There are many factors that explain the upheaval of populism. Postmodernism is one of them. In the Netherlands, certainly the columnist represented and helped to shape the postmodernist mood, a mood characterized by skepticism, subjectivism or relativism and a general suspicion of reason and logic.[i] In doing so, he prepared the ground for right wing populists like Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders. Likewise, he fueled populist attacks on “quality”, be it represented by the liberal arts, science, politics, or journalism. An inside story about the arts from the Netherlands, not in the form of a column, but in that of blog.
There probably is no culture in which the columnist plays such a central role as they do in Dutch culture. This opinions salesman flawlessly represents the postmodern phase of the Dutch cultural tradition, a tradition defined by merchants and preachers. The columnist publishes, usually on a weekly basis, a piece of approximately 550 words in which he, in an ironic, indignant or enraged way, proclaims an opinion. The small number of words available to him, offers the welcome excuse for the lack of substantiation and depth. It is the opinion that counts, an opinion that stands for freedom, democracy, emancipation, empowerment, independence, (post-, so real) modernity.
One can, however, never be quite sure whether these opinions are sincerely meant. The reader knows that the columnist predominantly makes a living via the manufacture of opinions, inside and outside his column. And the columnist knows that the reader knows this. Therefore, one should not take everything all too seriously.
In connection, it is rarely the case that the columnist possesses a specific competence, knowledge or experience that would justify offering him a national platform from which he can proclaim his thoughts. More and more often he is a columnist because he is a columnist. In this respect he is comparable to Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian: he attracts attention because, for unclear reasons, he managed to do so in the past. This all does not mean that columnists are powerless. On the contrary, together they shape the political culture, especially the beliefs people have about appropriate and useful political communications.
The columnist, finally, we no longer only hail in the newspaper columns. He can be found wherever there are microphones, cameras and audiences. Not just in newspapers, the opinions of columnists often have pushed the actual news articles to the margin.[ii] He has also taken over most talk or information shows on radio and television. His attitude of mind has spread as an oil slick over Dutch society.
Geert Wilders is the columnist of Dutch politicians. He has all kinds of opinions and refuses to substantiate them. His party program stretches a mere 269 words; the length of a mini-column.[iii] Just as the columnist shies away from the essay and the book, Wilders bypasses parliament. Form is more important to him than content. Content cannot be rationally justified anyway, which explains why his political standpoints form an disjointed, inconsistent brew of sentiments. The deeply outraged opinions he espouses are meant to draw attention, they are used in the battle for seats and power. They do not compose a coherent and consistent whole on the basis of which the present social constellation could be interpreted and understood, and the country could be governed. Just as in the case of the columnist, everything that Wilders proclaims amount to very little. Both Wilders and the columnist have never borne any responsibility and both know the world mainly through hearsay. Their statements have never needed to be translated into policy.
Just like the columnist, the populist proclaims his opinions in brutal, oversimplified and noisy language. And just as in the case of the columnist, the listener cannot be really sure if they are sincere. Also the voter and the populist politician know this from each other. For example, it is difficult to imagine that many fully believe in Wilders’ proposed ‘kopvoddentax‘ (literally, head rag tax), the tax that Wilders proposed on wearing headscarves. Or in the “millions, tens of millions of Muslims” that according to Wilders should be deported from Europe. But it is good that, so the thinking goes, for once, it has been said out loud! It is the standpoint that counts, a standpoint which, exactly, stands for freedom, democracy, empowerment, independence, emancipation, and (Western) modernity.
The columnist is the expression and catalyst of a postmodern culture in which the populist politician thrives. They are not really fond of each other, Wilders and the columnists, columnists who are consistently qualified by Wilders as “the left church”. And yet they belong together, they need each other, they reinforce each other.
If Wilders ever leaves politics, he will become a columnist.
Wilders also does not like subsidized art and culture. Art and culture, to Wilders’ mind constitute “a left-wing hobby“, a hobby of the faithful of the left church, a church of which the columnists, in Wilders’ experience, are the preachers. “We are for a sparkling democracy, with plenty of referenda”, writes Wilders in the column that serves as his party program of 2011. “Not the political elite, but more often the people should be able to speak out; together, citizens know better than the left cabal.” Therefore, Point 7 of the current party program states: “No money no more to foreign aid, wind mills, art, innovation, public radio and television, etcetera.”[iv]
With regard to the subsidized arts, the Dutch citizens have already voted with their feet: most of them stay home. Just a very small, highly educated and well paid public still makes use of it, and Wilders knows it. Only the complacent paternalism of the left cabal can explain why this supply is still subsidized with the hard-earned tax money of “Henk and Ingrid”, the supposedly average Dutch taxpayers for which the Party for Freedom fights. As far as Wilders is concerned, the art subsidies can be completely abolished. If certain expressions of art were really valuable, then “the people in the country” would be willing to pay for it and they would thus survive on the market.
In 2011, when this issue was played out on the political agenda, the traditional political parties wanted to avoid a fundamental discussion on the topic – the danger was that by doing so they would be portrayed as elitist and paternalist; wiser to go with the flow. Consequently, in 2011 the ruling Christian-democrats (CDA) and Market Liberals (VVD) agreed to cut the budget of the arts by about 20%. Furthermore, the VAT on “cultural” activities (tickets for theatres, museums, etc.) went up from 6 to 19% – the same tax one pays for eating out or attending a soccer game.
Columnists wrote many angry commentaries, accusing government of shallowness and tastelessness. Gratefully, Wilders welcomed these condescending attacks: so you want to say that all the hardworking people in the Netherlands that I fight for, are shallow?
The legitimization of cultural policy
Almost three decades ago I was invited to work for the Dutch Ministry of Culture. I was completing a dissertation (Freedom and Culture in Western Society, Routledge, 1997) in which the legitimation of cultural politics played an important role. The department I worked for was responsible for long-term policy development. The first question the director asked me, was: “What do you think, how long will we be able to keep the walls standing?”
In the course of the eighties, inside the Ministry of Culture, there was growing awareness that the existing cultural policies were more and more difficult to legitimate. Research had shown that the group that was taking advantage of the subsidized arts reflected the average Dutch citizen less and less. The public in attendance at theaters, art museums and concert halls increasingly belonged to the best paid and educated strata of the population. The culture that was offered in these temples had also slowly become more and more complicated, academic, modernistic, or avantgardistic. Axiomatically, this supply obstructed the cultural participation of relatively broad segments of the population.
One of the causes of this development was the way decisions were taken on art subsidies: more and more these decisions had been farmed out to councils where art experts jointly decided what deserved the support of the state, and more and more these connoisseurs had been applying rather narrow standards of “quality”: artistic products predominantly had to be “innovative”, “unprecedented” or “original” (compare, by the way, what has happened in much of the social sciences); craftsmanship or being part of a tradition was considered to be less and less important.
A related problem was the changing self-image of the artist. Artists came to depicted themselves less and less as representatives of a cultural tradition expressing esthetically its intrinsic values and certainties, or as members of a cultural community critically but engaged reflecting on its indorsed truths and untruths. Instead, artists more and more saw themselves as outsiders, or, maybe better: as superiors. Fewer and fewer artists went in conversations with the broader society, whose members were invariably considered smallminded, petty and shallow. More and more they communicated with and reacted to each other. In this way a complacent “art-art” developed that became less interesting, relevant and understandable for society at large (compare again what has happened with the social sciences). Society still had to pay for it, though.
In two ways the gap between the arts and the general public could have been made smaller. In the first place, the policymakers could have tried to strengthen the cultural competences of the public via cultural education. The fact that so many people do not participate in cultural activities, is not the consequence of informed, intentional choices, but of unfamiliarity and unawareness. Cultural education could have strengthened the knowledge and experience needed, and would consequently have increased the freedom of the individual to make autonomous choices, choices not predetermined by, especially, social background.
Unfortunately, this policy option received severe resistance in the world of academics and columnists. Here, the idea had spread that the motivation behind cultural participation, certainly participation in what was considered “bourgeois” culture, was “distinction”: people went to art museums or concert halls to experience and to show their superiority over other classes of people. The existence of measures or standards of quality that were not entirely sociological and subjective, was denied. Especially the French cult sociologist Pierre Bourdieu[v], who later denied he had ever taken this position, made a name with this attack on the idea of quality. The upshot was that policies aimed at the dissemination of culture were denounced as elitist and paternalistic.[vi]
Obviously, the problem with this standpoint was that it made every cultural policy suspect. One can acknowledge that individuals and groups have always used the arts to assert their social and political superiority, and one serves the emancipation of their victims when one exposes this hypocrisy. But when one leaves it like that and only acts as the great debunker – the favorite pose of the columnist – then one stands with empty hands when a populist like Wilders comes along drawing the logical conclusion: shoot down this pompous emptiness!
A second policy option motivated the artist, via public debate and all kinds of social and economic incentives, to see himself somewhat more as a member of society, a member that fulfills in this society an indispensable function and therefore deserves to be supported. Artists can state that their art worlds constitute a social lab where new forms and thoughts are developed and tested, they can assert that they help us to reconcile with the irreconcilable, that they move us with unexpected beauty in a barbaric existence, that they express truths in powerful, evocative ways, truths that can only be inadequately expressed with non-esthetical means. This is all very true, but this also needs on a regular basis to be demonstrated in actual practice, and this not only for an international, but small inner circle, but for substantial minorities of the societies artists ask for support.
This road turned out to be impassable as well. Politics was trying to create an art of the state, the general response was, a politically sanctioned or approved art. However, in his creative work the artist should be totally free, autonomous and sovereign. This, indeed, stood for freedom, empowerment, emancipation, democracy, and modernity.
One of the incentives that were considered to bridge somewhat the gap between the arts and the general public was the introduction of the obligation for the performing arts to earn 15% of their budget themselves. The art scene reacted furiously. In a nationwide newspaper advertisement, the interest group of the Dutch art institutions (“Kunsten’92”) declared: “Unacceptable impoverishment of culture” (June 13, 1992). The quality newspapers Het Parool (March 4, 1992), De Volkskrant (June 2, 1992) and NRC-Handelsblad (June 8, 1992) respectively titled: “culture robbery, insult, savage cuts”, “Cut in subsidy causes landslide”, and “disastrous measures”.
Twenty-five years ago Dutch politics was still dominated by moderate, civic centrist parties. Their representatives could still be intimidated with texts like the ones above. Usually, they went into reverse. These times are over, as the recent severe cuts in the cultural budget showed. Today, all Dutch men and women are columnists. Everybody is free, autonomous, independent, authentic and unique. Everybody has got an opinion of his own and not a single opinion has more weight than another opinion.
The general opinion today is; that cultural subsidies are theft.
How can we return this genie to it’s bottle?
Thanks to Nils Wadt and Sarah Coughlan for their comments on a first version of this article. Obviously, only the author stays responsible for its content.
[i] Postmodernism is a late 20th-century movement, Brian Duignan writes, “characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” It forms a frontal attack on the assumptions of the Enlightenment: There is no reality independent of human beings, everything is a conceptual construct. Consequently, there is no truth about which people using different language games could agree. Reason and logic do not create progress, are not universally valid, and are just conceptual constructs of the western powers that be. Language does not refer to a reality outside itself but is semantically self-contained or self-referential. The effort to create theories describing and explaining reality leads to conformity and oppresses, marginalizes or silences other discourses. This all leads to metaphysical, epistemological or ethical relativism. In the words of Duignan: “Postmodernists deny that there are aspects of reality that are objective; that there are statements about reality that are objectively true or false; that it is possible to have knowledge of such statements (objective knowledge); that it is possible for human beings to know some things with certainty; and that there are objective, or absolute, moral values. Reality, knowledge, and value are constructed by discourses; hence they can vary with them. This means that the discourse of modern science, when considered apart from the evidential standards internal to it, has no greater purchase on the truth than do alternative perspectives, including (for example) astrology and witchcraft.” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/postmodernism-philosophy) Postmodernism as a philosophical movement lead by thinkers like Lyotard, Lévinas, Derrida, and Foucault had some coherency and consistency. The adherence to some of its core ideas was much more common. This general postmodernist mood was widespread among academics, journalists, students, artists, opinion leaders in places like Amsterdam.
[ii] For instance, De Volkskrant, one of the few quality newspapers in the Netherlands, currently counts more columnists (more than 150) than journalists.
[v] Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (La Distinction: Critique Sociale du Jugement), Boston: Harvard University Press, 1984.
[vi] In Freedom and Culture in Western Society (1997: 247-72) I give an overview of the extremely approving way the presumed ideas of Bourdieu were received by Dutch sociologists and opinion makers in the field of cultural politics. As said, in an interview Bourdieu later stated that he had been wholly misunderstood (1997: 258-9).