Retort #2 The Venomous Heritage of Halbe Zijlstra

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On the occasion of his departure as State Secretary of Culture, Education and Science, Halbe Zijlstra was offered encouragement by the Dutch national newspaper ‘de Volkskrant’. On Friday the 2nd of November 2012 it published an extensive analysis in which Zijlstra was celebrated as a combatant against “the arrogance of good taste”, a successful reformer who set the debate about subsidies for culture “on edge”. Where did we hear that expression before? The “setting on edge” of a debate is euphemism often employed by public figures who peddle tendentious ideas. The term is one of the odd products of the ‘post-Fortuynian’ political culture. Call Muslims the fifth column and you set the debate on edge. Say that artists are amateurish spongers and, miraculously, you’ve done it again: you’ve set the debate on edge. We should be grateful to Zijlstra.

A lot can be said about Halbe Zijlstra’s cultural policy. It is clear that the course he has taken will be continued by the new cabinet. De Volkskrant justifiably states that the path he has taken in making cuts is an irreversible development. You would think that means there is all the more reason to be critical of the content and consequences of his policy. But whoever expects a balanced reflection on the enormous changes that will take place as of next year, will be disappointed. Instead De Volkskrant makes a mythical reconstruction of Zijlstra’s leadership. The prejudiced views that Zijlstra launched are wholeheartedly subscribed by De Volkskrant. At the core of his image building is the odd notion that the cultural sector was irrational, rigid and obstinate in its protests against the cuts, and is therefor to blame for the draconic budget cuts Zijlstra consequently implemented. “There was a lack of proper arguments, it was played out very personally and it all started with a “March for Civilisation”. There is no way to respond to such behaviour.” De Volkrant takes a similar line. “This is no time for shouting for culture and marching for civilisation”, the newspaper states with satisfaction. Zijlstra’s tough measures have given rise to a “new realism” in the cultural field. His message, with its emphasis on entrepreneurship and public outreach, has finally hit home, as was supposedly declared by the Culture Counsel and the Arts Union.

Whoever has been paying attention, knows that history is being re-written here. The report, written by the Table of Six –a platform in which the main cultural interest groups had joined forces before the cuts– is rife with words like entrepreneurship and public outreach. The necessity for cuts was acknowledged emphatically. The idea of a “new” realism in the cultural field which could be ascribed to Zijlstra is absolute nonsense. Even if we look at the reviled “March for civilisation”, which took place after Zijlstra’s one-sided termination of all forms of collaboration with the cultural sector, we find a remarkably compliant tone. The Cultural Council, the union Arts ‘92, even the polemic National Poet Ramsey Nasr, everyone agreed that serious cuts were needed. The appeal to The Hague was simply that they would be made fairly, with sympathy and in consultation with the field. Nasr put it like this: “We, as members of the community, we can make deep and thorough cuts. But we will do this fairly, with love and respect for our country and culture.”

Not so. A few months later, the museums of modern art publish a page long newspaper advertisement communicating a similar message: “politicians, talk to us”. What offensive radicalism! The Belgian factory workers on strike would be surprised. There, setting fire to some Ford cars brings everyone together to talk. Here, demonstrating or calling for a dialogue, is apparently an unacceptable form of aggression, even grounds for exclusion from the conversation. It would appear that demonstrating is only allowed if the government agrees with the message. Moreover, Zijlstra has managed to portray the angry responses to his brash policies, as the original reason for his unilateralism. And unfortunately he is supported in this by the press, who seem incapable of offering a critical view.

A second distinctive characteristic of the way the entire cultural field is being portrayed, is an image of insupportable snobbism, described by De Volkskrant as “the arrogance of the correct taste”. Anyone who is familiar with the Dutch cultural domain knows this to be untrue. There is no other country where it is so easy to get away with your cultural ignorance as The Netherlands and no other country with so much highly accessible cultural production taking place. But the accusation of snobbism serves a very specific political purpose. In the first place it is a strategy to undermine any criticism on Zijlstra. Originally the criticism on Zijlstra’s lack of cultural knowledge was directed at the content: why hire someone for the job who has no knowledge of the sector he is supposed to be running? We have to hand it to him, he played the game very smartly. He consciously profiled himself as someone who knows nothing about art, telling anyone who would listen that he loves Dan Brown, Metallica and McDonalds. His gaol was to call upon himself the wrath of the select club of culture snobs in this country, thereby casting himself in the role of the people’s spokesman. He played the part of the industrious labourer for the cause, the Dutch version of the Culture Wars, and he did it with lustre.

The accusation of snobbism is one of the most effective tools in the commercialisation of society, and the deconstruction of the public domain. This is happening under our noses. In the parliamentary coalition agreement, the Foundation for Media is submitted to cuts, so that there will be no more subsidies for “difficult television”, like the documentary Tegenlicht. Every claim for a right to existence for culture outside of the grips of the market, is seen as a suspicious form of elitism. All thanks to the accusation of snobbism. Zijlstra portrayed culture as the last bastion for class privilege, and this image became popular. Public culture, said Zijlstra, is an opaque clique of friends doing each other favours. In this context, the market is attributed a democratising effect: only the quality criteria of the market, which are measured in transactions, i.e. amounts of visitors, give a democratic perspective. As a political program these is extremely interesting. It’s the same logic that Thomas Frank identified in the American Culture Wars: the egalitarian criticism of culture, which is judged to be an elitist game or a leftist hobby, enables the Right to win popularity for an economic agenda which is far less egalitarian.

“De Volkskrant” is trying to de-politicise Zijlstra’s policy. His basic assumptions were perfectly normal, it states. He just spoke a little more harshly. Because he was trying to be tough. Really, that’s what is says in the paper. One paragraph further on however, it says his ideas weren’t always logical. Well of course not. You try to sell the people the idea of the American model, where much more private money is spent on culture, without offering the tax benefits that go with it, as they do in the US. You urge cultural producers to attract more visitors and in the same breath you raise the VAT, putting visitors off. You profess to being an advocate of the market, yet you spare ‘top institutes’ who have the most access to sponsoring. You want cultural organisations to find private sponsoring, yet you give them a totally unrealistic term to do this in. Simultaneously you cut back on culture three times as much as you do in any other field, supposedly to bring about a change of mentality which at first glance appears utterly incoherent. Go and get that fictional private funding, is the motto. It doesn’t occur to “De Volkskrant” to wonder what the political logic is behind all this apparent illogic. It doesn’t occur to the newspaper to wonder whether, instead of dismissing cultural producers as a bunch of unapproachable dreamers, it could that Zijlstra is the one who is suffering from a lack of realism.
The ambiguousness of the budget cuts can be traced back to three different political agendas that run criss-cross through the new cultural policy; a populist agenda that propagates a friend-or-foe type of thinking and rejects art and culture as subsidy guzzlers; a conservative agenda which banks on a conservative view on culture, consisting of heritage and the conservation of classic and elite ‘top institutes’; and lastly the liberal agenda which propagates the market and the withdrawal of the state. The result is that the ones that are hit the hardest by these interventions are the more experimental, contemporary and small-scale forms of art and culture. The reason many cultural producers are protesting so loudly against the cuts is not the twenty percent reduction but the way these cuts seem to be aimed at eliminating a specific section of the cultural field. Without being given the time or opportunity to find new forms of income, these organisations, some of whom have had their budgets cut by 100 percent, are simply forced to close. The NIMk, SKOR and many periodicals have already gone under. Many will follow. Together with the incapability to hold a fair and sincere discussion, this is the venomous heritage of Halbe Zijlstra.

Merijn Oudenampsen is a sociologist at the University of Tilburg.

This essay is a “Retort” to the article entitled “The Heritage of Halbe Zijstra”written by Harmen Bockma for “De Volkskrant” on November the 2nd 2012. The Retort was written at the request of Platform BK. “Retort” is an initiative of Platform BK and aims to direct the debate on art and culture with timely responses to cultural policies and coverage on art in the media.