There are times when other people’s troubles offer an illuminating perspective on our own. Take the case of the Dutch government program for acquiring contemporary works of art and otherwise subsidizing huge numbers of living artists at public expense. Begun in the 1950s, this program had grown to elephantine proportions by the 1980s, when it is estimated that the state was buying some twenty thousand works a year. Even this figure, moreover, does not really convey the scope of this public art policy, for municipal governments in the Netherlands are said to have acquired even more work than the central government. Public agencies also reimbursed artists for the costs of their materials. One result was to turn the country into a paradise for artistic mediocrity. Another was to create a storage problem on a gigantic scale. Now that the program has been dismantled, the Ministry of Culture in the Hague faces the daunting problem of dispersing its enormous stock of art works, and it turns out that the public, for whose benefit this program was allegedly created, doesn’t want the stuff. The bulk of it cannot even be given away, for there aren’t enough takers. Meanwhile the artists —or “artists”—who benefited from all this government largesse have woken up to the dynamics of the market economy and are complaining that the Ministry of Culture is creating unfair competition for them by offering their work free to anyone who will take it off the state’s hands. Both the comedy and the tragedy of a policy that turned government funding of art into a welfare program are now plain for everyone to observe.

That this was, in its essentials, a welfare program masquerading as a public art program can no longer be doubted. In a recent report on this cultural fiasco in The New York Times, the official in charge of dispersing this immense horde of failed art— Heleen Buijs, who is said to be both an art historian and a lawyer—openly acknowledged that “people who did the buying included welfare officials. Their main criterion was often whether the artist needed the money, rather than judging the attributes of the work.” The whole ethos of the program precluded any possibility of applying standards of quality. The Times reported that “the intention was to exhibit the works to demystify art and make it less of an elitist experience.” Yet in the end there was too much work to exhibit, and, indeed, too much even for the government’s capacious storage facilities. “Stuff was arriving by the containerful,” according to Heleen Buijs, thus “tying up costly storage space, air conditioners, computers, and staff.”

So successful, moreover, was the government’s demystification program that, as the Times reported, “giving away [the] art is not proving to be easy.” Public venues for these works are already overstocked. “Many art libraries, museums, and other public buildings are already filled to overflowing … and town halls across the country have also begun emptying their cupboards by donating or returning the objects.” What Heleen Buijs was too discreet to say, of course, is that this ill-judged, spendthrift art policy has also—and devastatingly—had the effect of reducing the life of art in Holland to a condition of aesthetic ruin and public ridicule. Which is no doubt why, in the best Dutch museums that specialize in contemporary art, much of the work on public exhibition tends to be drawn from other countries. This “monument to socialist central planning at its most absurd,” as some have called it, has effectively stripped the contemporary Dutch art world of its place on the international art scene.

Both the scale of the Dutch program and its governing ethos, which categorically repudiated standards of quality as undemocratic and elitist, have important lessons to teach us, too, about the way government policy on art should and should not be run. To separate public art programs from judgments of quality reduces the very idea of artistic achievement to absurdity. Yet without some standard of quality, which no government bureaucracy is capable of applying when it comes to the contentious arena of contemporary art, art itself becomes a meaningless activity. By comparison with the Dutch fiasco, our own public programs for contemporary art remain modest in scale but no more successful in their results. It is all yet another reminder that it may be the better part of wisdom in a democratic society for the government to stay out of the field of new art altogether. In Holland, meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture continues to deny that it has any plans to burn what the Times report characterizes as “piles of unwanted art.” In that dilemma the demystification program for art has come to its inevitable denouement.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 2, on page 1
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