The Limits of Tolerance

Going Dutch at the Van Abbemuseum

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Collage by Babak Radboy

Just two weeks ago, I heard that a Dutch university professor had given a lecture in which he justified racism as a form of free speech. “You may not like it, but the right to say what you think is part of our value system here,” would rather crudely paraphrase his argument. His position is not uncommon in the Netherlands these days, where the harshness of a so-called “new realism” invades populist political debate on every side of the ideological divide. Increasingly, the values of Dutchness are set against an imagined enemy, always vaguely defined, who threatens to undermine the core beliefs of a nation of agnostics.

Contemporary Dutch identity has its origins in the social revolutions of the 1960s. The decade that nurtured and championed peaceniks, drug culture, rampant permissiveness, and individualism was taken to heart here just a little more than elsewhere in Western Europe. The values espoused by a generation of new social radicals resonated with older notions of Dutchness, rooted in toleration through social separation and even a sort of magnanimous indifference toward one’s neighbors. This novel mingling allowed for the (re)invention of a national identity that was both tolerant and individualistic, creating a society of singular beings who coexisted in what was more or less mutual ignorance. The Dutch grew markedly antiauthoritarian, welcomed self-expression, and agreed on the importance of the sovereign rights of the individual. And so the Netherlands emerged from the 60s in good spirits, its collective cultural project determined and shaped by a call for individual emancipation. After the dour and guilt-ridden post-imperial years of the 1950s, the shift was a welcome relief and manifested itself everywhere from immigration politics to the cultural realm.

Even the more traditional cultural fields benefited from the atmosphere of the times, afforded as they were the room to be experimental while supported by plentiful financial investments from the state. As a result, the Netherlands nurtured the production of some of the most avant-garde museums and institutions in all of Europe. Art was an undiluted good, a value that the state espoused, and the more provocative or transgressive, the better. In short, those years were the hey-day of what much of the rest of the world still thinks of as characteristically Dutch.

I came to the Netherlands two and a half years ago to assume the directorship of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. The city is small (200,000 inhabitants) and developed out of a workers’ dormitory that once served the Phillips Corporation. Though the museum has an enviable international reputation, I became concerned with its particular place in the city during my first months of living here. It seemed estranged from the local art community, insulated by its claim to world-class quality and cut off from the immediate surroundings. I worried whether such a fine art bubble could survive for long, when pressures on public funding were growing and faith in internationalism was abating. I also wondered whether such indifference to place was even justifiable in the context of a contemporary art world in which biennials and major exhibitions are increasingly concerned with the relations between the local and the global. I wondered, who was it who gave the Van Abbemuseum its mandate, beyond the aged instincts of a discredited cultural elite?

As my colleagues and I pondered how to respond to these questions in the context of the museum, the Dutch government announced a national competition for an initiative related to issues of cultural diversity. The competition became our excuse to formulate a proposal for a project we would call Be(com)ing Dutch — an attempt to raise questions surrounding nationalism in the context of art in “post-national” Western Europe and to see whether that context could give us a different lens through which to view the critical, social, and cultural change that surrounded us. The Netherlands seemed an apt starting point, particularly given the anti-immigration backlash born of the 2002 murder of right-wing parliamentarian Pim Fortuyn.

Why Be(com)ing Dutch? In assuming what we hope is both an ambiguous and provocative title, we wanted to avoid a politically correct spin on a subject that seems urgent in a way much artistic work does not. Be(com)ing Dutch doesn’t propose pat solutions to the difficulties that arise from cultural difference, immigration, and nation-state policies. Instead, it hopes to depict and reflect on the processes through which one acquires national identity, pointing out that between being (a static, defined position) and becoming (an uncompleted process of discovery), there lies a world of difference, both cultural and political. Becoming, after all, is by definition a dependent process and one in which we all inevitably participate.

Be(com)ing Dutch seeks to put the very idea of Dutchness on display, both Dutchness as it is inherited and that is in the process of being made. Speculating about what it might need to be in the future to live up to its past and picturing Dutchness other than it is now is the project of Be(com)ing Dutch, with diverse viewpoints, drawing upon artists from around the world. It’s also about imagining the imagination of the Other — a difficult task, but one that only art allows us to broach. At the Van Abbemuseum, we’re also trying to change some of the accepted or traditional parameters of the art museum. We’re investing in discussion and debate as much as in the production and acquisition of objects. We’re imposing a concept on artists and attempting, at various levels, to undermine the authority structures inherent in an art museum. The program intends to share its development and uncertainties with the public, permitting those encounters to impact outcomes.

Be(com)ing Dutch will take place over a span of two years and be developed jointly by everyone working in the museum, with curator Annie Fletcher taking the lead. It began with a three-day gathering in January, where artists and writers from the Netherlands and abroad were invited to speak about their sense of how one becomes Dutch and how that might be rethought as a process in global terms. In November, the museum will host three weeks of debate with leading international thinkers and a microschool for participants to share in the development of specific art projects by artists such as Phil Collins, Surasi Kusolwong, and Mario Rizzi, to name only the first participants. An exhibition in May 2008 will begin with the 1960s as the point of departure for a series of works made in Eindhoven, and a publication to be prepared for September 2008 will archive the project as a whole, including discussions and the responses born of them.

Perhaps the most interesting question will be whether such a politically determined project, with many unartistic ambitions from both the funding bodies as well as the museum itself, will be able to create compelling conditions for the production of art. If we’re successful, we’ll have created an important space where issues of community engagement and artistic autonomy aren’t in conflict, and where the public interest mission of a museum is in harmony with the artistic will to create in a non-private sector setting. It might make sense of museums again — decoupling tolerance from indifference through participation and a renewed critical engagement with culture.