Opinion / 23 March 2020

Anyone surprised by the cultural budget cuts has not been paying much attention in recent years

No, we cannot deny the excitement we felt when we saw 2000 angry artists at the Beursschouwburg. But, damn, it’s an ambiguous feeling. You see, we are not angry with the Minister of Culture Jambon. We’ve long passed that point of indignation. Slashing 60% from the budgets for project subsidies did not exacerbate our pain. That particular camel’s back has been broken for quite a while now.

(c) Laura Herman

We could get away with this easily. Whoever feels resentful only now, did not understand the poem of Martin Niemöller. Du warst ja kein Flüchtling. You were not a woman with a headscarf, not an inhabitant of Molenbeek, not a Muslim, not an ill person, no jobseeker, no poverty-stricken person, no person who is dependent on De Lijn to get from a to b.

Who could forget when it was announced that Prime Minister Jambon would moonlight as Minister of Culture? One of our political representatives thought of it as “an important signal.” Another representative said, “I will tell you honestly that the qualification of the Prime Minister [as responsible for cultural affairs] made me give a little cry of joy, since it will bring surplus value for sure.”

Read that again. These totally frivolous and out-of-touch exclamations came after N-VA had been sitting around the table with Vlaams Belang for six weeks straight and had delivered a coalition agreement that amounted to a far-right wish list. One in which refugees are punished financially, one in which social housing is reserved for “our own people first” (editor’s note: the party slogan of Vlaams Belang), one in which poverty is seen as a lack of discipline.

As a result of this, the indignant artist starts looking like the silent film-cliché of the individual who is trying to sip from his drink at the bar while massive fist-fights are going on. The type of individual who would react incensed when a lost fist would knock over their glass.

Anyone surprised by Jambon’s cuts has not paid much attention in recent years. Bart De Wever already wrote this in 2011: art has to be the translation of how a community perceives reality. “Today, art barely succeeds in moving the community,” he added with a false display of heartache. In other words, the eventual claim over the cultural budget by N-VA was already written in the stars.

This is in conformity with the culture war that N-VA has been waging for years. It is a war against everything that is “foreign to the nation”, against everything that does not fit in with the mythical “gut feeling of the average Fleming.” A culture war is a war for the soul of the nation. “Meatballs in tomato sauce should be added to the Flemish canon,” “the migrants are to blame for the disappearance of the last pieces of open space in Flanders.”

Every tweet, every statement and every provocation is a different phase in that war. “Our cities, our culture and our land have to be retaken from radical feminists and environmental extremists who judge insects to be more important than their jobs.” This is how Pat Buchanan, the homophobe white supremacist and proto-alt-righter, typified this war back in 1992. By having Jambon as warlord on the Martelarenplein, this culture war has now broken out fiercely in our country.

What Jambon is doing today, is not an economisation. This government is taking its revenge on the cultural field. Jambon and friends are attempting to tease and disrupt the cultural field, and use it as a punch bag.

His actions are dripping with provocation. He is chopping project subsidies, but handing out more subsidies to Bokrijk. This is the umptieth budget cut of millions for cultural organisations, but at the same time he opens the door to hand out cultural subsidies to Fernand Huts, the Antwerp harbour magnate. Sometimes Huts buys a painting with the money he saves from parking his money in tax havens. These paintings are stored in a foundation, which in its own turn was hidden in Jersey, another tax haven. To be precise, the paintings were stored on the first floor of a little building on Mulcaster Street, n° 2. A mailbox, in other words, that serves best to evade taxes or conceal the origin of financial sources.

More provocation: this government keeps paying 34,5 million euros of subsidies, coming from the climate budget (!!!), to mega-polluters like ExxonMobil. This is tenfold the price for all project subsidies. ExxonMobil reacted as follows: “Flanders is rightly compensating us for higher climate costs.” Do you see this? They are laughing in our faces.

Last week, on a stage in Iowa, author Naomi Klein explained diligently how we should interpret all of this. Powerful men like Trump, Bolsonaro and Modi are following an international script. They select an in-group, which afterwards is put up against an out-group, within and beyond the own frontiers. The in-group receives a description, such as “true Americans”, or the “real Indians” or, in our corner of the world, “the hardworking Fleming”. They have to be protected by the powerful men (“strongmen” in the speech of Naomi Klein, “Strong Jan” in the tweets of N-VA) from the intruders or the Other.

When a member of N-VA speaks about “the community”, they actually mean what they describe. This is their in-group. This imaginary true Fleming is against migration, does not care about the climate and thinks of every artist as a subsidy-guzzler. This imagined in-group requires constant maintenance to exist. The strongmen do this by constantly provoking their opponents. The in-group on the one side, the out-group in the shooting range, every day, over and over again.

The Flemish coalition agreement follows the rules of the script meticulously. Refugees, newcomers and Muslims are screwed. Their rights are being denied, their money is brutally taken away. This is how they pacify the in-group, so as to use an anti-immigration façade in order to unabashedly slash spending in education, the care and health sector and public transport, and to make living conditions unpayable.

Now, it’s cultures turn to perform as out-group of the week. “Should we, Flemish people, be paying money for actors who swing with their penis on stage?” It is a fragment taken from one of the debating cards from N-VA’s army of trolls that is circulating in varying wordings on social media. The cultural sector is now the enemy.

This immediately becomes the binding cement between the aforementioned groups. However heterogeneous we might be, we are all declared enemies in one way or another. This has created the basis upon which solidarity can be built.

We will cite Naomi Klein once again. “In the rough and rocky future that has already begun, what kind of people are we going to be? Will we share what’s left and try to look after one another? Or are we instead going to attempt to hoard what’s left, look after “our own,” and lock everyone else out? In this time of rising seas and rising fascism, these are the stark choices before us. It’s going to take an all-out war on pollution and poverty and racism and colonialism and despair all at the same time.”

The world has exploded in two pieces. There is no middle road, no easy path that leads us towards self-preservation. The person who only cares about their own little piece of cake is on the wrong side. Of course, we must save the budget for cultural subsidies. But if this is the single goal of the fight, the cultural sector is simply repeating the logic of the strongmen: looking after “our own”.

At a time when the European Union remorselessly leaves 19,000 people to drown in the Mediterranean Sea, when evil companies burn rainforests to the ground, when a crowd screams hair-raising howls of joy while torching an asylum centre, this is a form of culpable inaction. You have just been declared the enemy of the people who distributed matches during the fire. Act accordingly and extend your hand to all those other “enemies” who have preceded you.

This text was originally published at Rekto:Verso, on 28 November 2019.