At War with Contemporary Art

Art and democracy (in the Netherlands)*

The brusque measures taken by the Dutch neo-liberal government against the cultural sector this year have left many flabbergasted. Even more surprising, though, has been the lukewarm reaction of the sector itself. Artists, culture professionals and art lovers alike seem almost paralysed. Notwithstanding some playful shouting and the odd petition, there fortunately was a more attention-getting protest march to The Hague. Otherwise, resignation seems to be the prevailing mood.

Those who follow the developments in the Dutch cultural landscape from some distance perhaps understand this political impotence a little bit better. Over the past ten years, the sector has on more than one occasion raised eyebrows with how it is increasingly speaking about itself. Under the guise of evidence-based policy, the cultural sector has embraced commercialization. Theatres and museums obediently have met their imposed marketability quota and, just as easily, universities have accepted the opportuneness of setting up courses in cultural management and art marketing. The redefining of cultural participants as clients, and of artists as creative entrepreneurs, doesn´t meet with anything resembling resistance either. Supposedly neutral research centres and other academic observers of Dutch cultural policy have with impunity replaced the terms ´policy support´ or ´cultural subsidy´ with the notion of ´government interference´. By embracing this jargon, they suggest that government cultural policy is not a necessity but rather a necessary evil, an almost improper market correction that is actually a bit embarrassing.

But isn´t this just a superficial rhetorical shift that doesn´t really affect the heart of culture? The idea that speaking about oneself and about the world we live in would be a purely nominal thing, a speaking that doesn´t generate real effects, has already been refuted by Max Weber. Words generate a symbolic universe in which our living together takes on actual form. The point is that the majority of cultural Holland, over the past few decades, has quite smoothly bought into this politically charged discourse while pretending to be dealing with a neutral jargon that only affects technical managerial issues. This attitude prevents people from articulating questions in a truly political way. Even worse: in such an atmosphere of management and control policies, the idea of questioning anything disappears. The fact that words such as culture management, marketing, entrepreneurship, cultural consumer, evidence-based policy, and government involvement definitely do have a neo-liberal signature is suppressed all too easily under the guise of realism. Over the past few years, culture in the Netherlands has been coaxed into a market rationality and apparently no one has any qualms about it, not in political nor in artistic and academic circles. Of course there is the odd voice of protest, but that is usually quickly marginalized or dismissed as being naive or unrealistic. After all, politicians as well as civil servants apply this efficiency rhetoric, only too happy to be supported in this by a legion of academics and an army of lucrative research companies. In this way they suggest that this jargon is simply part of a down-to-earth, ideology-free ´good governance´. Science´s methodologically correct but colour-blind support is supposed to guarantee that this is a value-free discourse.

Recently, however, the wolf in sheep´s clothing has revealed its true face. And because the majority of the cultural sector and the academic world have joined the chorus of wolves howling the neo-liberal rhetoric, they now find themselves at a loss for a befitting political answer. While the cultural foundations, in order to save their skin, followed the old rules of compromise and discussion of the so-called Dutch Polder Model on the eve of the day of reckoning, giving in and compromising themselves with the new policy regime, next day´s breakfast made them choke on the bitter pill of an unexpected Realpolitik. The Polder Model was buried for good. The cultural foundations had adopted the wrong strategy, now obsolete.

Behind their poker faces, today´s Dutch policymakers have revealed their true nature: a cold, egocentric neo-liberalism and an overheated, even hateful neo-nationalism. The alliance between those two can no longer be convinced by facts or figures. Although they themselves wield this rhetoric, it only serves to mask an unquantifiable ideological position. Today, in the Netherlands, politics means real politics again and that means, in the first place, making distinctly ideological choices, which cannot be fought with measurability and other rational-seeming arguments. An ideological choice is after all a matter of faith, and well-deliberated reasoning and calculating are seldom a match for that.

The only remedy against these politics is therefore to become political oneself. Both the cultural sector and the academic world will have to acknowledge that their activities are also part of the political domain, meaning that they too shape society. And it is now up to them to clearly state on the basis of what values and convictions they intend to do so. The cultural sector in any case has no other choice but to show its true colours. The current national government´s policy in the Netherlands compels cultural professionals to turn their backs on compromise policy and take a political stance. And, first and foremost, this means they will have to reinvent and claim their own jargon and their own basis of social legitimacy. They have after all politically side-lined themselves by a too-easily adopted efficiency discourse and business rhetoric.

The cultural sector will have to adopt a radically different tone, one that can strike at the heart of politics. And when I last checked, that political heart in the Netherlands (and in Europe) is still called ´democracy´. Since modern times, contemporary art has survived purely by the grace of democracy, and starting with the historical avant-garde, art has continuously been aimed at transgression. Time and again, it attempts to introduce a ´dismeasure´ within the general measure of everyday culture. Art that doesn´t demonstrate that anything that is can also always be otherwise, soon becomes boring, is passé, déclassé or stays well within established formats, making it simply entertainment. The teasers who constantly remind society of what is also otherwise possible will however increasingly find themselves in a minority position. They will have to convince an audience each time again that their vision is also viable and therefore commendable. Just like politicians who wish to persuade public opinion to accept a new policy, art also always needs good arguments, discourse, debate and polemics to win an audience over. Transgression, exceeding the measure, after all always requires public legitimization. Only those who stay within the measure can quietly carry on. So anyone who chooses to make art or work in the world of contemporary art opts for a minority position, even when this position is being dismissed as ´elitist´. A cultural elite is therefore not necessarily a political or economic elite. Elitist or not, minorities can only survive within a democracy because it offers at least two basic guarantees. First, the guarantee that power represents a majority and, second, that there is a legal framework that protects minorities. At best, such a legal framework ensures that minorities are supported and that they can emancipate themselves.

Paradoxically, in a democracy the majority creates the possibility for minorities to become majorities and take over power. Therefore we can say that the seat of power within a democratic form of government is in principle empty. It can de jure always be declared vacant. Not only that, within a radical democracy the majority will even encourage this process, in fact constantly preparing for its own abdication. This basic formula of democracy instantly explains what the problem in the Netherlands is. In reviewing the political decisions already taken and the announced policy measures of the last few months, even the most cursory glance reveals that they hurt precisely the minorities. Whether the subject is social security, healthcare, migration policy or cultural policy, each time these policies are aimed at structurally pulling the rug out from under alternative and weaker voices.

The radical reorganization of the cultural sector and especially of contemporary art fits equally well within a policy that weakens the second basic guarantee of a democracy. Art institutes in particular are, after all, places of constantly changing visions. Together with the social sciences they make up the social humus where opposition against everything that is taken for granted may flourish. And among the things that are taken for granted is the incumbent political power, regardless of whether its colour is deep blue or fiery red.

Undermining the cultural sector will in the long run stifle intellectual development, leading to less room for civil involvement and less possibilities for opposition. Currently, neo-liberalism and neo-nationalism in the Netherlands are so intricately linked that democracy is being reduced to the individual responsibility of the – autochthon – citizens, who can only realize their democratic momentum once every few years, in elections. The current national government´s policy undermines the civilized social and cultural regime that nourishes minorities. A democracy does, however, need a social programme to offer weaker groups every opportunity to obtain participatory power, and it needs a cultural programme to generate the necessary conceptual frameworks and reflection that can nourish criticism and opposition.

The Dutch cultural sector will in future have to start thinking and arguing again in these political terms. Not only in order to save what remains of its own structure, but especially to uphold the democratic notion that everything that is can also always be otherwise.

Pascal Gielen

*This article is a reworked former Dutch publication in Open. Cahier on Art in the Public Domain, 22-09-20001. The article is based on a more fundamental academic article on art, democracy, neo-liberalism and neo-nationalism in Europe which was published in the e-journal Krisis – journal for contemporary philosophy,

Pascal Gielen (1970) is director of the research center Arts in Society at the Groningen University where he is associate Professor sociology of art. He leads also the research group and book series Arts in Society (Fontys College for the Arts, Tilburg). Gielen has written several books on contemporary art, cultural heritage and cultural politics.In 2009 Gielen edited together with Paul De Bruyne the book Being an Artist in Post-Fordist Times (NAi) and he published his new monograph The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude. Global Art, Memory and Post-Fordism (Valiz). In 2011 De Bruyne en Gielen edited the book Community Art. The Politics of Trespassingand in February 2012 their new book Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm. Realism versus Cynicism was launched.