Getting Beyond 2000, When 1984 is Now?
Als het nu 1984 is, willen we dan 2000 nog wel?

Acceptance speech, Award of Sphinx Prize for Culture, Maastricht, 13 December 1996

    There are many ways to contribute to the management of culture and the  arts.  Sphinx contributes by creating a prize for it, by asking the recipient of that prize to give a lecture on the subject, and by commissioning a biographical profile of the recipient. Although the process was painful the biographical profile in this case was admirably and diligently executed by Gary Schwartz.
The resulting book is reassuring because as it stops, finally,the work can really start.
    The fact is, the last word on the subject will not, and can not, be heard here today.  If today’s problems are the result of yesterday’s decisions, then management is always in the process of starting here and now.
Several representations of my finished work are offered now, but what is most important of what I do can’t be shown here in Maastricht: that is DasArts, which is about artists of the future.

    Many friends have told me what I must be sure and talk about in this lecture, or how it ought to be delivered.  This good advice can not be completely free of self-interest, as many who offered it would have to listen to the results. I was told be humorous, to provide anecdotes, to be transparent and open, to keep it simple and clear, to avoid being heavy, and yet still be topical.
    I also had to face the consequences of my choice of a title for this speech which -- of course -- did not exist before it’s labeled description.  As such, that too is a reflection of how culture works today, wherein a catchy hook must be created on which many (as yet unknown) goodies will be hung... the tease, the sound bite... the catchphrase which is almost more important than the essence of a speech.  Odd to think of a ‘catchphrase’ with reference to culture, when it is culture itself is so overwhelmed with clever interpretation.
    When talking about general human culture in the 'Raw and the Cooked', anthropologist Levi-Strauss tells us that we are unique as species.  We are the species that thinks abstractly, that communicates by using symbols, that eats raw only by choice, and the species that eats, rather than feeds.
    Imagine, then, a dinner.  The dinner is taking place in a village in the French Bourgogne.  Present is my American wife, busy writing and editing texts on cultural matters, and two French friends of our hosts -- Tierry, a horticulturist who travels all over the world collecting hardy and exotic plans to sell to a mostly Parisian clientele, and his lover, a classical dancer, a professor at the regional academy, and an illustrator of catalogues.  
    Our hosts are a Canadian who has cooked a fabulous Indian meal for us, and his partner, a Scot. They were formerly television editors for the BBC, and in the sixties they decided to buy a hotel restaurant in this village. And then there’s me, a Dutchman, who’s sending out letters, faxes and e-mail to destinations literally around the world.  Most of these communications are about the next term of DasArts, now in its third year.
    That evening we drank French wine, there’s freshly baked bread from a Canadian recipe, Colleen brought a house gift of rose jam, based on a medieval English recipe.  German classical music softly plays in the background and I am talking with Tierry about cultural policy and where I think it’s going, when Tierry says: “It’s strange to be talking about these things.  The world you represent doesn’t exist for us.  For us, there’s no theatre, no film, no concerts. I dig in the dirt with my plants, Roger and Philip are running their bar, or cooking for tourists.  We’re rural.”
    I smile, reflecting that -- sure enough -- Roger and Philip have told us about the snakes who’ve taken up residence in the cellar of their house.  But there are also first editions of Jonathan Swift and Sir Walter Scott on the table behind the couch, candles shed a soft glow over us, and the almost finished house is decorated with belongings assembled by collectors with discriminating taste. And, as we will discover, there’s also a toilet which isn’t functioning properly.
    And now I’ve covered most of the aspects through which culture may be defined.  The classical definition begins with a reference to tilling the soil; continues with the development of intellectual and moral competence and skill, especially through education; refers to enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired through intellectual and aesthetic training; and then concludes with a mention that the word culture also covers an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon our capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to following generations.  Hurray for our side: there we are.

    I wonder: is this topical, anecdotal, and transparent enough... if still, perhaps, somewhat lacking in humor?  Well... if lacking of humour, it's because the topic is too serious for jokes.  I’ll throw in a quote or two for good measure: in The Affluent Society John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that “People are the common denominator of progress.  No improvement is possible with unimproved people.” He adds, “Advance is certain when people are educated... there is sterility in economic monuments standing alone in a sea of illiteracy.  Conquering illiteracy comes first.”
    Literacy not only refers to the ability to read and write; it’s also central to developing curiosity about life and an appreciation of the arts, both of which sustain the strength of culture.  Or, as H.G. Wells wrote in 1920: “Human history increasingly becomes a race between education and catastrophe.”
    Which gets us dirctly into George Orwell's territory.
    It seems apt to consider this on the occasion of the fifth Sphinx prize to honor a manager of culture and the arts.  As we attempt to manage this, the focus of the times seems to have shifted from culture as an enlightened state of being, to the management of a product.  
    Culture.... as a product?

    David Pryce Jones, a contributor to a series of article entitled The Future of a European Past tells us that culture has relied on “art with the purpose of showing how choices come to be taken, and how burdened is the choosing.  Tragedy and comedy fold into each other unforeseeably.  Description is key to the shifts in reality, and the more closely the artist can show what are the consequences of action, the greater is the artist’s claim to universality.  Now culture has come to mean some sort of group behavior, or gratification, a special interest rather than the expression of a complete personality.... Europe has a Commissioner of Culture, but what passes for European culture is nothing of the kind.  It is now entertainment of a mass nature, football matches and other sporting events, television coproductions, Eurovision song contests, lotteries, and commercial marketing promotions.”
    In the same series it is noted that, “Here is a world in which identities are created by situations.  What holds a personality together is really a set of skills for coping with external reality... but what shapes identity is the richness of an entire culture, not merely its political expression... an identity built on one facet of a personality will be impoverished....”

    I was appalled and fascinated when reminded of how precisely George Orwell outlines some cultural predicaments only too clearly in evidence now.  Winston Smith, having finally nerved himself up to write in his secret diary finds that he can’t.  Orwell writes that “he seemed not merely to have lost the power of expressing himself, but even to have forgotten what it was that he had originally intended to say.  For weeks past he had been making ready for this moment, and it had never crossed his mind that anything would be needed except courage.”

    What is needed, besides courage?

    It was certainly courageous when our Secretary of State for the Arts, Aad Nuis, delivered his policy paper last year as the basis for an Arts Plan for the coming years.  Perhaps -- at least we may speculate -- he too had a lapse of memory when introducingterms which suggested that the arts might need additional legitimation.
    The arts world seemed to miss this bit of wizardry. In public discussions members of the arts world dived into application of Newspeak, and Newspeak -- as Orwell pointed out -- exists to narrow the range of thought, to shrink the range of consciousness.  The Dutch version of Orwell's Ministry of Truth seems to be suggested here.
    Local politicians went ahead to finish the job Nuis began and the art world continued, by effectively doing away with art altogether.  The old University town of Leiden recently replaced their art-related budget headings with such terms as ‘youth’, ‘adults’ and ‘the elderly’; the terms ‘art’ and ‘culture’ don’t come into it at all, anymore.  Reportedly other major municipalities are to follow Leiden’s example.  And Orwell's Ministery of Thruth is finally in place...

    Salmon Rushdie writes that “we’re witnessing a revival of the fine art of meaningless naming.”  He says, “These days the thing about incomprehensibility is that people are not supposed to get it.  The very concept of meaning is now outdated, nerdy, pre-ironic.  Welcome to the New Incomprehensibility: Gibberish with Attitude.”
    It would seem that our choice is either to go in for an unlimited stockpiling of utter nonsense as variations on present day use and abuse of the word ‘culture’, or we can put everything we’ve got into giving that word meaning again.

    After coming to the conclusion that music was no longer the center of the cultural conversation, Brian Eno, once one of the most influential producers of avant-garde, rock, jazz and classical music, founded an organization known as War Child, which ships food, medical supplies and building materials to Bosnia. Questioned about culture and meaning he responds, “We’ve evolved incredibly complex interwoven communications networks, and what are we doing with them?  Not much. Talk is cheap. Keep it fast and simple.  Still, conversation itself appears to be thriving.  Right now that conversation may be the culture.  A great deal of people’s behavior is mediated culturally rather than rationally; people make decisions about what they ought to do not only the basis of rational argument, but on the basis of what works for them metaphorically.”

    In DasArts we attempt to blend metaphorical realities with rational discourse.  I work from the conviction that it is the responsibility of our students to use their talents to determine what will be the theatre of tomorrow.  
    To help our students develop their own potential, we offer the ideas and expertise of those who determined what was the theatre of yesterday, and what it is today.  This experience is offered as inspiration and resource material, not as predetermined luggage which our students are expected to carry around everywhere they go, or that they must incorporate undigested in whatever they choose to do.  

    Last week over dinner after a day of working on my installation in the Bonnefanten museum, curator Aloys van den Berk, addressed the theme of generational expressions of culture by suggesting that “Positive attitude returns in every generation, only in different form.” This profoundly optimistic statement has been proven time and again by the students who come to DasArts looking for support in their efforts to rediscover and redefine what culture, and one of culture’s expressions -- art -- will be.... for them.
    I would compare what my students do to what Winston Smith was trying to understand when he considered the idea that “Tragedy belonged to an ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love, and friendship, and when members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason.  Today there was fear, hatred, and pain, but no dignity of emotion, no deep or complex sorrows.  The terrible thing the Party had done was to persuade you that mere impulses, mere feelings, were of no account, while at the same time robbing you of all power over the material world.”
    It will be today’s students who will dissolve this cultural dilemma.

    Those of us who are trying to encourage ongoing development and appreciation of culture in all its forms must work with this.  Within these ‘cultural aberrations’, and in spite of them, we must encourage ongoing development and appreciation of culture in all its forms.  Culture should be teaching us how to be as fully alive as possible. Culture helps us define ourselves to ourselves, and thus, it also defines us in relationship to the world. When we agree that this is one of the necessary functions of culture, the work we must do to manage and support it becomes much clearer.
    Above all we are required to develop our own curiosity, our ability to care, to see, to love.  From that point, we have some hope of making a difference in terms of helping others find what must be preserved, and to support them in their attempts to defend and redefine culture in the world now.  

    However we individually choose to do this, our actions can not be based on the claustrophobic notions of demand.  In his second book of essays, On Grief and Reason, Joseph Brodsky wrote, “In cultural matters, it is not demand that creates supply.  It’s the other way around.  You read Dante because he wrote the Divine Comedy, not because you felt the need for him.  You would not have been able to conjure either the man or the poem.”    

    The Sphinx prize functions by creating a moment of celebration outside its own -- and our own -- marketplace.  It creates -- for instance -- a moment in which I may share these thoughts with you... where I may say similar things through the creation of an installation which considers the difference between hope, intention, and reality... where I may say more things of this nature in a book of essays, and reflect on still other facets of it through a film script wonderfully directed by Wilbert Bank.  

    I’ve given you ‘1984’, and must still address 2000 and beyond.  I offer you the image DasArts choose for its logo.  We used a drawing from the diary of the Swiss visual artist Markus Raetz.  It shows a person juggling the rungs of the ladder he climbs, comfortable in a seemingly impossible predicament as he tosses and catches what he’s known before and now has climbed above.
    Or, perhaps this, from a BBC television interview with the American writer, James Baldwin, in the late 1980s: “Love has never been a popular movement and no one’s ever wanted really to be free.  The world is held together by the love and passion of very few people.”
    The love to which Baldwin refers is one of the children of curiosity that keeps me -- and us -- looking.  It isn’t a matter of what feats we pull off and can look back upon.  Its always a matter of what keeps us going... and how well we share that with the generations to come.

*See also: Gary Schwartz: Ritsaert ten Cate now; a biographical essay, Maastricht, Stichting Sphinx Cultuurprijs, 1996

Maastricht (NL)


Sphinx Cultuurprijs Foundation. Edited by Colleen Scott.