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Henk Pröpper: 'Writers Unlimited has always opposed panting and short-term ambition.'

The moment Propper must have known he no longer wanted to take this position.

He is now a publisher, and the man who was director of the Dutch Foundation for Literature until last year will be quite happy with that. As director of the Bezige Bij, one of the country's largest publishing houses, he will probably never again have to submissively toast the sarcastic State Secretary for Culture Halbe Zijlstra. At least the relief was audible in Pröpper's opening speech of Writers Unlimited, Thursday 19 January 2012. He could uninhibitedly take a stand against the dusty petty bourgeoisness he sees the Netherlands as having sunk into since the frightened populists took control.

A festival like Writers Unlimited serves as the country's lungs:

"For many years, WU has been trying to blow a fresh, inspired wind through the Netherlands and counteract both shortness of breath and panting and the spreading of empty words, empty wind: Fama. From the beginning, the festival was committed to purifying, refreshing, feeding the air in the Netherlands with an amalgam of sounds and voices."

And as long as we don't need goggles and compressed air yet, the festival can continue to exist in The Hague, as long as the city continues to turn its love into resounding currency.

Pröpper's entire speech can be found below:

Henk Pröpper opens Writers Unlimited

Small ode to Writers Unlimited

If you were to describe the cultural landscape in the Netherlands as a body, the museums are the heart of the Netherlands - and an open heart operation has been going on in Amsterdam for years. I see our music and dance venues as the feet that carry our senses. And international festivals like Winternachten/Writers unlimited I would see unmistakably as the lungs of the Netherlands.

Because for years, Writers Unlimited has been trying to blow a fresh, inspired wind through the Netherlands and counteract both shortness of breath and panting and the spreading of empty words, empty wind: Fama. From the beginning, the festival has been committed to purifying, refreshing, feeding the air in the Netherlands with an amalgam of sounds and voices.

Writers Unlimited has always opposed panting and short-term ambition. The festival never possessed such an instinct for political correctness. WU preferred to focus on the deeper analysis, the big international cultural and social movements, even when they were almost still invisible. Of those movements, writers and thinkers are often the beginning, even if they don't realise it themselves. The art of a good festival is to bring those voices together year after year, and arrive at diagnoses, or vetting, of processes that shape the lives of people around the world.

Lungs are connected to breathing, a basic necessity of life. And also with language, the voice, whether it is a conversation, a chant or a story. In both respects, WU has brought much to the Netherlands, though perhaps this has not been sufficiently understood by the general public. If The Hague wants to be an international city, and it wants to be, The Hague will have to nurture WU, a country cannot do without lungs, cannot do without air, without voices that reveal the future that interpret, touch, predict the great cultural and political-social developments in the world. That is exactly what the writers and thinkers WU now invites year after year did. Not triumphantly, not pontifically, but in a polyphonic chorus that, if only one is willing to listen, also gives the recipes on how to counter social echecs, how to create an open climate.

Lungs need to be trained, they need to be used optimally. They must be able to bring air, even with headwinds. In this respect, Western European countries can learn from countries that 'we' hardly saw before: Brazil, South Africa, Argentina, Turkey, where the winds are now turning and where culture is experienced as a means of connection, as a focal point where the whole of a nation meets and recognises each other, not as a means of repulsion between higher, educated classes and lower classes, as is the analysis for many countries in Western Europe.

Culture flourishes in these 'new countries' and is also a growing factor economically. Perhaps in Western Europe, only the often maligned France is a natural exception to this clash of so-called elite and so-called excluded.

For years I was allowed to report on French cultural policy from France. To the often remarkable examples of the role that the French attributed to culture in the interests of cultural diversity, people in the Netherlands responded at the time, ten years ago now, that it was all a bit of exaggerated French drivel, from people who really did not keep up with the times: and it was liberal, open, market-oriented, no one could get hurt by it, because what is strong survives. After all, that is how we had always survived on the waves of the ocean, with the tides plaguing us but never getting us under. Stronger resistance makes us stronger, and so artists too should just become more resilient, stronger, more resilient, that will benefit their art too.

The perspective of being in the world and playing a decisive role in it was very much part of the 1990s and the beginning of this century. In those years, the Netherlands wanted to be particularly international and had a thousand goals, a thousand world to conquer, a particular hyperactivity of all kinds of organisations was the result.

It was an optimistic time, one can conclude, but also one in which a sophisticated political compass was abandoned. In the euphoria about worldly existence, there was little regard for the revulsion that slowly arose against that international, the other, the non-native. Revulsion even against the concern for others, the waste that was associated with international ambitions whether cultural or humanitarian. The commodification of relations went hand in hand with an illusiveness when it came to international relations, and also with the celebration of the individual, the national, the local as a reaction to the big projects whether they were European or projected even further away.

From a moderately international country, the Netherlands, and with the Netherlands many other European countries, became increasingly focused on a national orientation, despite the call for Europe. With a small and temporary agenda increasingly attuned to an electorate that links the international perspective precisely to a sense of insecurity, of infiltration by the other, the unwanted. And culture is the perverse carrier of this. Culture as an assassin, rather than a bringer of life.

All I can say is: WU, throw all your weapons into the battle to break the impasse holding the debate on culture hostage. And in which a so-called 'elite' is pitted against a so-called 'people'.

Yes in that respect, despite all the rhetoric sometimes, we can really mirror France. Compare the discussion there about increasing VAT on books, a discussion that is also going on in the Netherlands and elsewhere. In France, this then immediately leads to a kind of popular uprising, after which Nicolas Sarkozy came up with the following statement:

" Je considère que dans les produits de première nécessité, il y a l'eau, la nourriture, mais aussi la culture."

In doing so, he stretched out his hands like the Messiah, as if he would personally fight the idea of culture being affected, "with all My Body".

Sarkozy forgot, among all the elements that naturally appeal to the Frenchman, air. Besides water, food and culture, we need good air: it provides WU, spiritual food, fresh air. That's what a country must have something for, out of necessity of life.

I wish you a wonderful festival, an engaging evening, and lots of good ideas.

Henk Pröpper

 

 

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