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Holland has elected a right leaning government. To make up the huge financial deficit, they are proposing drastic cuts to art/culture budgets. The main Radio Music Center (Muziekcentrum van de Omroep (MCO)) would be eliminated. And would take with it, the Radio Choir, The Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Orchestra.  All these major bodies of music are responsible for countless performances live and on TV and Radio throughout Holland.

Next, 1/4 of the libraries would be closed- Holland has 1100 public libraries and 4 million members.  The libraries to be closed down would be the small village and town ones. Nearly half of the library members are school kids. So in effect, this act would cut deeply into the education of the next generations.

The present government has called art a ‘leftist hobby’. And this is what I want to address. Because this idea is not new and has been lurking under the surface for decades.  Now, because a populist party has gotten a lot of votes and is represented in the government, these things are being said openly.

As an artist, passionately devoted to art as a necessary transformative and healing force in the society, I want to say that nevertheless, I can sympathise with some of these views.

The arts have been corrupted by huge egotism and excesses by certain artists. They have lost touch with their purpose and have become associated with the intellectual elite. They have, instead of remaining visionary and commentating on the society, been completely absorbed into the values of the day, which are purely and exclusively commercial.

They have become distant from everyday life and from normal people.  Because the arts, at their core deal with the bigger mysteries of life, they can’t be measured or their effects proven, and this society undervalues anything that it can’t quantify.

These issues are so deep and all encompassing that no argument about the worth of art can progress without touching on core issues involving the meaning and value of human life.  So you quickly come into the no man’s land of spiritual principles and philosophical questions. And sadly, you lose most people at that point.

This issue of cut art subsidies is nothing less than the issue of how we give meaning and value to our lives. So it can’t, as has been the case for probably the last 70 years,  be tackled at the symptom level.

Continued in part II below.

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So why, then, could the destruction of cultural bodies like orchestras and libraries ultimately be good? Well the artists getting up in arms now are right, of course at one level this is all a disaster.  But I want to look deeper.

Art just isn’t thriving. It isn’t reaching a broad audience, it subsists in the margins, it is generally trivialized and undervalued. I heard recently that only 1% of the of the visual artists in Holland can live from the income generated by their work. The establishment then tries to redress this by trying to make entrepreneurs out of artists which, as you know, I feel is not even close to being a solution.

There are no short-term solutions to this crisis, but there is hope.  Just suppose the worst scenarios come true and many main artistic and cultural institutions here crumble because of lack of government support.

Why this could be positive is that first, the issue of art’s worth will be much more visible, it already is. Artists and cultural supporters are already planning public actions. One recent commentator said, though,  that the whole existence of art is being questioned and that the art world is not providing any good arguments. Well, obviously, those are going to have to start to come. People are going to have to start thinking more deeply and go beyond economic arguments. They will have to come up with impassioned arguments for art’s intrinsic value to a society.

Another good thing, is because the dependence on heavy subsidising has not made the arts healthy, other more grass-roots ways will have to be found to create and maintain a rich and varied cultural life. 

A reason for hope is that these movements are already widespread and growing. Like a mat of roots under the earth, they are thriving and the delicate looking grass blades poking up onto the surface are strong and resistant to damage.  People everywhere are reclaiming their right to be creative. Creativity and inspiration is no longer the exclusive domain of ‘artists’. Just look on the web at the huge popularity of journaling, crafting ,and drawing sites to name a few.

This indicates a tendency to the major shift that I see needed to once again have a cultural heritage and tradition that is central to life, every person’s life, and not somewhere removed from it (in museums, auction houses, and concert halls).

Little by little as Art loses the capital A it will become a natural part of every home, school and hospital. The healing and bridge building qualities of all the arts will be recognised and used to promote understanding between individuals, groups and cultures. Small neighborhood orchestras and art exhibits will spring up. And even large cultural bodies will thrive, but they will have a solid base in the community, and will therefore be self sustaining.

Money will not have to be a central need to maintain culture. Many of the best moments of connection catalysed by art are free.

Granted, our present society has strong roots in the ground and the beliefs and institutions which dominate our lives will not be dismantled easily, but the new values are already present. There is a huge ground swell of people choosing for more humane society. Art will be part of this quiet revolution, creativity is an enormous and irresistible force for growth, and it will break apart old rigid structures so that new, more flexible and alive ones can take their place.

This is what I think is happening now. And that is why I think that the collapse of subsidised art may be a good thing.

Art’s worth

October 13, 2010

The following post is not ‘against’making a living with one’s art, but is rather a plea for the society to frame art in another context than just an economic one.

Years ago, I was part of a committee of artists and project developers (not building projects, cultural ones) whose task it was to determine how to use European subsidy money to promote tourism in our area. The idea was to use artists as a tourist attraction which would then channel income into the region. It was also thought that artists would welcome the chance to profile themselves and hopefully generate some sales.

There is nothing superficially wrong with this concept, it has worked successfully in many areas. But it still goes from the assumption that art’s main worth can be measured economically. And this I challenge.

That’s why I was so happy to hear a Dutch writer and journalist lucidly bring this assumption into question. Rob Riemen has recently compiled a book of stories by writers from around the world about a time when their lives were radically changed by an encounter with a work of art. The book is called,’Hoop en vertroosting'( ‘Hope and solace’), and in it Riemen argues that our society has eradicated something profoundly important to our lives- art and culture. He proves this point by reminding us of what gets the most media exposure; easily digestible entertainment(at best, porno and violence at worst) produced for the most accessible public, and how hard it is to get a high quality non-commercial film, play, piece of music, etc produced.

He sees the arts not primarily as entertainment or products but rather as places where people can grapple with the mystery of life and where life’s big questions are addressed- questions that each one of us are eventually confronted with.

Riemen personally had suffered some devastating losses, among them the death of his young wife shortly after they were married. In the interview I heard, he spoke of how he slowly descended down to a point of despair, but just at that moment was helped to find meaning again by a film he saw. I won’t go into detail about the film here, but it too was concerned with questions of life, death and finding a purpose that makes life meaningful.

Rob argues that art, like friendship, has an intrinsic worth, not an economic one. And that the economy’s purpose should be to serve art and culture rather than the other way around.

Money doesn’t bring happiness or a deeper sense of purpose and connection, the larger things do. Friendship, community, family, and being passionate about something do. He declares that our  internal worlds are not being addressed by this society.

When people are denied art and culture, frustration, noise and aggression result, because people have lost the language to evaluate their experience and express their feelings. Art has always provided that language, but it is no longer available to everyone. 

According to Riemen, for the last 100 years,  the intellectual elite has brushed aside great artworks, works that could give hope, as ‘metaphysical nonsense’. This leaves us with no common cultural heritage that could offer spiritual value to our lives.

So what can be done? According to Riemen, there has to be a new concept of what is really important in life. What is the worth of our human existence? Something is of value when it radiates a certain truth. It is important for people to realise that a totally commercial world is of less worth for their lives than what a painting or piece of music could mean to them because these things can help with questions like, ‘Who do I want to be?’, ‘And how do I create meaning in my life?’.