A lecture held at “Are There Foreigners in Art?”, a conference organised by Du Store Verden and the Museum for Modern Art, Design and Architecture in Oslo on 14 and 15 February 2008.
The focus on aesthetics that should be at the heart of any arts policy has been largely submerged by
1 concerns - however important they may be - about ethnicity and inclusion.
By Els van der Plas,
Director of the Prince Claus Fund On Beauty and Other Unfinished Things
As the Director of the Prince Claus Fund, you encounter some strange ideas and notions about art and artists. Examples include development aid workers, who involve the importance of the fight against AIDS when judging a contemporary art exhibition, and Western museum curators, who continue to seek a disguised form of l'art pour l'art - but
with an exotic flavour - when dealing with Non-Western art.
Others stretch the definition of culture to an extreme. Once, after the Prince Claus Fund had turned down a Nigerian applicant, he blithely responded with a request as to whether we would like to finance his birthday party. Another example is the self-elected king of a small village in Ghana, who wanted to set up a zoo consisting of males and females of every species: elephants, leopards, ostriches and lions. The fact that these animals were already living around him did not deter him from pursuing his plans for the zoo; he simply argued that it would be a tremendous asset for the country's cultural heritage. Then there was the film festival for the blind and drumming courses for the deaf: no matter how crazy the idea, it's ended up on the desks of our staff members. Clearly, opinions about what art and culture entail are extremely diverse.
Conversely, in the West, people are increasingly attempting to incorporate subjects such as cultural diversity, participation and integration into the discourse of art and art production. Engaged art is gaining ground while the aesthetic debate has been neglected for many years. In fact, aesthetic debates in the Western art world seem taboo, whereas in the rest of the
1 The title of this speech was inspired by Goenawan Mohemmed’s publication On God and Other Unfinished
Things, Katakita Publishers, 2007, translated by Laksmi Pamuntjak
world - which is five times as big - beauty is foremost in the thoughts of the entire cultural elite.
Sometimes I feel split between many cultural extremes.
Signs of the times
Globalisation has coloured, changed and unsettled societies. Here, I would like to begin with a description of the situation in the Netherlands (where I come from). In 2001, an environmental extremist assassinated a right-wing, gay politician. In 2004, a filmmaker had his throat cut by a fundamentalist, third-generation Moroccan, who believed that the filmmaker had made an un-Islamic film. Furthermore, the woman who had come up with the idea for the film, the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, began her political career as a left-wing intellectual before switching to the extreme right. She has subsequently become involved with the ultra right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think-tank that advises George W. Bush. Hirsi Ali, now supported by France’s intellectual left, is expected to be awarded French
nationality in the near future. So much for cultural diversity! This also shows us how a small country can have big ramifications, and how the world - including my native land - has undergone a complete, multicultural metamorphosis over the last 20 years.
Yet what I find so disturbing is the fact that I no longer feel at home in my own country. I can no longer identify with its media; the TV program Big Brother has spawned the much
reviled yet extremely popular De Gouden Kooi (The Golden Cage): a live program where real
people bully other real people until they are forced to flee. The person who is the biggest bully, wins the prize. Is this a mirror of Dutch society?
At this point, the winner would seem to be Geert Wilders, the politician behind the Party for Freedom, which currently has nine seats in the Dutch parliament. He would like to forbid the Koran and argues for the deportation of the country's Muslims. Unfortunately, he seems not to realise that most of them are now Dutch. Conversely, third-generation Turkish girls wear headscarves as a political statement despite the fact that headscarves are still banned and the subject of fierce debate in Turkey. Young Antilleans and Moroccans go off the straight and narrow, while ironically Holland's most successful film has a Dutch-Moroccan
subject and the extremely Germanic title of the Schnitzel Paradise. How much more diverse
confusion can this society take?
To make this even more complicated, Charles Esche, the Director of the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, recently invited me to talk about Art as A Tool, a subject I had not expected to
be brought up by a Dutch museum of contemporary art. That afternoon, you could have
heard a pin drop as I described beauty as being an important characteristic of the arts. This was not because the audience was impressed by my speech or by what I was saying; rather it was due to an instant and collective sense of shame. The prevailing attitude was that beauty does not constitute a criterion or a point of departure for the contemporary arts. My question to my fellow panellists and the audience as to whether they would like to discuss the subject of beauty was greeted by a deafening silence. Is beauty a taboo in certain echelons of Western high art? Is debating aesthetics "simply not done"?
This seems odd considering that Plato and Socrates were the founders of the th century. Have we lost our way aesthetically? Or was it simply high time that art Western aesthetic discourse, a debate that continued unabated until the second half of the broached other discourses than simply that of beauty?
Of course, if you want to create a policy concerning art - whether it's for the country as a whole or for the Prince Claus Fund - it's vital to understand what art is all about. Moreover, any art policy will also reflect the feelings of society at large. And societies, as I mentioned previously, are rapidly changing. Art cannot solve problems; it can only represent them, reflect them and comment on them. However, in some circles, art does indeed seem to have become a means to an end rather than a means in itself.
Our first question is, of course: Why should we support and promote art and culture?
The first reason is one of aesthetics. Socrates described how all beauty brings us beneficial pleasure. What did he mean here? Beauty is defined in many different ways throughout the world. Each culture defines aesthetics in a different way, yet it always represents the same positive emotions and life values. This is why everybody has the capacity to perceive beauty. We may not see it in the same way, but we can all empathise with the feelings it evokes.
When people behold beauty, they feel alive; they feel that life has meaning. In addition to food, health and a roof over your head, these aspects are so essential that it is always
2astonishing to realise just how few policy-makers actually care about culture and beauty. In , the Indian theatre critic Rustom Bharucha wrote: "(….) I would
his essay Beauty in Contextinclude the concept of beauty that needs to be retrieved not just for our aesthetics but for our sanity. By disregarding beauty, we are also disregarding ourselves and the discovery of meaning in life."
So why don't policy-makers use aesthetics as an argument for substantiating the support and funding of art and culture? As a concept, aesthetics is apparently too abstract for hardcore politics, even though culture frequently features in the world's headlines. Take the demolition of Afghanistan's Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 or the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad in 2003. A significant detail about the first example - the Buddhas' destruction - is the fact that it was the result of a mono-cultural government policy where the Taliban and their friends in Saudi Arabia wanted to do something that would demonstrate what Islamic society should stand for, and where clearly there was no place for Buddhism. This cultural policy generated an enormous amount of media attention. The images were transmitted across the world, and everyone was dismayed but could do little about it because it had been the government's decision.
The second example concerns Baghdad's National Museum and shows just how important we consider culture to be. The looting of the National Museum horrified people in not only Iraq but also the rest of the world. In fact, the looters were not the only guilty party; the international art market was also denounced along with the military forces that had failed to safeguard these art treasures. This general and extremely international indignation indicated that people attach great importance to culture in all its diversity. Indeed, culture is essential - as the artists and archaeologists of Iraq and Afghanistan will confirm - for the creation and preservation of a country's cultural heritage and, therefore, for the development of cultural history. This cultural history imbues each individual and society with a sense of respect and identity.
2 Bharucha, Rustom, Beauty in Context, the Prince Claus Fund Journal #2, 1998 4
That beauty and the significance of cultural heritage are not formulated more clearly in cultural policy is also due to the fact that the aesthetic discourse has been placed on the art world's back burner. As I said before, there is effectively a taboo against saying that art is beautiful. Certainly in terms of contemporary art, an artwork's beauty is no recommendation for its inclusion in a Biennale or exhibition. But beauty is more than Plato's perfect proportions and measurements. Certainly, it is also more than a photo by the Nigerian photographer J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, or the artefacts of the well guarded collection of Bactrian gold from Afghanistan. For beauty can also embrace asymmetry, chaos and the attraction of violence and misery, aspects that Susan Sontag clearly understood. Like our society, aesthetics has also become much more complex and, in this sense, the arts constitute a reflection of the current social situation.
Cultural policy and its points of departure
The fact that criteria such as cultural diversity, inclusion and gender have been incorporated into cultural policy is due to the issues that society is currently dealing with. Uncertainty, a feeling of insecurity and the waves of migration throughout the world have also influenced the politics of art. The argument: "It's the quality that matters" is no longer enough. The lack of cohesion between the various population groups, the Parisian suburbs' resistance to the mainstream Élysée, the Kikuyus' bloodlust for the Luos in Kenya, and President Erdogan's statements in Cologne on 9 and 10 February that the assimilation of the Turks in Germany constitutes a crime against humanity: all these events indicate that we have lost our way on the path to tolerance and fellowship. We need all our strength to understand and give meaning to this point in time. And that's where we also need art.
Until 15 years ago, Western artists had distanced themselves from the complexities of society. Ivory towers were overpopulated, and artists were not prepared to descend into the mud of life. Their conceptual works ignored every form of political and social debate. Art was no longer a part of the discussion; abstraction had taken the place of interaction.
And then there were the unfortunate facts of culture. Museums failed to attract migrant visitors, and they certainly did not show the work of artists with a different or a dual cultural
background. International culture remained white, and in many countries culture was never
mentioned in government policy.
With the advent of social unrest - from the destruction of the Twin Towers to the Twin
Buddhas - policy-makers slowly began to realise that culture must also relate to a changing
society. In fact, society may well be in desperate need of art, where it is not kept at a
suitable distance but is embraced as a participant and discussion partner. This is because
culture is also at the heart of these issues.
The idea that beauty and art have nothing to do with society is an idée fixe. Since time
immemorial, aesthetics has had close links with morality and ethics. Plato described beauty
as follows: "The musician imitates divine harmony, the good man imitates virtues and the
wise legislator imitates the Form of the Good in constructing his state." Morality, ethics and
law are all associated with aesthetics, and are therefore also the representation of goodness
and rightness in society. The English poet John Keats connected beauty with truth. In the
final lines of his Ode to a Grecian Urn (1819) he wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is
all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." It is easy for us to understand the close
association between beauty, truth and goodness. Beauty's complexity consists of its
relationship with might and power. The attraction of a powerful man, of fighting, of war and
suffering all relate to the aesthetics of misery. Both terrible beauty and the beauty of the
3terrible are of great importance in relation to this discussion. As Susan Sontag so succinctly . Here, she was also referring to the importance of the described it: "If it bleeds, it leads"media in this discussion.
thThis complexity of aesthetics became particularly evident in the 20 century although
its accompanying debate was effectively silenced. Perhaps it is important to continue it,
because this may also enable us to answer the policy-makers' questions. The fact that
cultural policy relates to society and makes demands on both the artist and the producer
would seem obvious. But aren't policy-makers going a little too far when they impose
politically correct starting points on cultural institutions and artists?
3 Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Group, London, UK, 2003.
The Fund's cultural policy
Let me briefly introduce the cultural policy of the Prince Claus Fund. As the Fund’s Director, I’m dealing on a daily basis with artists and cultural entrepreneurs, who have to ask
themselves why what they do is so important. In the complex, multicultural countries that
they come from - such as Rwanda, Iraq or Afghanistan - opting for the cultural field is not an obvious choice and can even be a dangerous one.
The points of departure for everything that the Fund does are quality and innovation. For
the Fund, these criteria are very useful, even though there is an ongoing debate about
different criteria in different environments. However, I believe that you can experience the Good everywhere and at all times. Through good advice, research and an open mind, one
will be able to judge and enjoy an artwork, wherever it comes from. So why did the Fund
choose these criteria?
Firstly the Fund’s money comes from the Development Aid Department of the Dutch
Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry deploys other criteria than those of the Fund, and these consist of poverty reduction, cultural diversity, gender issues, sustainable development, AIDS prevention and other major world issues. It is important that these people are made
to realise that art and culture are also basic needs, so that we do not lose ourselves in a
discourse about the usefulness of aesthetics in the struggle against poverty. Hence, culture is a means in itself
Some arguments about why the Fund supports culture in areas of economic and political complexity - and especially those plagued by war and misery - concern the fact that culture provides hope and comfort. It brings happiness and hope for a better future.
So how does modern art fit in with all this? Isn't it something of a disruptive element?
Doesn't modern art problematise society? This is frequently a function that has added value
in complex communities. Enabling the discussion of taboos and traumatic events is a role
that culture can play. Here, I'm not suggesting that, for instance, a play should thrust these subjects on an audience, rather that the consideration of complexities and confusing
experiences, and the act of imbuing them with symbolic meaning, already contributes to
Moreover, frequently it is the artists who analyse a society critically and provide it with
commentary. Indeed, from the Romans to the present day, it has been the artists who have
depicted society in a subtly critical way. Francesco Goya portrayed his indictment of war
with colour and passion. Picasso painted his famous Guernica as a condemnation of his
country's dictatorship. Similarly, the famous photo made during the Vietnam War of the little
girl running following a napalm attack, also contributed to the ending of that war. The
painting Guernica remained an indictment in Spain until democracy was restored, and Max
Beckman eloquently disparaged the Nazis in their bars and pubs in the 1920s and '30s, a
condemnation that rings in our ears to this day.
But we can also analyse the contemporary works of the Afghan artist Lida Abdul. The first
work I saw was White House at the 2004 Venice Biennale. It impressed me greatly. It consists
of an arid landscape in which we see the ruins of a village that has been either bombed or
demolished. It is a desolate sight. We follow a woman with a pot of paint and a brush (the
artist herself), who whitewashes everything that is still standing. This is the artist's J'accuse,
the creation of a guilty landscape where the pearly white ruins shriek their indictment so
eloquently: Stop the senseless destruction and obliteration of people and their culture! Stop
destroying a country with a celebrated cultural history that spans many thousands of years!
Another video, Clapping Stones, criticises the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas. We see a group of young men in front of the gaping holes in the rocks. They are performing a
ritual, using stones from the Buddhas. The viewer is confronted with the voids in the rocks
and the tapping of the pebbles, which are all that is left of the Buddhas. This is the same
indictment as the white ruins, the same J'accuse or guilty landscape.
In this work, the artist is silently addressing the need for not only cultural heritage
but also cultural diversity. The work is painfully and impressively beautiful.
Other artists, who engage with complex subjects such as cultural conflicts, include Gonçalu
Mabundo, who re-uses Kalashnikovs dating from the Mozambican civil war, and Benin's
Romuald Hazoumé, who criticises the oil industry with his masks and installations made of
The subject matter can also be highly personal - such as a lover's letter ending a
relationship by the French artist Sophie Calle – or extremely worldly, as is illustrated by the
video by the Amsterdam-based, black British artist Steve McQueen, about the unfair relationship between a Congolese coltan miner and the Western coltan industry.
It now seems that policy is seeking participation and artists feel called upon to relate to society. So the social and aesthetic discourse needs to come together at this point in time. For how can the world scream and art remain silent?
All we need to do is to think of the overwhelming nothingness that became so tangible when the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas. The emptiness of the niches shouts at the people. Lida Abdul used the remaining pebbles lying there to produce her musical film essay. You cannot destroy a cultural past although there have been many serious attempts: the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Nazis in Germany and the Serbs in former Yugoslavia. There is no such thing as total destruction. Ruins, survivors and tiny pebbles are still there to tell the tale. People flee, they put the broken pieces back together again, they tell their stories and they reveal the destruction. Here, says Abdul, are the ruins of my country, of my history and my culture. I do not accept it, so I will shout it out with a beauty that hurts. And this is something that can never be taken from either her or us. For this reason alone, we need art, and also an art policy.
For Plato, beauty and representation (mimesis) were closely related. But he also used
another word for representation: methexis, which means participation. Perhaps art and the
idea of social participation are more deeply rooted in society and less profoundly divided than we once thought.