Victory Boogie Woogie, Mondrian's last work, from an American collector for eighty million guilders. The Dutch Central Bank provided the money for the purchase, as a gesture to Dutch society marking the disappearance of the guilder and the introduction of the Euro. The gesture was not appreciated: the letters pages of the newspapers were filled for weeks with readers' suggestions of better ways to spend eighty million guilders. Meanwhile, the Second Chamber was unhappy about the rather underhanded financing construction. Central Bank chairman Wellink was forced to apologise in a later interview. Next time, the money will be given to single mothers, according to a man who had obviously never been particularly enthusiastic about the whole idea.
There is a very strong tradition in the Netherlands that politicians refrain from value judgements about the arts. In the 1980's, Culture Secretary Brinkman tried to stop the P.C. Hooft Prize, a major literary award, from going to the controversial writer Hugo Brandt Corstius, an affair still considered a low point the art world's relations with government. The current minister, the social-democrat economist Van der Ploeg, is smart enough to avoid that pitfall. Politicians are rarely interested in areas where everything is going smoothly, so Van der Ploeg decided to all but hijack the cultural debate.
Since his appointment last autumn, he has made it clear that he prefers a demand-side approach to arts policy. His point is that too few people are actively involved in the subsidised arts, and that young people and those of foreign descent are being left out. He wants to reach out to a broader audience in two ways: firstly, by using new criteria ('social reach', 'subsidy per visitor') for the evaluation of subsidy applications; and secondly, by paying more attention and resources to cultural diversity and culture in schools.
Regardless of whether or not Van der Ploeg manages to get his plans through parliament, he has certainly given the editorial writers months of work. While his supporters refer to the arrogance and laziness of the established culture, opponents accuse his department of confusing culture policy with social policy.
The major question for the future is whether the increasing emphasis on the demand side (the 'public reach') of the arts will eventually be to the detriment of the supply side (the quality of art on offer). For that is the only thing that everyone in the debate seems to agree on: there is nothing wrong with the quality of the arts in the Netherlands.