246 Rembrandt’s ear

State Secretary for Culture Medy van der Laan called upon Dutch museums to entice immigrant teenagers with electronic fun and games. Chief Art Mandarin Rudi Fuchs protested. Never mind electronics, he said. A good human explicator could convince anyone who would listen why Rembrandt was a great artist. He was given the chance to prove this, and failed. Schwartz challenges van der Laan to convince her own civil servants of the importance of art.

I was not the only one to grab my pen when the Netherlands state secretary for culture Medy van der Laan said of Dutch museum people that they are boring caretakers. (Schwartzlist 245.) Rudi Fuchs, the former director of half the museums for modern art in Holland, did so as well, in de Volkskrant. Reacting to her challenge to attract young immigrants to the museum through computerized fun and games, he called this nonsense, unwisely adding, “Give me a group of 20 immigrants and I can convince them of the exceptional beauty of the Jewish bride."

The daily NRC Handelsblad called him on this and set up a visit to the Rijksmuseum with 15 sophomores of the specified kind from an Amsterdam high school called the Nova College. For half an hour Fuchs treated them to his mandarin insights on the greatness of Rembrandt’s art. When the one girl who had visited museums with her mother and showed interest in the painting started to talk about the woman’s golden jewelry, Fuchs corrected her sternly: “You don’t see gold. You see paint. Only paint."

This Modernist cliché would have been as incomprehensible to Rembrandt as to the kids from the Nova College. Rembrandt was out to create convincing illusions of stories, people and objects that were important in themselves. It was the subject that counted, not the artist’s materials. Fuchs could not have done any worse if he had deliberately set out to misrepresent Rembrandt and spoil the girl’s enjoyment at the same time. I am not surprised that at the end of his half-hour, the big unanswered question was “Like Rembrandt, was that the man who cut off his ear?" Fuchs was gallant enough to admit that he had misjudged the situation.

In fact, the record that afternoon was better than average. For one teenager out of 15 to have visited a museum recently is better than the figure for any but a few schools in any country in the world. Hagar, the girl who asked about the gold, represents 6.6% of her class. Extrapolating to the Netherlands as a whole, that amounts to about one million Dutchmen who would have visited an art museum in the last year or two. Actually, it would surprise me if there are a million individual Dutchmen who have visited an art museum once in the past ten years.

I have a better idea for Medy van der Laan. Let her convince not 20 teenage immigrants but 20 civil servants from her own ministry that art is important for our lives. After all, the Culture for which she is accountable is part of the same body of government body that is also responsible for Education and Science. A ministerial art caucus dedicated to heightening the visibility of art in schools and bringing in scientific expertise for museum policy and presentation – even multimedia presentation, as far as I’m concerned – could have far greater effect than bullying museums into pursuing an impossible ideal. Not to mention what might be achieved by paying more and better attention to art in the media, which is in her own portfolio.

I have heard it said that an initiative of this kind was tried in the past and failed on account of sheer civil-servant bloodymindedness. A Medy van der Laan who sparked the synergy of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science for the benefit of art education, art science and art in the media would be a politician to remember.


© Gary Schwartz 2005. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad: Persoonlijk, 31 December 2005-12-31

For readers outside Holland not very interesting reading, I’m afraid. But I could not let the issue pass. The Netherlands deserves to be one of the great art-museum countries in the world. To see its chances, which are already shrinking year by year, further undermined by the state secretary for culture, is too dispiriting for me not to respond. Right now, the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk are both undergoing major renovations and are operating at diminished capacity. Only the Van Gogh Museum remains a major draw. But the country is full of smaller museums with wonderful collections and ambitious programs. They deserve to be supported in the first place on the terms they have been developing over the past decades, with the audiences they have been cultivating. Instead, the politician responsible for museum policy implied in that interview that Dutch museums should not expect funding ten years from no unless they compete successfully with Gameboy for the attention of kids and unless they accomplish what the rest of the country has so notably failed to do, integrate minorities into established society.

For the entire past year I have been struggling day by day to make progress on the book on Rembrandt that I am writing for publication in 2006. It has been tough going, and it’s not over yet. The Belgian publisher, Mercatorfonds, has succeeded in selling co-editions in four languages to an excellent array of publishers in Germany, France, the Netherlands, the US and UK, which is a great stimulus. But it also increases the burden to get the book right. Because time is so short, the translators and designer are working on the chapters that have been submitted as I write the final section. This too ups the pressure on me. Although I do not want to admit it, my powers of concentration do seem to have declined since I wrote my previous big book on Rembrandt, under equally heavy pressure, in my mid-forties, two decades back. I won’t talk about that now. No room for gloom, and I keep reminding myself that the sections that have been turned in so far have been received quite well. One of the sacrifices I have had to make is writing a proper biweekly blog, let alone reinstating the readers’ forum. Hope to get back to you in full force when Rembrandt’s off my back.

Enjoy New Years Eve, look 2006 straight in the face and make it work for you.

Responses to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl

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