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The Free Left fights against code diversity without sound arguments.

Free art is in danger. So claims Free Left Foundation at least. The article goes around persistently on facebook: "Unfree art is not really art at all." Actress Femke Lakerveld breaks into this interview with journalist Joep van Ruiten a plea for the free arts. The occasion is an event in Groningen, which will feature a number of speakers on whether the arts are still so free, in the Netherlands. 

According to Lakerveld, who is also chairman of the 'Free Left' in everyday life, that freedom is in danger. Let us see on what facts this alarming assertion is based.

The article opens with 'Images removed from public spaces for being offensive.'  The plural in this sentence could be on account of journalist Joep van Ruiten. This DvhN reporter is probably talking about a controversial statue near the Martini hospital in Groningen. That - seen from behind - could be exciting for owners of a dirty mind, or, if that dirty mind is surrounded by moral armour, offensive. 

Buttplug or healthcare system?

In any case, after anonymous complaints, the hospital's art committee did not fancy too much debate about it and asked the artist for a different, less ambiguous image. Which he refused: Artist must remove 'offensive' sculpture at Martini Hospital - RTV Noord

What could make the freedom of art problematic here is the place art occupies in our healthcare system. A hospital might be a place where stimuli play a different role than in a town square. About 'Gnome Buttplug' was also once a thing of the past, but the sculpture has since been embraced by the city.

Apart from this one Groningen example, in which a conflict between client and contractor led to the disappearance of an image in a fairly specific situation, I could not find any other examples. So that makes the plural in the opening sentence of the interview 'problematic'. 

Incongruent plural 

The article in DvhN

The next sentence again contains a plural that is awkward: 'Films criticised because a non-believer plays the lead role of a Jewish woman'. In this case, we could speak of 'pluralis dramatis', although that is not an official term. Indeed, as far as I know, no several films have been criticised because of a goy woman in the Jewish lead role. And if it would have been in one case, that case is unknown to me. Either way: the film(s) will be criticised, not cancelled. And criticism is allowed. After all, apart from art, speech is also free. Just like religion.

White balls

I also found no source for the third point: 'a museum flipping programming by order of alderman'. Now it may have been a local incident, unless the journalist in question is referring to the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. In the documentary 'White Balls on Walls', we see Amsterdam's culture alderman Meliani there telling the fresh museum director that in the next (current) round of subsidies, the codes, including diversity&inclusion, will be firmly addressed. The documentary shows beautifully How the municipal museum is dealing with the tightening of the municipal mission.

This is how one discovers that the policy over the past century was very much centred on white male art. That they started to take this into account in their programming, they decided for themselves, in freedom, not 'on the orders' of a single councillor, although as their direct boss they have the right to do so.

Arts not free?

After this enumeration of explicable and fairly uncontroversial social issues, the article's thesis follows: 'Arts claim to be free, but are not.' So that assertion is questionable. None of the cases mentioned involved 'the freedom of the arts'. They are merely examples of a social debate surrounding certain works or institutions. A debate that has been going on for decades. 

Over to the chairman of 'Free Left': 'Femke Lakerveld sees it happen too often.'  We are curious to see the examples. 

"They wanted me for the role , but it had to go past the diversity committee," he said.

Apparently, after a premature phone call from a casting agency, a role Lakerveld auditioned for went to 'an Aisha' after all. According to Femke, it was not for artistic reasons. Tragic, of course, when you had been so looking forward to a role. Since we have only second-hand knowledge of the true facts, we cannot be sure whether Aisha was preferable to Femke only because of her origin, name, or background. Maybe she was just better. Could be.

Policymakers set policy

After a few sentences, we get the following statement: "Usually it is policymakers who decide under what conditions something is made or shown, but what do artists actually think?"

Two things are pointed out here that are the reason for many artists in my network to embrace the 'Free Left' narrative. But what does it actually say? Nothing, well, other than half a summary of national policy since we have a subsidy system. 

Policymakers set conditions, usually at the instigation of 'the field'. The latter seems to be ignored by the Free Left here. Indeed, the question '...But what do artists actually think?' completely ignores the practice in the Netherlands of artists sitting on the subsidy advisory committees that ultimately decide who gets what subsidy. And even then, it is about 15 per cent of the art made and sold in the Netherlands. The rest moves freely, at least, in the free market. 

Road to Islamophobia

But there seems to be some fluff there too, according to the Free Left, as they found a cancelled free-market art bobo for their meeting: 'The guest is Bart Drenth, who had to leave as director of TEFAF because of wrong tweets." 

To refresh our memory, it was not just a few tweets, according to the article on which the riot was based. It appeared in Artnet, shortly after the taking office of the man we had already come to know on Twitter as someone who is not of the interfaith consultation model:  Meet the Young Collectors Calling the Shots at the Guggenheim, a Highly Placed Art Worlder's Anti-Woke Tweets, and More Art World Gossip: The author of the article translated the (now taken offline) tweets. We quote her briefly: 

"Just as with the Iranian revolution in 1978, left-wing do-gooders stand hand in hand with jihadists. Not knowing that after the success of the revolution they will die first," he wrote on August 14th of last year (I translated these Tweets from Dutch, as Drenth is Amsterdam-based). 

On his page, @bardrenth (which he made private after I reached out to him for comment), he has litanies of tweets that take issue with the teachings of the Quran, conflate "woke" culture with fascism. (I would never have had any reason to assume someone employed by buttoned-up TEFAF is an avid Red Scare listener, but now I do.) 

Other choice tweets include: "Speculating about the transition of the population is only a problem when you are not a Muslim," "Woke is the new Westboro: Hyper-Calvinistic hagglers," "Really, your L+ rights are best protected if you are waving around Palestinian flags on the pride parade," "Where are you really from?" is of course racist. And 'We want apologies from a white person' of course is not," and, just this month, "Normalise criticism of the Quran and the Prophet," which translates to "Normalize criticism of the Quran and the Prophet." 

Back or front?

With such statements, Drenth did not endear himself to the fair, which has to rely mainly on rich buyers from countries where Drenth is aiming his arrows. Not good for the business of TEFAF, a fair that mainly revolves around millions of mostly old art. So is this a sign of the end of freedom of the arts? The chairman of the Free Left even supposes a conspiracy: 'What I experience is that at the back things are determined and adjusted, whereas free art should be about the front, what the artist wants.' 

A proposition that has quite a few implications, because apparently the Free Left wants every artist who applies for money to get it. Quite an untenable idea, because this year alone, the budget for grant 200% is being overspent. 

So then someone has to make choices. So the artists themselves do that, together with the experts who sit on subsidy advisory committees. This is subject to conditions that are partly determined by politics, because at the moment we still live in a democratic constitutional state. So it has been true since the introduction of the subsidy system, it is indeed 'Grant conditions that stem from political goals, assessments that fit a dominant morality or zeitgeist.'


We can therefore label this statement by Lakerveld as 'true', with the addition: fortunately, that's how democracy works. The next proposition is therefore certainly 'true' as well: "What should not be forgotten is that art is often created from a counter-movement by people who do not move with the prevailing trend. Unfree art is also not really art at all, but propaganda."

So for commercial art buyers, as for subsidisers, the key is to track that art down and get there early. Indeed, what is contrarian now is the cash cow of the future. It is precisely the courses (government subsidy) that are exhausting themselves in training new Van Goghs: contrarian types that no one likes anymore. Whether there is still enough contrariness is therefore most likely not down to them, but to the supply. Or to social media like Instagram. Perhaps artists themselves have become more conformist than is good in the eyes of people who attended the 1970s 'live'.

35-year-old cow

After this, however, Femke Lakerveld's story becomes problematic: 'Asking whether a performance is female-friendly enough is not a good question. What is against playing Waiting for Godot with only men?' Lakerveld is pulling out a 35-year-old cow here. Then a plan by director Matin van Veldhuizen to have Waiting for Godot played by four women stranded at a ban by the author's heirs.

So that was not a government, but the author himself who had it recorded that his work had to be performed to the letter until 70 years after his death. That is called copyright, and it is dickish, but that is not a current example of a woke zeitgeist. Quite the contrary, in fact.

White men

'Why, shouldn't a painting depict only old white men?' The Leiden riot, which she is probably referring to here, was described at length in the media. It turned out to be a tremendous storm in a very small glass of water. That storm has since subsided. No telling, but a university staff thingy

So they do not elaborate further - thankfully -. Later in the story, the refrain does return: "What happens now is that non-artists set the goal and say 'That's how it's done'.

Moroccan roots

This is followed by an example that is factually questionable to say the least. Lakerveld mentions a her well-known actress 'with Moroccan grandparents. She could have played any role 10 years ago, but is now addressed as a Moroccan actress.' That anyone with Moroccan roots would ever have known a time when she could get any role imaginable is pertinently untrue. Actress Maryam Hassouni, for instance, recently did just that a - controversial - book about it: She fought her entire career to avoid being cast as an archetypal Moroccan, and never escaped it. 

Either way, such an assertion without further substantiation cannot be substantiated, and is only suggestive.

That's where the code comes out

Coming to the main thesis of the whole story: "Diversity in the arts should not be about origin and background, but about perspective and ideas." This statement can only come from someone who is part of a group whose perspective and ideas have been and are fairly easily put forward. The diversity and inclusion code is precisely for giving people who are not part of that dominant narrative a chance to be heard and seen. 

With the position of the 'Free Left', that chance has diminished a bit again. 

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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