When fight or flight is not an option, certain animals get creative. Some are naturally camouflaged while others are more extreme: one breed of toad swells up until it explodes and grass snakes roll onto their backs, producing the stench of a rotting corpse. The opossum, on the other hand, simply plays dead. The current economic crisis has taught us that, when threatened, banks feign life, maintaining their business as usual, even when they are on the verge of collapse.
In the build-up to 2011’s parliamentary decision to cut the Dutch state budget for visual arts in the Netherlands to €31 million – a shrinkage of 44 percent – Dutch politicians deployed an argument of false productivity in respect to the arts. Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party (PVV) has been the most vocal critic, proclaiming that ‘hardworking Dutch citizens’ should not have to facilitate the needs of artists who, in practicing their subsidized or ‘left-wing’ hobby, feign work thanks to state injections. The State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science, Halbe Zijlstra, of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) supported this view with his party’s free-market vision for the arts. The image of the Dutch artist painted by this two-pronged argument is that the artist is elitist, exclusive and therefore redundant; but he is also financially precarious and hence a weaker constituent of society. This artist – less a person than a political idea – poses a dual threat to populist interpretations of equality in the Netherlands, which seem to call for a radical diminishing of cultural differences in the alleged interest of the average Dutchman – another political idea.
The concrete outcome of the new cuts is uncertain at the time of writing; what is certain is that ‘no one is safe’ (as Zijlstra put it) until grants are announced in autumn 2012. But, in the proposed measures, this ambiguous artist figure is tackled twice. When state subsidies are cut, the economically fittest artists will surely survive the recession; and with them, some predict, a more ‘mainstream’ art, ready for inclusion in blockbuster shows and cut off from its more critical undercurrents.
One already evident symptom of these populist politics is that they are instantly appealing to some and provoke impulsive trigger responses in others. Homo sapiens resists rolling onto its back while producing the smell of death. Instead it exhibits an involuntary desire to reason and be reasoned with – to be seen, understood and respected. In the absence of constructive dialogue (Wilders refuses to take part in further debate, while Zijlstra usually declines invitations to public discussions), efforts to understand this uncertain moment seem to serve a need for compensation, for feelings of uncertainty as such. Consequently, members of the Dutch art world – myself included – have filled the vacuum by further scrutinizing the ideologically charged portrait of ‘the artist’ painted by politicians, at times as if it were an actual mirror image. But would a zebra count its stripes to see if it stands a chance at survival?
The two major Dutch magazines for contemporary art, Metropolis M and Open: Cahier on Art and the Public (the latter published by SKOR Foundation for Art and Public Domain, which has lost its funding), have attempted to respond to the attacks from the populist right. Open devoted an entire ‘Emergency Issue’ to a wide range of responses by artists, curators, sociologists, political scientists and the like; Metropolis M’s August–September issue contributed to the debate with 20 columns of visual and written protests. Several symposia – such as ‘The New Elite’ at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in September and ‘The Autonomy Project’ at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in October – invited guest speakers to parse the accusations and implications of being cultural snobs. Although response is essential, and indeed human, it seems that one pressing and underlying question is too easily overlooked: should Dutch artists and art professionals turn a global financial crisis – used to justify the austerity measures for the arts – into an identity crisis of our own?
One response to the confusion caused by politicians could consist of a ‘favour’ returned – that is, a reply with equally ambiguous and hence confusing images. Beginning in 2010, for her ongoing series ‘Hollands Kabinet’ (Dutch Cabinet), Dutch artist Sara van der Heide has produced a drawing of a Dutch brown cabinet for each consecutive day that the government of VVD–CDA, supported by PVV, remains in power (the project is documented on the artist’s website and was included in last year’s exhibition ‘Whistling in the Dark’ at de Appel arts centre in Amsterdam). There are a number of allusions in Van der Heide’s growing archive of drawings. Brown is the mixture of the parties’ respective colours; ‘cabinet’ a Dutch word for government. But the actual conjunction of ‘brown cabinet’ also alludes to something else: when an Amsterdam city councillor of the labour party first used the term, many took it as an explicit reference to the ‘Brown Shirts’ – the Dutch National Socialist Movement, which collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II. Politicians demanded clarification; the councillor apologized and took back her words.
Seeing these brown cabinets multiply over time (Van der Heide draws from rich resources of existing furniture from the collection of the Rijksmuseum and elsewhere), I am reminded of certain Amazonian butterflies, whose appearance mimics that of other, harmful species armed with toxic chemistry or stingers. The butterflies’ genetic mimicry protects them from common predators. Van der Heide’s wooden cabinets visually impersonate the semantic elements of that other cabinet, and, in so doing, the innocuous image of a cupboard turns into a confusing and powerful deception, possibly as stinging as the thing portrayed. In the end, we (humans, animals) often use creative methods for survival and defence; fortunately, these are the methods the artist knows best.
First published in Issue 144