The Night Watch At Night? Or How to Fool School Teachers

By Quirijn van den Hoogen

I have tried to be positive about the new coalition agreement which was published this week. By God I’ve tried. The new coalition of two Christian-Democratic parties, the Liberals and the Social Liberals has been characterized as ‘the political middle’. These parties all operate from the centre of the political spectrum, though admittedly, three of them tend to veer towards the right. They claim to come to the rescue of the ‘middle classes’ (families with a middle income) who will profit from tax measures and the economic upturn. And who are more middle class than our school teachers? Their demands for higher salaries will be met, although not to the extent they want and they have demanded autonomy, so less guidelines for what and how to teach and less administrative duties.

There are some positives for the cultural sector as well. Although the severe budget cuts of five years ago will not be remedied, the budget does show an increase from 25 million euro’s in 2018 to 80 million in 2021. The first sentence of the paragraph on cultural policy does mention the intrinsic value of the arts, but its relevance to our identity and economy is immediately mentioned as well. But hey, let’s stay positive, because they could have left out intrinsic values altogether. Moreover, the agreement mentions expansion of the Base Infrastructure, the core of the cultural sector which consists of production and distribution facilities of national importance, spread over the country. The reduction of the BIS in 2013 lead to feelings of inadequacy, many important institutions such as the National Theatre Festival and Noorderslag, the most important pop music event after the Eurovision song contents, were only saved at the last moment. There seems to be a budget now to make things right. Moreover, it’s a moral victory for the cultural sector that politics formally acknowledges the system they devised was inadequate (no-one in their right cultural minds supported the downsizing of the BIS, many advisors to the government left their office infuriated). So, why do I feel bitterness, resentment even?

One of the plans we had already heard of was the idea to have school children sing the national anthem while standing (see my blog on the election campaign of March the 3rd). This was a major point in the election program of the Christian-Democrats (CDA), which made the coalition agreement. This was leaked to the press two weeks ago (On purpose, because all leaks are part of the negotiation process when forming a new coalition. Some ideas are simply released to the press in order to know whether the idea will fly and whether the country will not roll over laughing). All this is coming from a nation that has never bothered itself with explicit nationalism. In the 19th century, we neglected to erect lavish national cultural institutes when all other countries were doing so. Really, the nation state as focal point for the identity of citizens is a relatively young phenomenon, it does not have the age-old credentials ascribed to it nowadays e.g. by the critics of European integration or opponents of immigration. So it appears as a rather odd thing to be focusing on the national anthem.

However, it has become abundantly clear that the new government will take matters a step further: all Dutch school children have to visit the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Indeed, a museum with nationalistic references, presents its most important painting as an altar in a church-like setting, which was only recently restored when the museum re-opened in 2013. During the seventies we had done away with the shrine-like setting of the piece. Taco Dibbits, the director of the museum, immediately told the press that the children were welcome. He could have responded differently. He could have mentioned the relevant and interesting collections of local (art) historical museums. Why do all children need to travel to Amsterdam? Why not visit the nearby museums of Leeuwarden, Enschede or Maastricht showing relevant art historical collections relating to their immediate surroundings? Why not save the costs of transporting all these children from everywhere in the country to Amsterdam? The museum director could also have wondered about the possibility of hosting all these children. The museum is already overcrowded, overrun by tourists, just as the rest of Amsterdam. So will they keep the museum open at night? And last, but certainly not least, why in the world do these children have to go see the Night Watch? Why this one painting by Rembrandt, which he himself, by the way, considered to be a failure? He wanted to convey movement in the painting, but felt that it had turned out way too static. He did not produce a single painting in the ten years after he completed the Night Watch.

Still, all this does not fully explain my resentment towards the plans of the coalition. My problem is with the instrumental outlook on cultural policies that the coalition agreement displays – overtly, I may add. The extra money for culture in the budgetary section of the coalition agreement is labelled: cultural and historic democratic awareness. Never has this country witnessed instrumental policy goals of such a nationalistic persuasion! Are we really that insecure about our national identity?  Do we have so little pride in the fact that we are the only nation on earth whose national anthem is not about rolling waves of grain, strong oak tries, or roaring lions? We do not sing glory to our homeland, but our anthem is about a person. The song introduces a nobleman, who is not even Dutch – he is German (see the second line of the anthem. Protecting his worldly possessions in the Low Countries was just as much a motivation to fight as was his desire to gain freedom of thought against a Catholic ruler. Are the new cultural measures not simply denying our history of a republic of seven independent provinces, of a country of merchants and ministers, not of kings, noblemen and national art?

But okay, let’s try to remain optimistic. The coalition agreement does mention that the national anthem will be taught within its historical context (luckily kids do not have to stand while singing it). So, maybe things are not as bad as they seem. Maybe this government’s cultural policy will simply amount to improving history education in primary schools. Who can be against that? Although the question remains whether a focus on the national context in our current globalizing world is the way forward…  And yes, the extra money for the school teachers does appear to have some strings attached, because they are being told exactly what to teach and they will undoubtedly be asked to perform more administrative duties, because wouldn’t we want to know at some point what all these children learn from visiting the Night Watch and singing the national anthem?

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