At your service

Willem IV on a horse

“At your service!” This is how the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, polemical because of his fierce criticism of Islam and immigration, would conclude his speeches. The opinion polls predicted a landslide victory for him during the 2002 election campaign, during which the paradigm of Dutch tolerance and consensus building changed forever. Nine days before the general elections, he was assassinated in the parking lot of the national television studios.

The figure of Fortuyn remained controversial, long after the tragic event had come to pass. His supporters wanted to erect a monument to honor him, in his home town Rotterdam, to which the city council reluctantly agreed. Accustomed to administering abstract monuments, built according to failsafe modernist principles, and dedicated to such impersonal and consensual subjects as progress, freedom, or the victims of war, the civil servants saw themselves confronted with a proposal for a 'traditional' sculpture: the life-size, figurative bronze of a man whose body hadn't even finished decomposing.

The reverence with which his followers uphold his memory is only matched by the contempt of those that believe that Pim Fortuyn was the cause of the growing polarization of Dutch society. But a consensus was eventually reached, on the basis that nobody could deny that he was already a historical figure. They found a discrete spot, in a windy corner between the indifferent facades of high-rise office buildings and in front of the History Museum, close to a bronze of Wilhelm the Fourth on his horse.

This is how Fortuyn's bust, smiling and in apparent dialogue, came to be propped up on a symbolically cracked pedestal that threatens to crumble and fall apart, and on which is inscribed “Loquendi libertatem custodiamus”, Latin for “Let us safeguard the right to speak”. At first sight the sculpture may seem conventional and unsophisticated in its use of figuration. At the same time, the careful avoidance of forms which can be considered elitist, may make it the ideal tribute to a true populist.

Popular taste, with its classist implications, is an increasingly politicized and contentious issue. In 2005  the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina built a monument to none other than Bruce Lee, to represent universal justice. In a bitterly divided city, the image of Bruce Lee must have come closest to the ideal of inclusiveness, by grace of being the farthest removed from the cultural frames of reference of those who had tried to exterminate each other in the preceding decades.

It's an initiative that could have been read as an ironic provocation in defiance of nationalist sentiments after the Balkan wars. But soon other ex-Yugoslav cities started to erect statues of Tarzan, Bob Marley and Rocky Balboa, turning the initial success story of the Bruce Lee monument into a symptom of the ideological vacuum of a region, that, according to some, was trying to avoid facing up to its own bloody past.

Back in Rotterdam, in 2007, a politician of Turkish descent proposed to build a monument in honor of the “gastarbeiders”, the first generation of migrants who came to work in the port. The sculpture was to be placed in the Afrikaanderwijk, a neighborhood where the immigrants outnumber the original population, and in the seventies, the scene of the most violent race riots ever seen in the Netherlands.

The political party of the late Pim Fortuyn was quick to react, however, and condemned this appropriation of local history by 'imported Rotterdammers'. They, in turn, proposed a monument dedicated to the alienated citizen, who had been pushed out by the massive influx of foreigners. Little did they expect that their populist rhetoric was going to be taken seriously, when Jonas Staal, an artist who had made a name for himself with provocative and politically engaged works, went ahead and submitted a draft of what was to be called “Monument for the chased-off citizen of Rotterdam”.

A 3D animation was presented at the city hall, displaying a bronze sculpture of a man, a woman and a child, fleeing in terror from Rotterdam, represented by the silhouettes of its most emblematic buildings on the horizon. When confronted with what they had asked for, the politicians could barely conceal their surprise: “Well, this isn't what we expected. I don't know if this was done on purpose, but it isn't really out to provoke us. It's simply being objective. I think it is beautiful!”

The monument was never built, but a video recording of the politicians' reaction was shown a few weeks later in an exhibition, next to the 3D animation, turning the slightly embarrassing encounter between the artist and the so-called representatives of the people into the material of an artwork that exposes the procedures by which a public sculpture is realized (or not), while playfully questioning who is at the service of who.

A year later Jonas Staal published “Post-Propaganda”, a pamphlet on the relation between the art institution and politics, in which he consequently replaces the word “democracy” with “democratism”, conveniently lining it up with totalitarian ideologies such as “communism” and “fascism”. The notion of artistic autonomy is irrelevant, he argues in this text, since all art is at the service of the ideological structure that sustains it. And this is no less true of art that does not aspire to be political, within todays “enlightened democracies”, since the very least it stands for is such notoriously democratic values as participation, or freedom of expression.

The idea that all art is, in essence, a kind of state propaganda that serves and represents the schizophrenic manifestations of power is thought provoking. Especially when set against the background of an increasingly populist political discourse, in which the significance of democratic values is becoming increasingly elusive. The question is whether this realization will help us to transform the public sphere, and lead us to a better design for society, or whether it will push us headlong into an endless vortex of self-referential irony.

Thursday, 29 April, 2010

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