Melle Daamen is better on the field than in the newspaper

I have sympathy for Melle Daamen. And for a long time: from when he came to visit me as a young VPRO director on his rounds past people from the cultural world. He came to ask for advice: how could he enter the sector? Because a job in culture was his ambition. So many years later he passed me the procedure for the position of director of the newly created Mondrian Foundation. My sympathy certainly did not diminish. I could totally agree with the selection committee. I would like the job, I knew the sector well, brought experience and sufficient diplomatic ability. But Melle was fresh, instead of diplomatically cross and original, and he would probably shake the bed he hadn’t slept in right away.

The choice of the Mondrian Foundation was risky, but appropriate. It has been shown. And even afterwards, in her role as director of the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam, Melle Daamen was in the right place. Here, too, there is rebellion and many new initiatives, such as the Expanding Theater (‘the theater as a cultural haunt’).

How naked is the emperor?

Why did I show so much less sympathy for his writings in newspapers? Did I have to look for it in myself? Melle likes to be the boy who shouts as loud as possible that the emperor is naked. If you pay tribute to the monarch yourself, it feels annoying. Concrete example: I will also defend the legitimacy of art policy with functions within the economy, welfare, education, etc. And Daamen likes to deal with this, in his opinion, unproven doctrine.

But stubbornness can also become a gimmick, especially if it manifests itself in arguments that are short-sighted, carelessly thought out and/or inconsistent.

In his booklet Grazen over the artificial grass – with the subtitle: ‘the failure of the Dutch art policy’ – Melle Daamen collected the above writings, interviews held with him, correspondence and columns. He added some topical text. There are clear threads in this collection. I’ll take a few out here.

  • He is against the pyramid model, which presupposes a broad bottom layer in order to get a high top in the arts. He will only go after the best of the best, based on high profile and rigorous selections. (“…because the government’s artificial maintenance of all cultural institutions is not sustainable in the long run.”).
  • But he also wants to look in the eyes ‘general practitioner’ and ‘high culture’ much more room for youth culture, night culture, non-canonical culture, ‘non-white’ culture.
  • The lady is against the spread idea and excessive attention for the region.
  • In return, he would like to move more subsidies from the supply side to the demand side.
  • He goes to war against the permanent call for innovation. Why keep opening ‘vans of young artists’, why not put more emphasis on slowing down, craft, elaboration?

Sometimes I can follow him. Politics is never without fashion trends, and I think it is absolutely right to condemn that fashion. The over-concentration of young talent ignores, for example, the importance and needs of older artists, in their forties, middle-aged or towards the end of their careers.

Sometimes, however, what Melle puts in front of us is carelessly thought out or carelessly written down. A small example. As an illustration of the fact that the performing arts could already be politically engaged in the distant past, he mentions the Belgian independence revolt in 1830. It broke out during the performance of the opera La Muette de Portici in Brussels. However, the opera was programmed to celebrate King Willem I’s birthday. The theater management had not intended for riots to break out.

Another example: artist Melle finds it striking that entrepreneurs today (Joop van den Ende, André Rieu, Wim Pijbes) are the patriotic cultural heroes where artists used to be (Lily Bouwmeester, Breitner, Leonard Cohen). Today, kiwis and pomegranates are the popular fruit, where before we loved the vegetables cauliflower and endive.

There are ways out and cross paths

Melle opens sharply (“the art sector is hit by a serious crisis”. “There is a dramatic drop in the public”), only to announce a little later: “the picture is diffuse” and “art has never been in such a spotlight”. The whole is true, and then it turns out that you can’t make too many positive statements about art as a whole. What applies to one part does not apply to the other. And the dividing line is not simply subsidized/unsubsidized.

There is also something conservative in declaring the crisis, because who says there are no ways out? In fact, the solutions are found – as they also saw during the corona crisis – but Melle ignores them. In Trouw, Peter van der Lint described the various innovative approaches in concert halls, including the Concertgebouw and Tivoli Vredenburg, to involve young audiences in classical music. Start the concert later, explain a lot, informal atmosphere, drink afterwards. It works! And that is exactly what Melle Daamen is asking for.

Disapprovingly, Melle sees a new ‘court culture’ emerging.

Now it is easy to focus on the intrinsic, autonomous value of art and put an end to legitimation based on external values ​​or the assumption of external ordering. However, someone who defends the funding of the arts policy is always in a dilemma. The money must be made available by the government and sanctioned by the politicians. And the majority of politicians are not heavily involved in the arts; subsidies should be drawn from the gates of frugal treasurers or roaring populists.

Intrinsic value at the taxpayer’s expense usually doesn’t get you as far as you want. And although all the external functions of art may not be one hundred percent proven, they are not necessarily untrue. Sure, there are slick fashion trends in politics, and ‘social engagement’ or ‘social value’ is part of it, but that value is proven in practice. Think of Adelheid Roosen’s safari, which fits well into the extended theatre’s Daamenstraatje (theatre comes to society).

The writer himself believes that the public should be a more important justification for grants. Fine, we’re talking about social value and as he puts it “l’art pour l’homme”. But to be honest, I’ve lost track here, and it could just be me. He juggles Renaissance and court culture (commissioning, management from above) versus enlightenment and romanticism (‘l’art pour l’art’). He doesn’t want court culture or all that cultural entrepreneurship, but he also doesn’t think it’s right to see art solely from its intrinsic value. And he probably doesn’t want pure public art either.

Ultimately, you come across the whole spectrum in the versatile range of art, from autonomous art alone from himself and in front of must be itself up to and including highly applied, demand-oriented art. It would help to keep seeing the many separate facets of the diamond and their connection. And then base your reasoning on that.

Regarding another policy trend (again with the risk of political correctness and of political documents attributed to subsidies), namely diversity and inclusion, Melle Daamen rightly writes that it does not work to want to involve non-white young people in ‘culture’. They must be given the opportunity to establish their own culture. Someone like Alida Dors is a pioneer in this. It is interesting that in this context Melle introduces the concept of ‘pillar formation’ in a new guise and is positive about it. Emancipation came about within the pillars of the last century, only then did integration follow. Would it be the same here and will we continue to maintain a gap for a long time to come? This is something to chew on.

The Pope and Governance

Melle Daamen is an experienced driver. He has also been serious about it in the past management involved in the cultural sector. He has good ideas about this and solid observations, such as his position against artificial popes. But here, too, it is not very up-to-date (professionalization has now really taken place) and – of course – not very nuanced. His polemic with the ‘Art Pope’ Frans de Ruiter is amusing to read (the stunned, strongly worded De Ruiter versus a light-footed, informal and forgiving Daamen), but it is old-fashioned.

The email exchange with Maarten Doorman about the intrinsic meaning of art makes more sense in that regard. And he is of course right that directors should not sit too long in their posts, but immediately do something legal again in relation to bans and injunctions? I do not know. I saw instructors whose shelf life had clearly expired. And sometimes I saw people stay in the same post for years, but renew themselves and their organization again and again. Sometimes well-functioning directors left within five years, especially for not sticking to their chair, and then it went too quickly, you missed continuity in the organization. This requires careful management and supervision, tailored solutions, assessment skills and performance reviews.

A young version of Melle Daamen, who likes to expose the emperor without clothes, could just be joking with the current focus on job carousel and forward contracts. He himself says: “I look back with mixed feelings on the cultural system of governance to which I myself have made such a contribution. It has (…) become too much of a system (…) and is part of the technocratization of cultural policy.”

The artificial grass is there. There are enough top positions to be taken in this field, where Melle Daamen would be the best player and game distributor. He can hit there, and then it doesn’t matter if a ball now and then goes high over or wide. In the newspaper it is different. Here he risks not being naked, but in his shirt. Maybe he doesn’t mind at all. Because he dares. Otherwise, it is not so easy to write, for example, that the Netherlands can do without national opera and ballet. (“Would the ballet tradition (…) not be better rooted in, for example, Paris or Saint Petersburg?”) I don’t agree, but it shows free thinking and courage. Still, I like him better on the pitch than in the paper.

Good to know

Erik Akkermans is a consultant, director and publicist. He held various positions on the board and management of the cultural sector.

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