Dutch Budget Cuts: An Interview
In the wake of the recent dramatic cuts in cultural funding in the Netherlands, Markus Miessen talks to Metahaven, the studio for research and design based in Amsterdam, consisting of Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk.
MARKUS MIESSEN: You have recently published a manifesto-like text titled ‘Despotic Powers’ (published on the website of Metropolis M), in which you state how missionary, protestant, centralized and ordered the Dutch version of the neoliberal model still is. The Dutch government’s recent drastic cuts in cultural funding in the Netherlands could be described as the biggest scam in the European Union, and it mostly affects the visual arts, including the potential elimination of entire institutions. What are the key changes proposed by the government?
METAHAVEN: The key cuts, effective as of 2013, are in the grants for individual artists, and in the funding for research and development in the arts and the institutional backup for this research. The cuts entail €200 million and hit a number of recognized institutions including Rijksakademie, Jan van Eyck Academie, SKOR, and many others. Also the theatre world is severely affected. The remaining budget for culture, €700 million , goes to museums, classical music, ballet, heritage, and amateur art, among others.
Perhaps neoliberalism has always been protestant, but the idea that this is going to create a more dynamic and market-driven arts context in The Netherlands is simply a fiction. Of course the government has mumbled all kinds of things about charity and patronage taking over, but it has not undertaken policies to this end, neither has it undertaken tax cuts to stimulate this. On the contrary, it has raised the VAT on theatre and museum tickets. This is why it is more like a Dutch parody of neoliberalism, which is in a certain sense worse than neoliberalism proper.
MM: In your text, you refer to the anti-arts attitude, which this government has adopted and which was carefully incubated by years of hate speech in the style of Geert Wilders (the far right populist). According to you, this has now become standing policy. Could you elaborate on the dangers of this development?
METAHAVEN: The Netherlands is a small country and not many people are fully aware of its political situation. We are ruled by a minority coalition of centre-right liberals (VVD) and Christian democrats (CDA), both of which have effectively become far right mouthpieces; the left-leaning voices in both of these parties have been ousted, or silenced. This coalition relies on support from Geert Wilders’ far right PVV to achieve a majority. This is a similar set-up to Denmark. What you have is a technocratic system effectively run by an extremist; a consensus model, but one without formal accountability. Wilders is indeed one of the European champions of xenophobic hate speech, and he is at the same time the most well-known Dutch political brand. We should be mindful of his political work as it is skillfully crafted to avoid all the legal traps. He is connected to all the major proponents of the extremist, anti-Islamic right in Europe and abroad, like Mario Borghezio (Lega Nord), and Pamela Geller, the American blogger – both of whom, we should remember, have shown admiration and sympathy for the heinous acts of murder by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. Apart from immigrants, Wilders has always launched hate speech on art and especially on state support for it. The other parties have internalized much of this anti-arts attitude. The dangers are, obviously, that particular groups of people in society are being set apart from the others, and that under certain circumstances, unanticipated forms of persecution could emerge. In this context, there is an up side to these cuts in the sense that parts of the art world are no longer fiscalized by the government; they are no longer obliged to self-censorship. You could say that a self-politization of the situation is under way.
MM: More precisely, what is it that reveals the despotic power behind the austerity measures?
METAHAVEN: We described in the aforementioned piece how Dutch Culture Secretary Halbe Zijlstra, at the last minute, exempted a few top-end performing arts organizations from his cutbacks. To quote from our piece: ‘In fact, these were exactly the type of institutions the well-educated share of the VVD electorate appreciates for its time-tested productions. Zijlstra’s ad hoc “generosity” only further reveals the despotic power behind the austerity measures.’ Then, days after the massive demonstrations of the Mars der Beschaving (March for Civilization), VVD Member of Parliament René Leegte made public his intent to terminate funding for the KNMI – the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute, established in 1854 – for its scientific position on climate change. With no apparent correlation, other than their ideology, the Christian Democrats’ leader Maxime Verhagen has since launched a plea of support for the Dutch citizens’ alleged fear of foreigners, foreign food and foreign diseases. Wilders’ PVV wishes to extend the status of ‘allochtoon’ (non-European immigrant) to the third generation of foreigners living in the Netherlands in an attempt to widen their criminal record. And in a bizarre move, Martin Bosma, the PVV’s chief ideologist and spokesperson for culture, secured a parliamentary majority for a mandatory minimum of 35 percent Dutch-language music on Radio 2. Though formally governed by parties with different political agendas, the Netherlands is a de facto single-party state, with a clueless, fragmented opposition. In addition, the disregard and disdain for advisors and representatives from the culture field, as well as the whimsical nature of its actual policies, affirm the despotic nature of the power in charge.
MM: In regards to the current hostility towards any kind of criticism aimed at the government you also mentioned the cancellation of a lecture by historian Thomas von der Dunk. Could you expand on that?
METAHAVEN: Thomas von der Dunk is a historian who got invited to give the annual Willem Arondeus lecture (Arondeus was a resistance fighter during World War II, and he was openly homosexual). For his lecture, von der Dunk intended to draw a parallel between Wilders’ PVV and the NSB, the pro-Nazi party before and during WWII. This parallel is entirely justified: the PVV even flirts with political symbols which the NSB used, such as the seagull and the orange-white-blue flag, and although it is not a Nazi party, it bolsters an extreme-nationalist agenda under a ‘liberal’ mantle. When Wilders’ lieutenants got wind of the content of Von der Dunk’s talk, they threatened to abolish not just this particular installment of the lecture, but its entire institution, and the PVV’s governing partners gave in to this extra-legal political pressure: the lecture was cancelled, which is, in fact, a case of flagrant censorship. Von der Dunk gave a lecture anyway, and he was right to do so. With this government, there is a narrow-minded self-interest, and the agenda is to silence opponents in ways that are both coercive, because they are based on brute force, and corrupt, because they are unaccountable and opaque.
MM: You end your text by saying that in regards to resistance, it requires a pro-active body, the individual willing to get engaged and actively participate in the current political struggle. What kind of political dissent is still possible?
METAHAVEN: The Dutch cultural sector is politically disorganized and divided. There was an outburst of anger, some demonstrations, some police brutality, some more anger, etc. The emotions are real, but we need a structure, even if it is only a basic one. We are aware that there are plans underway to create a broader political, extra-parliamentary coalition that represents not just the cultural sector, but the entirety of civic and social groups under threat by this government. This, in our view, would be a better approach than the naive proposal of a single-issue ‘culture party’. Public opinion, rather than institutional entitlement, will become an important avenue for opposition to play out. The existing political parties will have to do a much better job at being the opposition. Since they probably won’t, we will need a young generation of politicians who do not subscribe to the consensus model that gets spoon-fed to the Dutch from the moment of birth. Journalists will have to do a better job at exposing the ways this government operates and what goes on behind closed doors. Since they probably won’t do that either, other means will have to be created to enforce transparency in this area. And it is entirely possible that new coalitions will simply be automatically created because of our government’s appetite to offend its citizens. Ultimately though, this is a political fight for social justice and a progressive agenda against xenophobic, fear-mongering technocracy.
MM: What were the reactions to your text?
METAHAVEN: Mostly positive. Apparently on Facebook people forwarded it to each other. As you can read in the comments, there were some disagreements about the use of the word ‘despotic’ – a conscious choice on our part – where the leftist collective BAVO played the rather odd role of ‘over-identifying’ with the government’s liberal agenda, complaining it was not liberal enough. As true that may be, how effective a strategy is theirs given the political situation?
MM: From the outside, some of the cultural support in the Netherlands used to strike one as quite special, especially given the fact that, for me at least, the criteria for choosing what should and what should not receive support was never quite clear. What is your reading of this?
METAHAVEN: That’s a good point. You could say that there was pooled funding and expert committees decided on whom received what. Since we have never been part of these committees, we don’t know if this went by vote, or by discussion, or both, but the criteria for funding were never stated other than on terms of quality, relevance, etc. There is an inherent problem in judging art by committee, of course, because the criteria for appreciation of art, or a plan for art, can never be accountable on an absolute scale. What can be somewhat gauged are extrinsic criteria like ‘this is a project that speaks to an international audience’, ‘this is part of an art biennial’, ‘this is a project about a topic that is relevant to society’. Improving the accountability of the funding decision obliges the system to establish intrinsic criteria for art judgment. In fact we might be approaching such a situation sooner rather than later, as the government might very well strengthen, not loosen its control over whom or what gets support.
MM: Would it be fair to say that because of the generous support over the last decade the Dutch arts and culture scene has gradually been de-politicized?
METAHAVEN: It would be fair to say that the support has enabled a lot of political reflection in the arts, but little political action. A political situation is created when a ‘we vs. them’ opposition emerges. You could say that the 1990s in general were about the depoliticization of culture, and Dutch art and design still makes a disappointingly small contribution to politically relevant art in general. For a large majority of the artistic constituency, there was no obvious need for political statements facilitated by art or design, because the domain of ‘politics’ was seen as a managerial arena of expert decision-making. You have heard this story before, no doubt. That this might begin to seriously change is in itself something positive. The fiscal support of art entails that some things cannot be said by it. In 2005 a government funded partner institution for a research project we did, objected to the mention of the word ‘capitalism’ in that project’s public mission statement; the project was about the Amsterdam financial district, of all places. The obligation to hold up a form of distraction and entertainment is the side letter to art’s contract with liberal power.
MM: There seemed to be a necessary move away from consensus towards pro-active conflict; but how can one develop the necessary momentum so that political parties want to and have to embrace you as an outsider?
METAHAVEN: Political parties are very unlikely to take serious any individuals unless they represent a larger group. It first needs to become more attractive for the parties to talk to the outsider than to the coalition. To create an extra-political constituency of stakeholder groups represented by political outsiders is the best way forward. It is better if the political parties launch a bidding war to appease this group, than if the group already has an affinity with a single party. We have to, in a certain sense, thank populism for the fact that the political class is now more open to outsiders, even though their contribution is usually not that substantial.
MM: The term ‘Polder Model’ was first used to describe the Dutch version of consensus policy in economics, but is now used in a much wider context, describing a non-conflictual model of national debate. It is described with phrases like ‘a pragmatic recognition of plurality’ and ‘cooperation despite differences’. Ever since the Middle Ages, a large part of the Netherlands consists of polders below sea level – dykes and land reclaimed from the sea – so that competing or warring cities in the same polder were forced to set aside their differences in order to maintain the polder, because otherwise they would be flooded. How does this ‘Polder Model’ perform today and what are its dangers?
METAHAVEN: The ‘Polder Model’ has worked in times when there were clearly divided political parties and no one held the key to a majority. The model meant that these parties would create a kind of housekeeping contract between each other, governing on those points that they nevertheless could agree on. It was always a patch, and not a designed ideology (we are not sure what is worse though). We have never had a truly Blairite model where a charismatic CEO-like political leader preaches the end of conflict – though the Netherlands are very much influenced by the Anglo-Saxon, rather than the Continental model of politics. The current situation, existing since some time, is that the coalition partners are already highly similar in their political outlook, and that consequently these politics of consensus become highly ideological. For example religion, as an ethical factor, doesn’t really play any real part anymore for the Christian democrats – ‘Christian’ now only means (ultra-)conservative and has nothing to do anymore with social justice. The consensus model, somewhat ironically, is supercharged by its apparent opposite: right wing populism. Perhaps the worst side effect of the consensus model now is that the opposition is so used to co-opt and vote with the rulers that there is really no proper opposition existing at all.
MM: This notion of consensus-production is deeply embedded in Dutch society, and goes as far as to the non-approval or acceptance of people, circumstances, or political decision-making out of the ordinary. A Dutch curator once told me on the train from Schiphol Airport to Almere that ‘your head will be chopped off the moment you stick it out too much: do normal, this is already crazy enough’. Do you agree that this is standard political practice today?
METAHAVEN: One side effect of fiscal support is fear, which causes you to project your insecurity against an imagined public opinion that would not understand or agree with what you do, and you begin to massage and soften what you actually wanted to say. The alleged Dutch ‘national tendency’ towards the mediocre is actually a form of institutionalized self-censorship. If heads would be chopped off, at least there would be outrage – but the fact of the matter is that crazy ideas are met with silence, not anger. There is no public imaginary that they appeal to. The PVV is at least still angry about art; it actively seeks to destroy it rather than to tolerate it. The Van Abbe Museum’s ‘Picasso in Ramallah’ project was dubbed ‘extremist’ by the PVV’s culture spokesperson, Martin Bosma – of course, a dangerous and wholly inappropriate allegation, but indicative of their concern for the actual content of art.
MM: Are these the times of the first ‘real’ politicization of a vast majority of the Dutch art crowd?
METAHAVEN: The question of survival will for many people prove to be more crucial than the question of politics. It is equally possible that the cuts are implemented and the people who are affected by it simply start doing something else, and if they came from abroad‚ they will leave the country for better opportunities elsewhere. It is likely that some of the critical energy will exit the system via compliance. Another question is whether the time lapse between the decision and the implementation will be used to build new structures, or whether affected institutions will simply consume their leftover budgets and then close their doors. Some of them will be likely to do this. Some institutions might consider the legal path to fight the cuts, and this would surely gag them politically.
For the first time, the Dutch art world will have to actively and collaboratively design its own future without the consensus model, or the government on their side. There is one more thing to be added though. In the larger context of, the reasons for public funding of culture need to be re-invented and re-stated. A future government should clearly formulate the necessity for the role of culture in the public sector. This necessity cannot be presented as a derivative of economic value (as liberals tend to do), or social cohesion (as social democrats tend to do).