Visual Arts Feature: The Dutch Identity Crisis
By Gary Schwartz
Is there or is there not such a thing as “the Dutchman?” My fellow immigrant Princess Maxima thinks there is not, but since she dared express that opinion in public last September, she has been subjected to an ongoing barrage of reprimands. Indeed, since the brief era of Pim Fortuyn, public discourse has been dominated by the love-it-or-leave it school of Dutchness. Anyone who does not know what the “it” is that should be loved, is a candidate for reschooling if not expulsion from the country.
Princess Maxima doesn’t think there is such a thing as “the Dutchman”
Until now, the discussion has been conducted unhelpfully in terms of supposedly fundamental Dutch characteristics. The senselessness of this approach was made clear by the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science Ronald Plasterk in a recent debate on the subject. At a given moment, Plasterk demanded pointedly of his opponent, who defended the existence of essential Dutchness: “And who is to define the essence? – you, I suppose!”
In order to move beyond sheer opinionizing, I have examined some figures comparing Dutch attitudes with those of other Europeans. My source is a volume published in May 2007 by the Social and Cultural Planning Bureau of the Dutch government: Marktplaats Europa: vijftig jaar publieke opinie en marktintegratie in de Europese Unie (Europe as marketplace: fifty years of public opinion and market integration in the European Union). Seventeen of the tables and graphs in the report contain comparisons between the attitudes of the Dutch and other Europeans. There are 130 distinct measurements of this kind, some of them repeated at certain intervals, others one-time plumbings of opinion.
The Dutch emerge from the statistics as people with strong opinions. In 42 of the comparisons, the Dutch score either highest or lowest, making them the Europeans with the most outspoken convictions. Some of these record opinions are expected: the Dutch show the highest support for same-sex marriage and the legalization of cannabis. One of them greatly flatters the Dutch image: far fewer Dutchmen (and Finns) than other Europeans think that economic factors should outweigh environmental considerations in the development of their country.
Most Dutch extreme attitudes, however, concern Europe itself. In 1962, and between 1975 and 1998, the highest percentage of any national population in favor of the European Union was found in the Netherlands, overtaken on occasion by Luxemburg. This may sound as if it translates into a familiar-sounding essence such as cooperative, open, internationally oriented. But does it? Why then, in 1975 and 1985 should the Netherlands have had the largest percentage of people born before 1941 who were against the Union? (This figure is particularly fascinating, as it subverts the common opinion that European idealism is a reaction against the divisions that caused the Second World War.)
There are more contradictions to account for. During the very years when the Dutch were most supportive of the Union, they were also the least proud to be Europeans. (After the Germans, they were also the least proud to be nationals of their own country.) And if international solidarity and cooperation are features of Dutchness, why in 2005 were the Dutch not afraid to make themselves impopular in Europe by uncooperatively voting against ratification of the constitution of the European Union? These were the people who in 1993 led the Union in support for a strong European government. If there are essences at work in these attitudes, they are not very stable. Is instability one of the deep Dutch characteristics of which Rita Verdonk, the patriotic founder of Proud of the Netherlands, thinks we should be proud?
The most intriguing outcome of the soundings is one that affects all the rest. After the Luxemburgers, the Dutch give themselves higher points than any other population in Europe for their understanding of European affairs. They scored 12 percent above the European average. However, when it comes to actual knowledge of Europe, in the form of answering four simple questions, they stand in a shared 10th place, with five points. (Luxemburg is fourth, with 17 percent above average.) In other words, the Dutch overrate themselves preposterously. (The Belgians rated themselves below par, at -5, but scored better than the Dutch – +5 – in answering the questions.) This would easily account for the first figure cited, that the Dutch hold the strongest opinions in the Union. They do so because they are the most willing to express exaggerated notions, with the least knowledge to back them up.
Maxima was more right than she knew. Not only is one Dutchman different from another, they are also different from themselves depending on when you speak to them. The lesson is: don’t take Dutch identity too seriously, especially when it is being expounded by a Dutchman. Fortunately, neither do the Dutch. Rhetoric, principles and the inevitable strain of immigration aside, the Dutch do handle the us-and-them business more humanely than most.
© Gary Schwartz 2008, With thanks to Paul Schnabel.
My first new year’s resolution is to write more Schwartzlist columns. For the past while I have been delinquent. The first column of the new year is about a social-political subject that I am always worrying about. I’ll get back to art in a while. Whether or not I deliver, have a very good year, dear readers.
Schwartzlist 285 was picked up for publication by a leading German daily: “Der Würgegriff des RRP muss gelockert werden,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 17 November 2007, p. 46. Responses to the piece came mainly from German art collectors hopeful that I, if not Ernst van de Wetering, will confirm the attribution to Rembrandt of paintings they own.
Speaking of whom, a prominent Dutch art historian has finally criticized the Rembrandt Research Project openly. Frits Duparc, director of the Mauritshuis, gave a valedictory interview to de Volkskrant upon his retirement. He said that is was unhealthy that the opinion of a single art historian, Ernst van de Wetering, is now the only one that counts when it comes to the attribution of Rembrandt paintings.
That evening, Thursday, 3 January 2008, I was invited to comment on Duparc’s remarks in the radio program Met het oog op morgen. It is the longest-living program on Dutch radio, broadcast every night of the week from eleven p.m., after the news, until midnight. I went to the studio in Hilversum to second and amplify Duparc’s criticism; on the telephone was a defender of van de Wetering, Bob van den Boogert of the Rembrandt House. In eight minutes, from 23:46 to 23:54 – you can hear them on Internet – we stated our standpoints. Keeping to Duparc’s theme, I criticized the process by which Rembrandt attributions are honored; van den Boogert defended not this, but the contributions to art history of van de Wetering and the RRP. If we had been given more time, I would have insisted that he stick to the subject. I would also have asked him about the role of the Rembrandt House in lending its institutional authority to the debatable attribution to Rembrandt of paintings in the market.
Other publications of the past half-year:
“Quelle peinture hollandaise? Entretien avec Gary Schwartz,” Perspective: La Revue de l’INHA 2007-2, pp. 336-40
“Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Simeon with the Christ child in his arms, with Mary and Joseph,” In arte venustas: studies on drawings in honour of Teréz Gerszi, presented on her eightieth birthday, Budapest (Szépmüvészeti Múzeum) 2007, pp. 170-72
Gary Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1940. In 1965 he came to the Netherlands with a graduate fellowship in art history and stayed. He has been active as a translator, editor and publisher; teacher, lecturer and writer; and as the founder of CODART, an international network organization for curators of Dutch and Flemish art. As an art historian, he is best known for his books on Rembrandt: Rembrandt: all the etchings in true size (1977), Rembrandt, his life, his paintings: a new biography (1984) and The Rembrandt Book (2006). His Internet column, now called the Schwartzlist, has been appearing every other week since September 1996. His most recent book on Rembrandt is one of the six titles nominated for the Banister Fletcher Award for the most deserving book on art or architecture of the past year.