Identity, creativity, and subsidy cuts: the cultural conflict in Flanders

Translated from Italian (Livia Corbelli)

A yellow strip on the avatar of many Facebook users was been added some time ago in support of socially relevant causes. That bare yellow strip with just two hashtags is the alarm cry of the Flemish artistic community in an attempt to bring the ongoing cultural conflict in Belgium to global attention.

Indeed, Flanders, the Dutch-speaking side of Belgium, is one of the corners of Europe where culture (both traditional and non-traditional) receives increased public subsidies. But, since last November, something has changed. Cultural policies governed by the principles of subsidiarity and complementarity that had marked the region since the 1960s, leading to a considerable increase in the culture budget in the 2000s, seem to have now been wiped out by the new centre-right government in charge since October. Led by the independence party N-VA, the government decided it will cut funds from January 2020 with an unprecedented operation: -3% of subsidies to major art institutions, -6% to cultural institutions to cover operational costs, -60% to artists’ individual projects. This last decision, above all, was an earthquake to the independent art world.

Flanders vs. Flanders

Katleen Vermeir and Ronny Heiremans – artists that are part of Jubilee, an artist-led platform, and that are also engaged within SOTA, an autonomous collective striving to improve the ‘state of arts’ – are categorical: “The current government takes into account the rise of the extreme-right wing party of Vlaams Belang, which at the last election rose from oblivion, heavily influencing the current majority’s policies”. In the cuts to culture, we can, therefore, feel the pressure of the Flemish sovereign party, an ally of the League of Salvini, an extreme-right wing party which multiplied its votes in May’s general elections. Supported by the small-scale agricultural entrepreneurship of the province and the bitter enemies of “left-wing intellectuals” made the relative majority party, the N-VA, feel the breath on its neck, a more moderate independence formation, expressing the President of the Flemish Council, Jan Jambon, also Minister for Culture.

“This approach to the artistic and social sector, increasingly adopted since the financial crisis of 2009, not only shows the low importance that the government attaches to art, but it also marks a major break with the history of Flemish cultural policies in which the autonomy of art has long been a pillar and a key growth factor”, says Wouter Hillaert, journalist and activist in Hart Boven Hard. This leads to two macro-consequences. On one hand, there is the submission of politics to the economy, on the other hand, there is a precise ideological choice that is not summed up in simply giving more money to what is most successful. Ignoring its quality.

There is more: the desire to build a Flemish identity based on the artistic heritage of the past is an attempt to use culture to rewrite history. And to use culture as an instrument to attract mass tourism: a focus on Flemish art of the past is a useful brand. At this point, the question arises as to whether the marginalisation of a sector which is known to be weaker than others is the result of little knowledge or of the stereotypes surrounding it, or whether it is a conscious political objective. “The artistic landscape of Flanders is a true microcosm of interconnections and contacts, a complex ecosystem where the excellence of the scene is due to these relations”, explains Ronny Heiremans – artist based in Bruselles. “Excellence cannot be promoted without acknowledging the structure that supports the Flemish cultural system and the whole pyramid with the interactions between the various levels that characterize it: the risk is to destroy a fragile cultural fabric”. On the other hand, the centre-right government and the extreme right do nothing to clear the field of suspicion that the cuts are a retaliation” towards the cultural sector which has always been globalist and critical with the exasperated nationalism of portions of Flemish society.

Artistic populism

“They want to use art as a means to promote Flemish identity, to create inclusion and to move the economy. They say ‘inclusion’ but actually mean ‘assimilation’ ”, Hillaert continues. In fact, in a climate of great closeness to dialogue, the only passage remains precisely that of identity assimilation: it is possible to get subsidies for the production of culture as artists or as medium-small institutions of art that promotes Flemish identity, internationally.

These budget cuts are not, as can be imagined, the first. In the past years, cultural subsidies, which had almost doubled from 2000 to 2009, had suffered cuts due to the financial crisis, but now that -60% in funds for independent artists seems just “a decree against individual artists or independent institutions”, says Hillaert. With this measure, only 40% of the original budget remains available and, as you can guess, it is not enough to cover the needs of all projects resulted worthy of subsidies… Not only that: from January 2020 there will also be cuts in welfare, so the Flemish Journalism Fund and the Media Academy will be abolished; ethnic-cultural organizations will be able to survive a few more years, saved in extremis by an amendment from the opposition. Measures in progress, in short, would be seen as an attempt to forcibly change the socio-cultural dynamics of the region leveraging the current popularity of all those measures against the (rhetorically called) parasitic sectors of society.

The world of Flemish culture is on the barricades and despite the difficulties, the artists try to build a unique front: “the more we are, the stronger we are – thinking about our own personal benefit does not help, connecting people among them is the primary interest”, Hillaert explains.


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