Protest in and between Rotterdam and The Hague

"Finally Less Art" was the massive June 22 front-page headline of a national Dutch newspaper whose "trendy" name, nrc next, says a lot about the state of the media and public debate in Holland. The article raised some valid points about the high number of art schools in the country, but the headline created the pernicious suggestion that the proposed cutbacks are a salutary measure rather than a destructive attack on an entire infrastructure. In general, even the so-called "quality newspapers" have hardly conveyed any sense of urgency over "Butcher" Zijlstra's measures.

In France or Germany, the middle class has still has a bourgeois self-image which, ideologically suspect and self-deceiving as it may be, makes appreciation for art de rigueur. The Dutch press response, such as it is, shows that the Dutch bourgeoisie has abolished itself, leaving behind a middle class defined in purely economic terms, without an ideological Überbau—apart from some perfunctory belief in a Dutch a "culture" that is identified with a whitewashed past. Attempts to mobilize the opera-visiting faction of the VVD (the right-wing liberals) have proven futile. Hence the rather desperate attempts from the cultural field to appeal to the only rationale for anything: the economic rationale. Hey, we're already generating extra funding! We're being business-like! We're part of the creative industries—they were supposed to be important, right? And in any case, if we're all going to be unemployed we'll just cost the state more money. Meanwhile, art institutions have predictably started a lot of individual petitions to save their respective skins. It is tempting to attack them and to accuse them of ditching solidarity for "each man for himself" politics, but the existence of these petitions is not the problem. Rather, the problem is the lack of a general strategy to influence what remains with the public sphere with a discourse that refuses to accept the ideological framework created by Zijlstra.

This also means that the art cutbacks in their present form must be seen as one form of social engineering among others employed by this government. Far from being a "natural" consequence of market imperatives, these post-political policies must be questioned—must be politicized. In the process, the legitimacy and necessity of art must redefined. One can no longer count either on nineteenth-century bourgeois reflexes or on late-twentieth-century narratives (that were historical compromises between social-democratic ideals and neo-liberal dogma) about the support of art as part of the creative industries. Obviously this is easier said than done, especially given the plurality of actors involved, and it is getting late. The decisive day in parliament is coming Monday, and the signs are not good at all - which is why everyone should support and participate in the last-ditch effort to mount a protest that will at the very least be highly visible. The so-called Mars der beschaving will march from Rotterdam on June 26 to The Hague on June 27; see On Monday afternoon a big demonstration will take place on the Malieveld:

Update: Jorinde Seijdel has published an excellent analysis (in Dutch) on the Metropolis site. She stresses the bankruptcy of a certain Dutch art world habitus, which suffered from ideological over-identification with the state apparatus. The Dutch art world has long been riddled with members and voters of D66, the liberal-with-a-social-touch party that engineered the "Purple" coalition of the 1990s, whose "end of ideology" Third Way agenda suggested that a post-political paradise was within reach by combining liberal economic policies with a stripped-down version of the welfare state. The upheavals the Fortuyn era put an end to that pipe-dream, though D66 remained the party of choice for the managerial layer of the cultural field - the last stand of an enlightened bourgeoisie that refused to problematize its own brand of technocratic post-politics.

Bankruptcy has one advantage: structural problems can no longer be denied. As Jorinde suggests, the time has come to form coalitions with groups and individuals in other fields, and between fields; to organize. Issues of visibility have proved to be a fruitful point of departure for forms of aesthetic activism such as Petra Bauer and Annette Krauss's Read the Masks, Tradition Is Not Given, and the collaborations by Matthijs de Bruijne and others with cleaners and domestic workers. At the "Populist Front" symposium that Open organized in March (Open being the journal edited by Jorinde, which is now under threat), I was struck by the unwillingness or inability of many speakers to discuss concrete tactics and strategies. Apparently on March 18, Wilders-style populism could still be regarded as a quaint phenomenon in need of leisurely analysis. How things have changed.

Image: Detail of Matthijs de Bruijne's Thrash Museum, installed at Hoog Catharijne in Utrecht as part of a manifestation of the Cleaners' union, March 19, 2011.