An account of the role of public art in the Netherlands begs questions of our own attitudes to culture and the state, says Katherine Clarke.
Commissioned: Sixty Years Percentage for Art Programme at the Dutch Government Building Agency
SUN Publishers, 528pp £40
The archive comprising all 2400 works created in 60 years of the Dutch government’s Percentage for Art programme makes a beautiful and captivating book that operates on many levels. It opens with a photographic chronology, a simple device but one that enables the reader to trace the ongoing role of art in the production of Dutch cultural and intellectual life.
The chronogology begins in 1950, with art as the symbolic representation of the benevolent and coherent state and of the citizen as a collective player in the shared project of shaping the future. By page 35 (1967), depictions of roosters and heraldic lions have virtually disappeared and the shift to abstraction is almost total as art begins to pull away from ‘decorating’ the built form or recognising architecture as the guiding principle, and starts to define an autonomous space and language. On page 51 divergent routes emerge as the autonomous and monumental art object is challenged by a form of practice that delineates and creates space, rather than simply sitting in it. This implicitly political language becomes more explicit through the last decade with works that draw on conceptual practice to set up tensions as a way of creating meaning in relation to their environment.
This shift in practice (and commissioning policy), from a belief that art can represent a unifying social principle to the role of art in the expression of oppositions, makes a fascinating layered history, in which new ideas emerge even while familiar approaches endure.
The photographic inventory is followed by several essays charting the contested politics and history of art practice relating to the adoption, refinement and adaption of the Percentage for Art programme. The first contains extracts from ministerial memoranda, quotes from ministers and summaries of the parallel debates and petitions by artists and architects, and gives a compelling insight into the relationship between the artist and the state.
The programme arose as a result of both cultural and social factors originating in the 1930s, when a meeting of 25 associations of architects and artists began to petition the government for a better climate for the arts; from this emerged the proposal that between one and two per cent of the cost of state-owned buildings should be spent on art. The aim was always two-fold: to edify government buildings with the adornment of art, and to support artists as valued producers of culture.
This overt state subsidy for artists is particularly surprising from a UK perspective. For 60 years, the Dutch government has expressed a belief in the value of the horizontal distribution of culture, of the role of the state in conveying non-materialistic values, and of the capacity of the artist to ‘contribute to the meaningful production of social behaviour’.
In the UK, despite an ongoing debate, Percent for Art has never become obligatory; perhaps our conservative, asocial tendencies are better served by other mechanisms for commissioning art – indeed it is almost impossible to imagine what would happen if radical postwar Dutch policies, such as the Visual Artists’ Financial Assistance Scheme which enabled artists to sell their work to the state at a minimal price, were applied here.
Art is effectively state-funded in the UK, though, most notably through the National Lottery, which from its inception has harnessed arts funding to the delivery of a social agenda. But this has remained for the most part unchallenged, and what is lost in the absence of debate on the relation between the state and art practice is any useful paradigm for the arts. As Brian Eno has pointed out: ‘The making of new culture, given our performance in the fine and popular arts, is just about our only growth industry, aside from heritage cream teas and land mines, but the lack of a clear connection between all that creative activity and the intellectual life of the society, leaves the whole project poorly understood, poorly supported and poorly exploited.’ There is a lot to learn from this book.
Katherine Clarke is a co-founder of art and architecture practice Muf.
First published in AT227, April 2012