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Amsterdam, 9 June 2011

Moving intervention during the Prix de Rome Awards

Yesterday, Pilvi Takala and Vincent Vulsma received the first and second prize of the Prix de Rome during a ceremony held at the SMART Project Space in Amsterdam. Parliamentary Undersecretary for Culture Halbe Zijlstra awarded the prize. For many of us it was a slap in the face that he was the person who gave the award. A man who obviously has no feeling for the arts, and who represents a policy built on a gross under-estimation of the importance of culture; he really should not be allowed to get on a podium for  a ceremony like this. But how do you deal with this in a constructive way, without directly disrupting the ceremony? On the initiative of Gwenneth, herself one of the long-listed artists for the Prix, we organized an intervention by artists.

Already outside the exhibition venue were the first signs of a visible and tangible intervention. From a studio window hung a large banner, in a blue field the famous line from a poem by the Dutch poet Lucebert "Everything of value is defenseless". (It was suggested by Yasser Ballemans, member of action group "Hiding in the National Gallery"). In the flag holder above the entrance a white flag with a wavy gold bar was blowing in the wind. It was the Flag of Compassion.  Several artists were walking around carrying this flag on long poles. "Is it an intervention?" was being asked at the entrance of the exhibition venue; "It is about time." Although the action was unannounced, the board of SMART and the Prix de Rome appreciated it all with a broad smile.

During the ceremony several flags were visible above the audience. In the forefront with the nominated artists the flag was prominently displayed, even draped over the table. When halfway through the ceremony Zijlstra was ushered inside  (just exiting from a meeting with the Council of Culture), I saw him smiling with a furtive look that said, "oh no, what is this!" All the speakers directly addressed the political climate, and underlined the importance of the arts in society, but it was not enough to penetrate Zijlstra's smug mask of disinterest. The remark most directly pointed at Zijlstra was made by De Pont director Hendrik Driessen, who said: "I hope Mr. Secretary will take the time to actually look at the exhibition."

At last the winner was announced. The night before it was agreed, in consultation with the short-listed artists, that the winner (Pilvi Takala) immediately would call upon the Parliamentary Undersecretary to stay on the podium -- this shows an admirable presence of mind if you just have been told that you have won the first prize. A large group of artists came from everywhere in the room onto the stage, in a solemn and moving gesture of support. Gwenneth took the floor on behalf of the artists and explained briefly that we were offering him the Flag of Compassion in light of the disproportionate cuts in the budget for culture. "The flag calls for thinking about compassion. This is an appeal to the ministry to not lose sight of an important task: to protect and respect the unique position of art." When the flag was actually given to him, it gave rise to the longest applause of the whole afternoon.

Zijlstra responded to the gesture with the rhetoric that politicians learn to counter such actions. Amazingly, his empty words also were rewarded with a small -uninvolved- applause. It shows how polite and crushed the Dutch are. It must be said, during the remainder of the ceremony Zijlstra was treated with a surprising amount of deference. This is the man who one day later suggested to close all three post-graduate institutes in the Netherlands! Despite the criticism directed at the current government a certain caution from the art world is being felt and this makes it very easy for the Secretary to stay calm. The leaders of cultural institutions do not want to endanger their own venues. The only people not bothered by such interests are the artists themselves, and that is why it was so important that we at such a moment voiced our concerns -- without losing our dignity.

Given Gwenneth's previous activities some people may have had a premonition that something was going to happen. In the week before the ceremony we were searching for a fitting symbol for the action. By chance we came across the Flag of Compassion. This is a conceptual artwork by Rini Hurkmans aiming to inspire different groups of people to use the flag for their own purposes. In the past the flag was presented to the Queen of the Netherlands and the Dalai Lama; it was shown on the Leidseplein in the protest meeting “Cry for culture” and it was part of the procession during the Sonsbeek sculpture exhibition. We added a copy of Anna Tilroe’ statement taken from the website of the flag to the one we presented to Zijlstra because we liked the way it so strongly formulates the idea of the flag:

The Flag of Compassion is the most touching flag I know. It is the symbol of our striving for human greatness which, when enslaved, exploited or ignored, causes feelings of emptiness, alienation and isolation. Without this striving we lose hope, together with the perspective of a better future. Compassion is the main principle of both. It is the ability to be attentive and respectful to the other and otherness, to known and unknown forms of life; and to act accordingly. One who knows compassion is able to see him- or herself as part of a whole, as an individual who, like all creatures around him, struggles painfully to develop himself optimally. Compassion is the –painfully achieved– quality to transcend oneself.

Granted, it really is an effort to confront Halbe Zijlstra in a civilized way. In that sense the expression "above ourselves" is appropriate. There are skeptics among us who wanted to throw cream pies and we would have liked to have done something physical to this man, but it's so little thought through. Think carefully: what do you achieve? You might get into the news and thus prove that artists have as little imagination as hooligans. Who asks for respect, should also convey it.

Moreover, it is not about Zijlstra personally. He is just an extension of a moral-political movement that now has wide support. It is about profound ignorance of what art is, what it can be. As Bas Heijne wrote last Saturday: "We know the price of everything, the value of nothing." That is the tide that we must turn around. It is about the way politics wants to make art subordinate to terms such as 'entrepreneurship'  'social relevance' and 'utility' - while art just provides something that we do not know we need. We only know it when we experience it.

It is better to touch emotionally; that is what good art does. Even though with this action we are rather late, given the fact we are now on the eve of the populist movement to make everything barren, we are happy it took place.

Nickel van Duijvenboden


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