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On the value of culture

Pistoletto Kröller MüllerThe Dutch public are currently considering which areas of government expenditure can best be cut back. According to a survey conducted by Synovate for the television programme Nova (April 2010), six out of ten Dutch people feel that cutbacks should be made particularly in the areas of development aid, defence and art and culture. And that is bad news for the world of culture, certainly with the upcoming parliamentary election. The ministry responsible for education, culture and welfare currently spends 50 euro per head of the population on art and culture, around 800 million euro. The provinces and municipalities have their own additional subsidies that flow in the direction of culture. In total this amounts to a few tenths of a percent of public funds per year. Among other things this money has served to amplify the effects of cultural manifestations and enabled increasing numbers of people to come into contact with them.
The value of culture is difficult to determine. The employment it provides and its ability to act as an engine for tourism and economic growth can still be measured, but it requires some conviction that culture contributes towards raising the quality of life, broadening the horizon, sharpening the mind, stimulating creativity, making a country appealing for foreigners and promoting a sense of pride among the resident population. In my firm opinion, culture stands for civilization and the quality thereof has a direct influence on the courtesy with which we approach each other in everyday life.
The history of human civilization shows how humans break away from their environment and actively seek the confrontation with the unknown. In recent months there has been ample cause for reflection, due to two events that make the value of that process of civilization abundantly clear: the discoveries of decorated ostrich eggs from 60.000 years ago and the Venus of Hohle Fels, 35.000 years old. Fascinating to behold and to realize that one can get so close to the origins of humans as Homo sapiens. These masterly expressions were doubtless created without any cultural subsidy, but they were found, cared for and will remain on permanent display thanks in part to subsidies. The challenge of the unknown is still around today: in that regard human beings will never be ‘finished’. The fact that no single party is responsible for the condition of culture seems obvious, and in the past few decades we have seen that the contribution from the free market can increase herein, and that is certainly positive. For me, the point here is that government also has a responsibility. For years people have been debating whether the budget for culture should amount to a minimum of 1% of the national budget, but in the ‘affluent’ years that are now behind us, the arts in the Netherlands saw very little of that prosperity. Is it then reasonable to force cutbacks regardless? Will that contribute towards easing the effects of the crisis? Of course a reorganization of the subsidy structure could do no harm, because a vibrant culture does not benefit from unchanging patterns born of routine. To further reduce or cut off the flow of money entirely strikes me as pure destruction, the negative effect of which on the public well-being would be many orders of magnitude greater than the millions of euro it would yield in the short term.

Evert van Straaten
May 2010

Illustration: Michelangelo Pistoletto, Venus of the rags (1967-1982)