Why arts and culture are a booming business

Het was een heel andere tijd, zo’n twaalf jaren terug, getuige dit opmerkelijke artikel waarin Geert Dales (VVD) pleit voor een forse verhoging van kunstbudget. Wat is er in de tussentijd gebeurd? Leuk om in deze kerstperiode van bezinning terug te kijken op onze verwachtingen van toen en de realiteit van nu. Zelf schreef ik destijds een artikel dat tot mijn eigen verbazing in 19 landen werd gepubliceerd en in 9 talen werd vertaald, waaronder Spaans, Sloveens en Mandarijn. Deels naïef, deels voorspellend, maar vooral prettig optimistisch.

Why arts and culture are a booming business

In thinking about cultural participation, the first question that comes to my mind is: How can you possibly not culturally participate? My own cultural participation has increased spectacularly since the discovery of a true piece of art in my refrigerator: a small bottle of meat sauce designed in 1972 by the renowned glass designer Floris Meydam. After a little more investigating, I learned that my Grolsch beer bottles, which were originally designed by Koen van Os in 1962, were an example of ‘improved design’ by Meydam. I started to see Art everywhere.

I was puzzled. I had been living in a museum without even realising! In wonder I looked over my collection: my Hans Citroen litho, my Gispen couch, the Lumina lamp, the Vitra chairs, my Hans Ubbink trousers. Even my innocent-looking Ikea coffee cup appeared to be designed by an artist named Susan Pryke who finished her studies at the London Royal College of Art in 1994. Now some might say that just realising the influence of Art on our daily lives is not the same as cultural participation. But is there a real difference between staring at a coffee cup at home and staring at the same cup in a museum? I think not. It’s merely a matter of context.

Next to my own little private micro-economy, I see some macro-development coming too. There seems to be slowly emerging the widespread belief that Art, Creativity and Culture can actually make us money, instead of only costing us. Even the Dutch conservative party, the VVD, says it is planning to double the national arts budget, which is no less than a small cultural revolution. Art has proven its money-making power over and over again by revitalising buildings, cities and regions. From a marketing perspective, a city’s image as a creative, cultural, arty and vibrant hub delivers hard cold cash.

The economic impact of Art can be enormous. As one artist observed: ‘Look what only one painting, Rembrandt’s ‘The Nightwatch’, has bought for Amsterdam’ (probably tens of thousands of jobs and billions of euros). As soon as the economic impact of art is more generally recognised, many will embrace art – doubtless for opportunistic reasons, but so what? Content is money. Artists can deliver that content as no one else. Little by little, private companies and public authorities seem to be realising that support for the arts is no longer charity: it’s investment.

Art is the product of creativity. Creativity has become equivalent to capital. No longer is creativity the exclusive domain of the artist. The scientist coming up with new theories is being ‘creative’. Being ‘creative’ has even become a profession in its own right (and one that pays amazingly well). Thanks to the ‘blurification’ of terms, the city of Utrecht was able to pronounce itself The Most Creative City of The Netherlands. For whatever that’s worth. The term ‘creative industry’ also seems to be becoming blurred. For some, this term refers only to the design sector, while others include architecture, crafts, the visual arts and antiques, photography, film and video, writing and publishing, television and radio, music, theatre, advertising, design and (leisure) software development. By this definition, even that ultimate example of Dutch suburbia, the city of Zoetermeer, becomes surprisingly creative.


The ‘blurification’ process in the arts, creativity and culture goes even further. A Turkish Oil Wrestling Championship presented as a theatre play by the Festival a/d Werf in 2000 led to some discussion about whether this was art, culture or sport. Four years later, a Dutch singer had his funeral ceremony in a football stadium, with over 50,000 spectators loudly sharing their grief, singing and applauding as though they were attending a massive multi-media event, watched live on TV by over five million people. Is this art? Is it culture? Well, it sure looked like theatre to me!

The thin line between what is generally defined as art and what is defined as culture is disappearing. ‘What’s new?’ you might ask. ‘Didn’t we already consider some commercials and MTV videos as an art form? Didn’t we name a car after Picasso? Had we not declared a tin of Campbell’s soup a ready-made masterpiece over forty years ago?’ Maybe we did. We know that, depending on the context in which slices of life are presented – as sports, rituals and daily routines – things might easily be converted into Art. But what actually is new is that it is no longer only the artist who is putting things in a new framework. Blurification is a process happing outside the artists’ influence. What’s more: no one seems to care. We just produce and we just consume. And above all: we enjoy.

These are times in which I can go and see the new Robert Wilson on Tuesday; record Desperate Housewives on my VCR at home; check out a fresh comic on Wednesday; publicly discuss the work of Steven Berkoff on Thursday; and buy old Harry Belafonte records at the weekend. Thank God for cultural freedom! No one will judge my taste. The basket of cultural fruits is overwhelmingly filled. And none is forbidden so far.
There is a new generation coming up which does not care about definitions – high or low culture, multidisciplinarity, interculturality – they just do, assembling their sources in their own instinctive Google way. This is the generation of do-ers; natural-born cultural entrepreneurs. Not the Ego, but the Product. Not the Policymaker, but the Public. Everywhere you go in Europe you’ll bump into kindred spirits.

Art is at the edge of the ultimate democratisation. You do not have to be a musician to perform live at a concert; you do not have to be a trained actor to become a TV star. You can be a celebrity just by imitating others. You can even be known just for being known…We can publish our poems on our web logs. Design our virtual lives. Start our own radio or TV network on the Internet right here, right now. Camcorder in hand, we can shoot our own documentaries tonight and broadcast them tomorrow.

Burials and Weddings

Community art seems to be very much in fashion again. Last June, over thirty-five theatremakers from all over the world attended a seminar on site-specific theatre and landscape art at Terschellings Oerol Festival. Working with local, often agricultural, communities appeared to be very significant to the artists involved. John Malpede was doing it in Eastern Kentucky; Sjoerd Wagenaar is doing it in the Dutch province of Drenthe; Wu Wenguang in Beijng, China; Jorge Vargas in the guerrilla areas of Colombia; and former Dogtroep member Jos Zandvliet is singing with hooligans in football stadiums. Naturally enough, most of these projects are based on local lifestyle, history, sentiment and day-to-day rituals like burials and weddings: the proven way to achieve maximum cultural participation – and what’s more, the best way to fulfil the craving for cultural identity in these confusing times.


In the meantime, the cultural elite is starting to worry. At a literary society debate in Amsterdam, some people questioned the artistic value of sing-a-long projects with Ajax hooligans: ‘Singing with hooligans? Fine! But who is going to oversee the quality?’ A fellow debater mentioned a murder in front of a summer terrace, which bystanders had cheerfully applauded, thinking it was a well-performed street act. True or not, the debater firmly stated that if this is what blurification is all about, he’d rather stick to the old convention. The society members applauded and laughed out loud with an observable sigh of relief. Unfortunately for the debater, cynicism is passé. Cultural participation is booming – whether you like it or not.