The Dutch Culture Council, or: The Great Levelling?

Nederlandse versie

More money for dance music and Dutch schlagers, says the Dutch Council for Culture. This was the headline with which the Volkskrant newspaper reported on the Council’s recent recommendations for government subsidies in the music sector. “[…] the times seem to be past when subsidy money mainly flowed to classical music and opera, modern music and jazz”.

This may sound promising to some, and threatening to others. But even spokespeople of the traditionally subsidized institutions seem confident that the redistribution, with a promised extra 25-80 million euros during the current governmental period, will not be at the expense of their own segments. More sceptical,  another newspaper predicts “an explosive result that will threaten orchestras in their existence”.

The Council’s credo is radical egalitarianism. It is the task of the government to ensure “that culture will benefit everyone in the Netherlands, regardless of origin, age, education, income or religion”. Subsidized and unsubsidized music must be “a reflection of society”.

The first statement sounds reasonable, even obvious. The second does not automatically follow.  Because even a low-educated immigrant can visit the National Opera, if the ticket is not too expensive (that is, heavily subsidized). But what the Council means is that the subsidized offerings must reflect the musical preference of all social groups.

And that cannot be taken for granted. Many will say that his or her music is better, and therefore more worthy of government aid, than, for instance, some schlager. Some say that pop music, dance and so on are commercial by nature, and therefore have to survive on their own.

The Council argues for its egalitarian vision with a metaphor: the musical landscape is an ecosystem, in which the genres feed and fertilize each other. But the authors do not seem to realize that in an ecosystem you find forest giants and grass — and if we want to maintain the ecosystem, then by looking after the forest giants rather than after the grass.

We must not take the metaphor too seriously. But it is true that some genres and traditions are the product of an age-long development and dozens of generations, part of the deep tissue of culture, and that others have only just sprung up. Whether you should tar them all with the same cultural-political brush is open to debate.

In this respect the recommendations are poorly substantiated. Six genres are mentioned and considered equivalent: classical and contemporary composed music, jazz and improvised music, pop music, world music, “urban music”, and “dance and electronic music”. Choral music and amateur music practice are also discussed.

Among these, the category of pop is comprehensive (including symphonic metal, reggae, blues, and schlagers). Dance on the other hand is a very restricted category, that as a consequence seems overvalued in the report. Besides, I wonder, how much subsidy is needed to have a DJ perform for an audience of hundreds or thousands?

The authors rave about about the many manifestations of cross-over and fusion. Both the concert as an institute and the genres are losing their contours. With approval they cite the American essayist William Deresiewicz, who sees the artist as “a creative entrepreneur for whom his network is the greatest good. Until now, he argues, the artist was a specialist, but today we encounter a new paradigm: the replacement of depth with breadth”.

Is breadth the new depth? Is there no more in a work by Josquin, by Elliott Carter, in a classical raga, or a djembe ensemble than can be comprehended by a twenty year old, switching from one to another on iTunes?

Nevertheless, there are positive points: a strong plea for music education, an expansion of the so-called basic infrastructure, and a national budget for the tasks of documentation, archiving and research, which have been badly compromised by the ill-advised dissolution of a number of organizations in 2013. It may just need more than those extra millions promised by the new government coalition.