The following was read at a gathering about the future of the arts in NL at the Stedelijk.
Fifty years ago, against the backdrop of war and a growing consumer society, Hannah Arendt wrote "The Crisis in Culture: It's Social and It's Political Significance." Seeing the cultural realm disappearing, Arendt sought to defend it on the grounds that culture, through the practice of honoring the past and present to preserve our judgment and taste, offered the capacity for an "enlarged mentality" (Kant) — to see the world through another's eyes, and so to build up the imagination and the capacity to think. For Arendt, this was strengthening the foundation of public life. She believed it was precisely the absence of this foundation, thinking in the place of another, that allowed totalitarianism to take over so much of Europe, to permit people to turn in their neighbors in cities everywhere, and so to plunge the civilized world into barbarism.
This argument is not new - in fact the entire European post-war framework - a humanism defined by commitment to liberty, social justice, and a vibrant public life - was guided by this fundamentally conservative insight. This was precisely the rationale for the now established tradition of public support for culture all over Western Europe.
From this perspective, the recent attack on public support for culture in the Netherlands - while often seen as coming from the "right" - is certainly not conservative. While the planned financial cuts are severe, the ideological cut is far deeper. Terms from management and marketplace cannot obscure that what is being attacked, what is being abandoned, are the lived traditions and practices, the guiding principles, of post-war European humanism. Given that the Netherlands has historically been a leader in the political dimension of the European project, and has enjoyed the peace and prosperity this project has produced, for an active participant in European and Dutch cultural life to see this anti-conservative program gaining momentum is confusing.
The contemporary cultural realm of the Netherlands might have many failures and wants, but this space of living practice is one of the crucial stages for raising questions and critical reflections in a public realm threatened with the loss of thinking and judgment. Or, in the case of recent debates on immigration, the capacity to see the world through someone else's eyes, especially when they are our neighbors.
The idea that this could be done in response to a relatively minor budget problem, and in the name of the public good is radical. As the Archbishop in England recently commented, to use budgetary policy as a cover for widespread ideological changes to national institutions is fundamentally undemocratic as well as a betrayal of the taxpayer's money. Damaging the infrastructure of the European humanist project, by cutting back and closing cultural institutions, raising the VAT tax for theater tickets and art in the Netherlands, while keeping VAT discounted for tickets to the cinema and football, is not what people voted for.
At the time of this writing, those who practice and support culture have been roused in anticipation of imminent plans to radically withdraw public support. It is constructive to defend cultural space, good working conditions, and even particular institutions, but it is crucial to put these issues into a broader context. The withdrawal of public support is not a matter of fiscal priorities or shared sacrifice, but a profound attack on tradition, one that has served the Netherlands well for seventy years. Indeed, one of the origins of the post-war policy of public support for culture in the Netherlands was recognition of the contribution of artists and writers in the Dutch resistance of the Second World War. Public institutions of all sizes, dedicated primarily to culture, are in turn some of the foremost organs of contemporary civil society and true anchors of public life. It is barbaric to justify their destruction in the name of the public good, for no public good is served by this attack.