Not knowing as a norm
Artist contribution for OPEN Magazine
Collaboration with Gert Jan Kocken
Text & Image for OPEN - Magazine about Art in Public Space
Last (emergency-)issue about the new politcs in culture
Not knowing as a norm
In 2007 a bronze cast of The Thinker by August Rodin was stolen from the Singer Museum in Laren and found two days later severely damaged. Over the years that followed, Arnoud Holleman and Gert Jan Kocken explored possible ways of interpreting the vandalized sculpture.
Perhaps it’s already been the subject of a cartoon: Halbe Zijlstra, Dutch secretary of state for education, culture and science, holding an angle grinder, looking with satisfaction at the result of his work. Next to him Rodin’s The Thinker in a badly damaged state. The right leg gone, the left arm fragmented, two deep gashes in the face. A caption saying, ‘What you complaining about? There’s more than half of it left.’
The destruction of The Thinker in 2007 and today’s spending cuts in the cultural sector are of course two quite different things. The bronze thieves are criminals and the secretary of state operates on behalf of a parliamentary majority. All the same, the cartoon wouldn’t work if there was no analogy. Austerity involves cutting and hacking, knives are sharpened and axes blunted. Cruel blows are struck that hit creators of culture hard.
There are further parallels too. The bronze thieves had no idea what they’d got their hands on. They didn’t know that The Thinker was worth a million euro and were hoping to make 300 euro from it as scrap. The secretary of state, for his part, declared in several interviews that there are advantages to being unacquainted with culture. Should you need to make cuts, you could easily get lost in the details if you felt personally involved. Arguably so, but not knowing also comes to the fore when mention is made in one of the interviews of the painting on the wall of his office. He chose it himself, but six months later he still can’t come up with the name of the artist. Doesn’t matter, he tells the interviewer. Art should affect you. Full stop.
Not knowing as a norm, that sums it up. In the thieves it was stupidity on a level with Laurel and Hardy, but in a secretary of state it’s a different matter. His ignorance has something coquettish about it, a sign of not wanting to know, even though at the same time he knows perfectly well, given his exemplary role, that he’s manipulating public opinion.
Such a man in such a post; a first for the Netherlands. What does it mean?
In her 1964 essay Labour, Work, Action, philosopher and political thinker Hannah Arendt examines the relationship between human activity and reflection. In that threefold division, labour is a matter of physical survival and work is about making the things that surround us. Action, finally, concerns what you do as an individual to distinguish yourself from the crowd, or indeed to bind yourself to your own group. These are all social activities that we undertake, three expressions of the vita activa that derive meaning from the vita contemplativa, in which the body is at rest and everything revolves around reflection on what you have done – and whether or not it is good.
It’s as if Arendt has written her essay especially for The Thinker. On looking at the sculpture, you understand the text. Conversely, when you read the text you rediscover what makes Rodin’s sculpture so good: this Thinker is a Doer. He embodies both forms of life simultaneously.
When Marco van den B. and Reinier ter B. took their angle grinder to The Thinker in January 2007, that was work and labour, for which they were prosecuted in addition to their indictment for theft. Other destroyers of artworks have ideals, or political or religious convictions, but Marco and Reinier acted out of self-interest. They needed cash, and the job had to be done as discreetly as possible.
When they were caught, however, and the damaged sculpture was found, the nature of their act was transformed. Instead of disappearing into the clandestine scrap metal circuit, The Thinker made a grand entrance in the national media. After a half-sleep of decades in the sculpture garden of the Singer Museum, the damaged artwork caused a considerable social stir. On television we saw museum visitors lost for words, such was their anger and sorrow and incomprehension. On show like that, the destruction became action after all.
The government cuts, by contrast, are consciously conceived as action. They are intended to start a process of change and the ultimate goal has been clearly described: less government, more market. But the question is whether that will be achieved. Arendt points out that you can estimate the result of labour and work but the effect of action can’t be foreseen. In fact the end result hardly ever coincides with the original intent. That’s because actions always take place in a ‘web of human relationships’, and the domain of social interaction is all about move and countermove, action and reaction. Politicians know this better than anyone. The parliamentary majority is minimal, which explains why Zijlstra is in a hurry.
It’s in that haste that a more vicious side to the cuts is revealed – and it’s also where the paths taken by the secretary of state and the bronze thieves start to run in parallel. Zijlstra is implementing an agreement made before he was appointed, bringing about the outcome of what Rutte, Verhagen and Wilders thought up as a threesome. When Zijlstra speaks, you hear the positive, neoliberal pep talk of Rutte, but also the anti-elitist, anti-globalist, populist talk of Wilders. Not only is radical change required, the existing structure must – as an end in itself – be torn down. In other words, creation and destruction go hand in hand and from Zijlstra’s mouth that sounds astonishingly unisono. The CDA certainly sets no norms and values of its own against it – thereby making that party the real enabler of the coalition.
Zijlstra’s double standards make opposition hard. There are advantages and disadvantages to liberalization. The question of whether more market forces are a solution to the inward-looking character of art is a serious one. Art would perhaps do well to pick up on the call for change as a way of holding its own workings up to the light – and might be the better for it. We need to take the counterquestions just as seriously, however. Why is the market in other fields contestable at the very least? Are market forces not the buzzword of an ideology that, like a baby cuckoo, pushes other species out of the nest? From that point of view, art is more hijacked by the market than liberated by it.
These are questions that cry out for contemplation, inside and outside parliament, inside and outside art. Zijlstra, by contrast, is in a hurry and cuts short every debate with Wilders-style jargon. That’s what the protest is principally targeted against: not the making of cuts but how they are made. Here too, not-wanting-to-know is in charge and that calls for a far more combative opposition, for the sake of the country, because the different agendas of Wilders and Rutte hamper the free market they’re aiming to create.
Along with the speed of the cuts, the increase in VAT is another frequently mentioned example of counterproductive policy. It’s already obvious that all larger transactions are, entirely legally, taking place via EU countries with low rates of VAT, which means the treasury misses out on even the 6% VAT. There’s a danger of a similarly perverse effect with the announced closure of post-academy arts courses. At the very places where rigorously selected artists can enter the market, the supply is being cut off, and so, in the process, even the top Dutch galleries are being dragged down. It’s the kind of destruction of resources that ought to make any neoliberal feel sick.
So-called market forces thereby become more a weapon for Wilders than a means for Rutte, and on this point too, Zijlstra willingly falls into line. He has since reacted to the negative effects of the cuts and admits to regretting the rise in VAT – hard to avoid when even Joop van den Ende says you’re being stupid. But that regret too fits the pattern of not-wanting-to-know. It sounds good to habitual VVD voters. It’s suggestive of civilization and you might even call it reflection. Zijlstra, however, draws not a single conclusion, so his admission ultimately becomes as empty as it is cynical, satisfying the PVV voter.
Back to Hannah Arendt. At the end of her essay she concludes that actions are not just unpredictable in their effects but irreversible. This makes the web of human relationships both brittle and tough. Humanity would never have got as far as it has without a means of correcting the effects of actions when they threaten to become counterproductive. It’s a matter of the capacity to forgive and to make promises and stick to them.
It almost comes as a shock to read those words, so far have we drifted from that social, self-healing capacity. The government has led the way in this, which is what makes the reality behind the imaginary cartoon of Zijlstra standing next to The Thinker so distressing. Halbe’s 200 million is the equivalent of Marco and Reinier’s 300 euro: both are easy money, earned at the expense of something that’s worth far, far more and that goes beyond culture alone.
Thus every era brings forth its own iconoclasts. All the more galling when you consider that in 1881 The Thinker emerged directly from the friendship between Rodin and the French secretary of state for culture at the time, Edmund Turquet. As patron of the up-and-coming sculptor, Turquet knew he would be covered politically by the need for a strong national identity. In the figure of Zijlstra, the Netherlands is further from having one than ever.