The Politics of Dialogue, The Politics of Space

On 19 December 2023, Platform Beeldende Kunst (PBK) organized the meetup Wat does this mean for the arts? at W139 in Amsterdam. This report was written by Jack Segbars. 


On 19 December 2023, Platform Beeldende Kunst (PBK) organized the meetup Wat does this mean for the arts? at W139 in Amsterdam. The aim was to collectively reflect upon the results of the Dutch general election from two weeks prior, during which, among other things, the Party for Freedem (PVV) secured a significant win. The speakers for this meetup were Rune Peiterson (former director and co-founder of PBK), Nous Faes (independent publicist and expert in the field of administrative decision-making processes) and Thomas Drissen (director of the umbrella organization De Creatieve Coalitie). Additionally, the event was taken as an opportunity for PBK to reflect upon the tactics they have developed over the past decade to resist the hostile art climate, and to envisage what lies ahead for the art sector. 

This report addresses the broader context of the current political upheaval in relation to the organization of culture, and the ongoing dilemmas and tensions in the relationship between art and politics. What strategies and forms of resistance and advocacy are there in the current political reality?

The political context

The 2023 elections represent a watershed moment in history: the political left has, on the whole, never been smaller, and with the rise of the PVV, a racist and unconstitutional party has positioned itself deep in the center of power, leading to a shift from center-right to radical right. PBK was founded 10 years ago as a response to the rise of the right and the accompanying attack on the arts sector seen under the leadership of Halbe Zijlstra, then State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science; as it turns out, those developments were a foreshadowing of what is now coming to pass. In the Netherlands, the parties PVV, NSC and BBB have rallied behind this political shift, which has also been noticeable on both a European and global scale, and is part of the rise of right-wing populism seen in recent decades. 

The next coalition is expected to have very little interest in art. The BBB and NSC appear willing to support traditional and regional culture, but will not be loosening their purse strings for the expansion of the existing budget nor for artists’ fees. In the same fashion as the VVD, these parties advocate the idea of the arts being determined by market forces. The PVV has openly declared itself to be an ideological opponent to art, and has indicated its desire to dismantle not only art but the media. The aversion is primarily aimed at what the party considers ‘leftist art’, which is seen as ideologically antagonistic and consequently positioned as such in an intentionally polarized struggle. While a figure like Thierry Baudet was once regarded as a politically inconsequential, PVV party ideologue Martin Bosma, in his current capacity as Speaker of the House of Representatives, now serves as a confident and assertive voice of the radical right wing in the center of power. 

The situations in Hungary, Poland, Italy and the United States have demonstrated how a shift to the right can manifest itself through political control of the media and art, as well as through weaponization of the values they represent in the ideological struggle. In addition, recent developments in Poland and Hungary have shown how improper control over judicial power is part of this politics. This development poses a serious threat to the idea of a critical, public space which art and media can offer, and moreover, undermines the creation and development of progressive and inclusive forms of politics. The trend towards a conservative, repressive isolationism, in which criticism is silenced, has also begun in the Netherlands — these prospects and dangers have gone from unreal to realistic. 

Structural support for the arts is an idea which appears to be fast receding from the political horizon. The funding and support of art practices, which are politically integral to the core of an emancipating, progressive artistic community and engine of critique and democracy, are in jeopardy. The election results have made this threat all the more palpable and extremely concrete. 

The dilemma of how to engage with the political condition from the arts

The meetup in W139 was organized during the exhibition People’s Forum by Farida Sedoc, where, at the invitation of the artist, PBK temporarily set up office. Sedoc’s project, which is process-based and has been developing over the long term, highlights living, self-reliant social artistic practices, something she considers PBK to also embody. The discussion between Thomas Drissen and Nous Faes focused on the extent to which influence can be exerted on the cultural sector from the political-administrative consultation structure, and how the artist’s position can be safeguarded. 

Drissen, who spent five years as an advisor to Groenlinks in the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer), drew on his experience and expertise to share insight into the potential implications of the election results for future policies. Whilst national support for the arts — in the form of the BIS (Basic Cultural Infrastructure), which funds major art institutions — is currently fixed, this may change significantly in the future, given the House of Representatives’ budgetary power. Nevertheless, the current budgeting and legislation cannot simply be amended, as the composition of the Senate (Eerste Kamer), which must give its official approval for any amendments, is substantially different from that of the House of Representatives. Thus, for a radical change of course, the yet-to-be-formed coalition will need support from other parties, which is difficult but not altogether impossible. However, the most substantial flow of money for arts and culture is via municipalities, which administer subsidies, and since these subsidies are allocated nationally as part of a mix of tasks, there is no guarantee that the corresponding budgets will be secure in the long term.

Drissen tempered this negative outlook somewhat by pointing out the instability and lack of administrative experience within the incoming coalition. It is uncertain whether an effective government can be formed at all, and how long it will last. This uncertainty, along with how long the formation procedure is expected to last, offers some respite for now. But overall, the prospects appear extremely unfavourable. Drissen therefore stressed the need for greater involvement in union organizations and collective action in order to exert political pressure: of the 300,000 people employed in the sector, only 50,000 are members of a trade union. 

In response to this, Noes Faes stated that actually, she was disappointed in the work that lobby groups have done so far. The social dialogue, a broad social consultation structure that was rather haphazardly devised during three cabinet terms following the austerity measures of the first Rutte cabinet, was intended as a means of reaching a new social agreement with the arts sector. Yet, according to Faes, negotiations by unions and lobby groups have in fact led to further division and weakening of the field. According to her, the reason for this is rooted in the traditional negotiation system: negotiations are always framed by sector and, as a result, based on advocating exclusively for self-interest. Faes argued that compartmentalized lobbying perpetuates the socially uneven division of labor into partial interests, both concealing and reinforcing inequality within the sector. 

As an example of this, Faes cited art institutions that during the corona pandemic, supported by emergency funds, were first to lay off freelancers and in doing so, even managed to save money. By deploying freelancers, a division is created between insecure and secure employment, which in times of austerity is economically beneficial for institutions themselves, but disastrous for those without regular employment. What this implies is that an art institution’s responsibility is limited to its own survival, but that this does not by extension include all members of the workforce who contribute to cultural production. There appears to be no consensus on who constitutes the arts field, what labour should be rewarded for this, and what form this should take. From Faes’ perspective, the unions do not actually play a positive role in this process, but rather act as a confirmation of the system. According to her, the question should be: in which economy do we actually want to operate? 

The pitfall of advocacy without systemic change

The Fair Practice Code illustrates the problem that arises from advocacy without the realization of substantial systemic change. The objective of this code, which was co-developed by PBK from within the arts field itself, is to enact a fairer means of compensating artists for their services by regulating payment within presentation institutions, galleries and museums, with set fees and rates. Introducing the code required a great deal of effort, persuasion and negotiation, and signifies a recalibration and recognition of the artists’ position within the production chain. Instead of artists being compelled to exhibit un(der)paid work in exchange for visibility, they are now considered full-fledged workers. 

But the code’s pledge is not simply to value the labour of artists differently, but to mobilize systemic change. The code should be able to withstand the underlying political economy of labour, neoliberal austerity politics, which is based on self-entrepreneurship, liberalization and market forces, and government cutbacks. 

The question, however, is to what extent the economic structure of cultural production can change substantially and become more accessible with the code. Furthermore, the question remains as to whether it will ease the pressure on cultural production. This scheme, implemented during former State Secretary Gunay Uslu’s tenure, only contributes significantly to the livelihoods of a few artists; on top of that, there has been no change in the proportion of permanent employment to flexible employment within the institutional context, and the vast majority of artists (like all other freelancers) remain in extreme precarity. 

Former board member and co-founder of PBK, Irene de Craen, brought up yet another effect of the code’s implementation, namely how it has made the system less accessible: in order to be eligible for a grant from the Mondriaan Fund for occasional projects with artists, art institutions must offer compensation which complies with the Fair Practice Code. However, the limited budgets art institutions have at their disposal, and the expectation that they complete their planning far in advance, has made it difficult for them to present or invite artists. This means that it has in turn become much more difficult for artists who want to work on an ad hoc basis to gain experience without institutional compensation. De Craen noted that the effects of this are more acutely felt within the category of underprivileged and financially disadvantaged artists, who then disappear from the radar and become invisible, thereby reducing the diversity of participants and undermining the emancipatory effect of the code. 

Drissen argued that the growing awareness that artists must be paid enough to live should eventually lead to a structural increase in resources. Indeed, The Fair Practice Code also acknowledges a chain of responsibility, with which institutions are reminded of their duty to care for both individual workers and the entire cultural production. With the inclusion of conduct guidelines as a component of the code, production values that were previously missing have now been introduced. Likewise, Peitersen argued these lines in the code of conduct act as a strategic lever that works implicitly: they make it clear that the total budget must be increased.

Faes noted, however, that there is little political appetite for a structural increase in budgets, be it at the national, municipal or provincial level. There is no political consensus on what the chain is. According to her, continuing to place the responsibility for change on vulnerable institutions — which face increased costs for artists as a result of the code, but receive no substantial additional funding — means that remuneration will ultimately be possible for fewer and fewer cultural workers. 

This means that the Fair Practice Code does not comprehensively resolve the tensions between the various segments — namely, the institution, the artist, and politics — as each maintains its own budget and position. This ultimately results in a form of remediation, whereby funding and participation are limited to a smaller group, by which non-commercial, experimental and small-scale forms of art production in particular are hit hardest. This runs counter to the original intention of keeping more artists working and supporting the non-commercial sector. Ideological progress is inhibited and constrained by existing ideology. 

During the discussion, Faes voiced her skepticism about the possibility of changing the system from within. She believes that a fundamentally different approach is needed, one which must be achieved through politics. This, she believes, is important — especially at this crucial political moment. And it is not solely about financial support for artists: it is also necessary for the problem to be viewed in relation to other sectors such as healthcare and social services, which suffer from the same politics. What it should be about is a comprehensive value orientation, because the system does not work, and moreover underlies the extant political-economic order that perpetuates organized and structural wealth and income inequality. Without this reorganization, isolated advocacy on behalf of one’s own sector is futile. What does art actually stand for? What values does it want to endorse? Where do you stand? Faes’ proposal is that we look more fundamentally within politics itself, for a means of bringing about substantive change that fundamentally confronts the system of production and distribution. 

After the discussion between Faes and Drissen, several participants offered suggestions on how to resolve the impasse. Someone suggested entering into conversation with groups and people who vote right; instead of remaining in one’s own bubble, contact should be made with people less familiar with contemporary art practices and the ideas lying behind them. Art could potentially play a mediating role and kickstart a dialogue on values. Another suggested idea was to approach art according to the specific context: working from the situations as they arise, investigating where there is room for and added value in artistic intervention, and if so, what form this should take. Yet another speaker emphasized the importance of being involved in the administrative politics that largely dictate the conditions for employment forms and housing, which also means that one must delve deeper into the language being used in such processes. 

There are more points to be made, which were also mentioned in passing during the discussion. Measures that are considered to support the art sector always assume that art holds a position of exception, thereby impeding structural change and keeping art in a politically precarious state. Although flanking income policies can temporarily improve the income position, economic dependency remains provisional, reaffirming the (politically determined) segregated and dependent position of art. Time and time again, art is placed in a political frame. While in 2011-2012 the ‘individual earning capacity’ argument prevailed, and while ‘artistic excellence’ was measured against existing economic norms that forced artists into the regime of entrepreneurship and co-financing in order to qualify for support, the emphasis is now shifting towards forms of private investment such as the patronage model. Politicians are focusing increasingly on alternative sources such as privatization and outsourcing, and take no responsibility for recognizing the significance of art for the common good. 

The PvdA and Groenlinks have been in full agreement with these beliefs for years. These left-wing parties have had a hand in shaping this neoliberal austerity policy for years, the reflection of which can be found in how the conditions for subsidies are formulated: artists are positioned within the regime of private entrepreneurship and self-reliance. This fits seamlessly into a political movement that is intent on further dismantling art as a social quality for which there is a general duty of care. As Faes rightly pointed out, art is no exception in this regard. This applies to all other sectors that do not conform with the ideology of the free market, such as freelancers working in healthcare, the cleaning sector, or education. This ideological political movement, focused on competition, scarcity and institutional fragmentation, has contributed to weakening the unity and solidarity of the art sector, and is far removed from the idea of the artistic practice as a value in itself that in fact presupposes a different economic order. The political parties currently in power follow and support this position; herein lies the fundamental political division that remains as yet unresolved, and for which no solutions have been formulated. 

Precarity, solidarity and resistance

The election results illustrate the inevitable development of liberal ideology culminating in fascism and the emergence of an autocratic political order, as analyzed by sociologist Willem Schinkel. According to Schinkel, neoliberalism and fascism are an extension of one another: when politics is not truly open, just and inclusive, it ultimately falls prey to the autocratic reflex of groups who believe that their position, wealth or property are under threat. The less self-sufficient, who do not belong to this group, are given the blame and cast out of the order of care. In the Netherlands, this too has led to growing wealth inequality, increasing discrimination, and a widening of the gap between the haves and have-nots. In light of the last elections, the task is to recognize how current politics is falling short, and has in fact always fallen short. 

Artistic responses to the current situation embrace forms of art as being an engaged and infrastructural investigation into our existence. What kinds of values can art contribute that enable us to reflect on and intervene in the situation we find ourselves in? This is an infrastructural approach which resonates with how PBK operates. In conjunction with direct advocacy, PBK develops other forms which together serve as an active resistance strategy and which are important to mention in full. It is a broad undertaking that consists of orientation, organization and political visibility. 

Responding to the public discourse on art is one important activity in which PBK is involved, through the series Weerwoorden (Retorts) and through commissioned articles that respond to current expressions in the media or politics. In addition, longer essays delve deeper into how the art practice is embedded in the current political condition. This research is expanded upon in larger dossiers and connected to public events. An example of this is the investigation into the patronage model as part of the artistic infrastructure, through which PBK analyzes and reveals the political infrastructure that underlies financing of the art sector, thereby making it political. Another important dossier is the studio research project Geen Stad Zonder Kunst (No City Without Art), for which PBK contacted municipal bodies of cities in the region regarding artists’ need for studio spaces. Numerous events have been organized involving local communities and the infrastructural context in which they operate. An open and investigative approach such as this — which is based on dialogue and gathering, and pursues social connection with alliance and solidarity in mind — is diametrically opposed in both form and attitude to the current political reality, which is driven by self-interest, isolation and exclusion. 

This form of committed advocacy by PBK finds its origins in the history of the platform’s formation. Following the austerity measures of 2011, it became apparent that the sector was fragmented, and efforts were made to unify this fragmentation. During countless consultations, the institutional differences between presentation institutions, museums, artists and cultural workers proved far too great to unite the art sector under an umbrella form of advocacy. PBK is virtually the only organization to have come out of this attempt at unification. 

In a market characterized by competition and scarcity, institutional interests revolve above all around the survival of the institution itself, a reality that emerged more than a decade ago and endures to this day. The examples Faes and De Craen cited only confirm this. The present political structure, which governs access to work and space and renders this access increasingly exclusive, must remain a subject of conversation, resistance and action. However, we cannot expect change to happen instantly in the foreseeable future — we need to be prepared for the long haul. 

Text by Jack Segbars
Translation by Sophie Beerens

photo Pieter Kers | Beeld.nu
Photo by Pieter Kers

About Platform BK

Platform BK researches the role of art in society and takes action for a better art policy. We represent artists, curators, designers, critics and other cultural producers.