The Dutch Situation

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Dit stuk werd eerst gepubliceerd in Billedkunst Magasin

Sketch of the Dutch budget cuts and current political context.

The Dutch cultural landscape is in turmoil, mirroring the political shifts and upheaval the country is going through the last decade and more. The rise and assassination on Pim Fortuyn in 2002 was the starting point of a populist surge in politics from the right as well as from the left. The overall budget cuts announced by the right-wing coalition of VVD and CDA with the support of the PVV in 2011 forms a significant illustration of this development.
The cuts in cultural financing are causing big holes in the carefully crafted infrastructure built in the last decennia. A lot of the effects have already landed or are being implemented at this moment, so the total picture won’t be clear until later this year. Numerous institutions are forced to close, including museums, project- and exhibition spaces, CBK’s (municipal art institutions), theatres and theatre-companies, orchestras, literary- and art magazines, production houses, post academic education and festivals. In addition the budgets available to artists on an individual basis are severely cut, as well as the budgets for projects. The Mondriaanfoundation (the country’s most prominent subsidy-provider) has to work with a much smaller budget yet expected to do more. A lot of the funding previously regarded as the state’s responsibility is now allocated to municipal and provincial institutions. The trickle-down effect of the measurements are currently causing a lot of regional museums and institutions to close since a lot of city-counsels choose not to come to the aid or are having budget difficulties themselves. The loss of jobs in the cultural field are estimated at tens of thousand immediately, and structurally the sector as a whole will be significantly reduced.
The announcements of the proposed plans caused a great outcry of protests. The focus of these protests was not the high level of the budget cuts per se but rather the way these were structured. This culminated in some public manifestations such as Boijmans Bezet (a manifestation at the museum Boijmans van Beuningen) and De Mars der Beschaving (the March of Civilisation). Since these events it has been remarkable quiet though.

What marks the budget cuts is that they are aimed at the production-side of art. Of the reduction of €200 million (on a total of roughly 900 million) most has landed in this section leaving national heritage and the most successful top museums and institutions unaffected. Percentage wise the practising visual arts and theatres were most affected: up to 40% reduction. The cuts can be characterized as an attack on the ‘living art production’.
When we consider culture as the public platform on which opinions, issues and topics can be discussed, exposed and exchanged, it is clear that this government does not care for such an idea of communality, or for such a function for the arts, nor a state supported notion of a public sphere.

Along with the cuts on Culture budgets a similar reduction is in effect for Public Broadcast (Publieke Omroep). The nation’s public broadcasting budget will also be cut by €200 million, followed by an extra budget cut in 2012 of €100 million, severely damaging the ability of a public broadcast service. Public Health Care, Energy and Water and Labour organisations are being deregulated and privatized. Social arrangements like support for the disabled and social benefits trimmed.
All measurements illustrate the general trend towards less state, less Wellfare state.

The rationale behind these proposals was and still is communicated as necessary austerity measurements in times of financial crisis. But in fact it is a dramatic ideological turn away from the idea of a state supported culture to the ideology of the Market. And maybe equally important: a turn away from the consensus of Polder politics to as to the rule of the majority politics. These measurements constitute a re-ordering of the way culture is related to the state. In fact it is a unilateral cultural coup towards neo-liberalism and market thinking as the sole organisational principle. The Market as the sole vector to determine societal design.
Though we now have a new cabinet since 2012 that consists of a coalition between PvdA (labour) and VVD (liberals), the same attitude of austerity measurements is maintained as well as the overall trend towards deregulation. The cabinet has kept the culture budget cuts unchanged even though these were highly contested by the PvdA before the elections. The newfound ambitions within this alliance have clearly evaporated all objections to these budget cuts.

Austerity measurements Rutte1

The constellation in which such a drastic turn could be accommodated depended on the political polarisation of the time and political configuration after the 2010 elections. The cabinet formed by CDA (Christian-Democrats) and VVD (Liberal Party) was supported (gedoogd) by Geert Wilders PVV-party (Freedom-party). It is hard to explain what such a construction entails. By failing to achieve a regular government based on a regular coalition of parties that together have a majority in the House of Representatives (de Tweede Kamer), the VVD and CDA resorted to an extra-ordinary political solution. They agreed with the populist PVV that they would subscribe to governmental plans (the Regeerakkoord), without them actually being part of the government (in Dutch this is called a gedoogconstructie). This led to the first Rutte-cabinet: Rutte1. It is hard for non-Dutch to convey the extremity of such a solution. Not only was an openly anti-Islamic, populist and accused of extremist right-wing ideology party now co-responsible for government, politically it was an affront to the previous held custom of consensus politics. Rutte claimed no agreement could be made with either more moderate and/or leftist parties, to form a steady coalition. In times of crisis this was an extremely risky step to take. The eagerness by which this path was chosen is illustrated by the precarious basis of this construction: the majority on which the coalition was built, including the PVV (a highly unstable party, riddled by scandal and controversy) was just one seat in parliament. Later of course the experiment with the PVV proofed to be just that: an experiment. Geert Wilders blew up the agreement a year later, fearing his electorate would turn on him considering the necessary upcoming austerity measurements to be taken by this government and which he had to subscribe to.

It is clear that the Netherlands had made a significant shift to the right. The VVD itself had made an essential change. Though firmly a liberal party, based on individual freedom and responsibility, the idea of a state to support culture and a public sphere was upheld. Now it moved to a solely consumer oriented policy and cosmology: neo-liberal market-ideology. With Stef Blok (party leader) and Halbe Zijlstra (at this time secretary of State for the arts, later chairman of the VVD) as advocates of this turn, this policy became fully implemented in measurements. Both CDA and VVD have long embraced the idea of privatisation and deregulation. The PVV, having achieved a firm number of seats (24 out of 150) in parliament, holds a less liberal socio-economic agenda but fully adheres to the focus on the limitation of immigrants, safety and the reduction of the cultural field. This constellation of populism, neo-liberalism and cultural conservatism made these U-turn politics possible.
The rule being: less state, more market, less subsidies and a farewell to the idea of the wellfarestate. Though in effect the reduction of state subsidies was opportunistically chosen: the hypotheekrenteaftrek (a fiscal arrangement originally intended to stimulate house ownership by deducting the paid interest on the mortgage of one’s taxable income, in effect being a subsidy on ownership and higher income: the higher the mortgage the higher the tax-return) was carefully left intact though everyone knew that by now it had a devastating effect on the housing market. This fiscal arrangement had created a bubble in house-prices, now burst and house-prices falling harder then anywhere in Europe, has lead to a lot of households being in debt because they have mortgages higher then the house is worth. The VVD was the last party to concede to economic sense and take the loss. The subsidy for the rich was the last issue to go, and many believe way too late, causing a prolonged continuation of the economic crisis in the Netherlands.

Geert Wilders spewed his anti-arts and public broadcasting rhetoric as leftist hobbies. Notably these were his most persistent criticasters. In this climate frontman Zijlstra named artists and institutions subsidieslurpers (subsidyslurpers/dependent), shaming culture workers and artists. Artists and the arts were framed as state-dependents, relying too heavy on the budgets provided through taxes provided by the ‘hardworking Dutchman’, the rhetoric figure suffering from the leftist hobbies. Robbing him of well-earned money, via taxes, for what? For a cultural elite and matters he doesn’t care for himself.

De Raad voor Cultuur (the Culture Council) government’s principal advisory board for culture heavily contested the proposed culture cuts: it called the proposals detrimental to the infrastructure. The council later resigned not willing to subscribe to the proposed plans. Without even blinking, Zijlstra accepted the resignation of this formal governance council, replacing it by a committee more favourable to his plans.

Even Joop van den Ende, the nation’s leading figurehead for cultural entrepreneurship and liberal thought, (he is a successful producer of musicals and television) argued the measurements to be counter-productive: the professional and commercial field of culture production is best served and aided by a state sponsored educational and experimental production-house system.
These widely expressed objections, ranging from a broad political spectrum and carried by experts, proofed useless. The intention was clear: a restructuring and a new relationship between the state and the arts were in the making. The arts proofed to be an easy and symbolic target to illustrate this political turn.

The scientific bureau of the VVD, the Telderstichting, clearly stated: only sports and national heritage are the responsibility of the state. All other cultural production should be organized privately. No state shall determine the content of cultural content. The Thorbecke-principle (named after the first Dutch Statesman Thorbecke to formulate the relationship between the state and the arts as fundamentally independent: the state shall not meddle in affairs of the arts) was now fully deployed in steering away from all funding for the production of art. Stef Blok explicitly compared artists with bakers and plumbers: professions that equally don’t require subsidy, no government support. Equating artistic production to all other professions and activities.

Weakness, cultural field and lacking response

In general the response of the art world was very weak. It faced its inadequacy in providing an answer as a counter attack. The right analyses were made and the underlying political current was acknowledged but there turned out to be too little political support to give this a form. The art world found itself in a dismal state of powerlessness. The links with politics were of a dependant nature: the result of decades of benevolent patronage by politics without assuring a structural basis to fall back onto. Now that one of its traditional alliances broke with this custom, it became acutely visible how it lacked a proper status in a societal sense. Even the wording to account for its place and purpose were hard to find. Too little effort had gone into the laborious work of maintaining contact with politics, to build a common agenda and to make a link with society. The practice of art proofed extremely vulnerable once this patronage chanced its tune. The new politics took away the privileges formerly granted to the arts, providing for a special status. It made clear that the relation between what art is and what its function is ,was not acknowledged, or even recognised by politics. For one thing it showcased the ideological framework art was dependent on, even if it maintained an illusion of autonomy. Soon discussions broke out over the issue of politics and autonomy. The art world became divided along political lines, institutional lines and operational lines. Art practices were divided along different genealogies, diverging into different modes and relations to politics, the market and governance, preventing a strong uniform response.
It also found itself as an exemplary practice of exactly that wich it criticized. The artistic operation fits as a practice perfectly with the liberal ideology and in the post-Fordist economy: willingly producing for little money, flexible working hours, flexible working conditions, flexible workplace, reluctance towards binding representation etc. In fact it almost perfectly fits the neo-liberal mode of the flex worker. Still it maintains to inherently critique the neo-liberal condition, emphasising though often implicitly, the idea of a public sphere as societal requisite and the basis and medium of artistic action, that is being eroded by the neo-liberal and global hegemony. These contradictory modes eventually resulted in a political muteness.( Or at that time programmatic weakness).

Historical context

It is the drastic end result of a line of reasoning and of political thinking that started as far back as the eighties when market ideology in the cultural field became the underlying and driving idea on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum. This direction was of course guided by the development of the global, neo-liberal market. Under governance of the Partij van de Arbeid (Labour party) first the term ‘Cultural Entrepreneur’ was introduced by secretary of State Rick van der Ploeg, as term of validation and of societal purpose: artists should professionalize, earn their money themselves, find co-sponsoring in production. Still societal goals as emancipation, multi-culturality and social cohesion were named as tasks for the cultural field to supply. Intrumentalising the arts for leftist’s societal aims as well as complying with liberal economical modes: Later, Staatssecretaris Ronald Plaster also enforced this by conforming the arts into self-entrepreneurship for societal goals. The social democrats always considered culture as a societal task for emancipation of all classes and as a tool towards equality. Now this was paired with the realism of capitalist and commercial operations and context: Third Way Socialism so to speak.
In the practice of the arts, in the development of public and participatory art these goals become dominant vectors, and art slowly incorporated these governmental programs, aligning itself with the systems of governmental qualification, which some argue, it is now being accounted for and dismissed by. Thus to some, it is art itself that gave politics via governance the instruments to be attacked with, and by being insufficiently autonomous. It is clear that art (foremost participatory art) offered governance a way to align with the artistic idiom: both aiming to invest, improve holes caused in the societal fabric left by politics. Art here became the patch worker of politics, inherently subscribing to this kind of politics instead of critiquing it. A more isolated status from politics is called for within this notion.

For others, the now all too clearly revealed ideological embodiment calls for a further politicization of the arts. This now produces an artistic vein towards a commitment to politicized art, as well as a further development along the lines of Institutional Critique, resulting in two different responses: more autonomy or more engagement. It may be that these responses are simply part of an internal struggle – two strands of the same genealogical line, troubled by different ideas on which strategies to follow or deploy. However, it may also be, that the crucial notions of autonomy and heteronomy, and the different views on how to put these into operation, may prove to be a permanent divide. Whatever the outcome, this division weakens the coherence of the artistic field even further.

Which way out?

It is clear that a new way of thinking is needed, and a new position and alignment for the arts as societal player is needed. The knowledge that none of its former partners have proven to be trustworthy partners forces the arts to reflect its own position more carefully in terms of methodology as well as its operational mode. The old ideological alignment is gone. Neither labour nor liberal adhere to the idea of the arts being the inherent quality of societal broker, or platform or self-reflexive societal research tool: the notion of art as a specialism of the active public sphere. This is a far cry apart from what the neo-liberal notion of the public domain entails. In fact the arts should resist the way the liberals now envision it as an educational tool, to ‘free’ restrained sections of the population into modern and ‘democratic’ life. Leaving no doubt that hereby Muslims (and all other non-aligned subjects) are meant to be re configured to liberal western standards. The idea of a national identity being crafted around a cultural heritage is instrumental here.

Labour, likewise, has fully embraced the idea of market thinking as the prime impetus to the formation of communality, caring little about culture’s quality as model of societal area for debate, research, (self) critique and communal (be it via permanent dissensus) representation. The battle now is about this notion of the public sphere and shared space as a politically shared communality or as the neo-liberal notion of the communal void in which culture only exists in the dispersion of infinite numbers of individual consumer universes. If art still maintains these ambitions it must foremost accept and digest these changed conditions for it to become operational along a self-defined program. The search for this kind of operating may just be the only path to reconfiguration and redefinition.
A possible strategy as has been suggested by Franco Berardo Bifi and similar by Hito Steyerl, may be the acceptance of the current mode of operation, of the flexworker as producer of semio-capital that no longer can be contained by the capitalist system, providing for free space to operate in. This not directly adresses the structural set-up of post-democratic capitalism but it offers a way to intervene and perform on the infrastructure that is meant to be critiqued.
Since the public sphere is being professionally dismantled it no longer finds a structural basis to perform through or for. To reclaim such a sphere in which art plays its role is not likely possible. The performance for the need and importance for such communality may be the only instrument left. This is the only platform from which to achieve a form of autonomy again, and a way to reconstitute art as a builder and medium of communality.