eipcp Policies European Cultural Policies 2015
08 2005

Belgian Barbarians

Frédéric Jacquemin

Frédéric Jacquemin




Before embarking on any possible scenarios concerning the future of cultural policies, it’s necessary to note specifically that a "Belgian cultural policy" stricto sensu does not and will never exist. Yet, cultural policies operate on the Belgian territory, but via a complex constitutional frame that has been cleansed of any references to "Belgium". Successive waves of constitutional reforms1 continue to strip the state of its prerogative and distribute them to increasingly separated and autonomous entities. The Belgian federal "pie" is therefore sliced according to linguistic and territorial delimitations. As matter of fact, the territorial division and the linguistic one do not match and create a problematic power overlap that leads to frequent cultural skirmishes in Brussels, where both Flemish and French communities can implement their own cultural strategy. This cultural "dynamic" largely echoes the political debate, the pace of which is determined by the fantasy of an imminent cultural clash. Orchestrated by the Flemish fascist party Vlaamse Belang, formerly know as Vlaams Blok2, this political simulacrum is also fueled by democratic parties that keep the political agenda focused on the same inescapable questions of constitutional autonomy and cultural identity. Undoubtedly, the typical French/Flemish confrontation lingers on as an encumbering vestige of the past, incapable of coping with the multicultural and multilingual nature of present society, especially in cities like Brussels. Indeed, it obstructs a proper cultural development and nourishes the withdrawal of identity and the xenophobic social climate. However, less spectacular yet more powerful transformations of structural political patterns are presently at work. They will probably have deeper impacts on the working and living conditions of artists and cultural operators in the future than the over-emphasized Belgian bi-cultural regime. This paper examines a few of them in an attempt to sketch plausible scenarios for the future.

Stakhanovists or Smugglers

A recent survey3 has shown that only 4% of the general income of Belgian artists comes from public cultural funding (whether linked to exhibitions in public art spaces or individual grants). The greatest source of funding for visual arts remains the artists themselves, who finance their activity mainly via jobs outside the art field or thanks to their partner’s support... The second source comes from social security and unemployment benefits, which represent more than 25 % of their revenues. In that respect, the recent strategy of the Federal State, which aims to limit and ultimately suppress unemployment benefits for the "surplus" of job seekers, is a much more preoccupying issue for artists than any possible developments solely in cultural policies. Of course the progressive dismantling of the unemployment regime is not a Belgian specificity and can be observed in all European countries, but a sudden acceleration of the process has been perceptible.4 Since 2000 on, post-Thatcherist dogmas have shaped an array of measures affecting the whole social and unemployment system. The latest one to date forces job seekers to sign evaluation contracts stipulating the loss of their unemployment benefits if their performance in seeking employment is deemed insufficient. This evaluation is entirely left to the discretion of civil servants. Beyond the wholly partial and iniquitous character of the procedure in general, it appears arguably inappropriate to appraise artistic working conditions and the effort of unemployed artists to find a job.

In compensation, a so-called "artist statute" was issued recently in Belgian federal law. It secures a regular income (maximum +/-1,000 Euros monthly) for artists (and to some extent cultural workers, curators and technicians) and recognizes the seasonality and the financial insecurity of the art practice5. Nevertheless, the alleged victory obtained by platforms/unions of artists with the recognition of a specific statute is a sort of fiction. Not only because the social protection it provides is weak, but first and foremost because the set of criteria that allows artists to get this social benefit corresponds to activities that have more to do with creative industries, advertisement and communication than with artistic work. To get it, the artist has to prove a minimum of 16.000 Euros of income during a period of 18 months or the equivalent of 312 days of employment for the same period. If some performing arts professionals and musicians can follow this Stakhanovist rhythm via an extensive touring system, it’s more problematic for visual artists whose working environment is determined by different cycles. The incompatibility of the law is so obvious that it encourages its own hijacking: in the recent past, artists have frequently given money to their cultural employers to issue a "legal" contract amounting to the income they needed to get the required quota. Bluntly put: artists will have to pay to get jobs. This absurd setting is about to become normative in the coming years, hence what can be genuinely called a hunt for "fake" job seekers (artists or not) will be massively put into action. On the private side of the spectrum, the belief that the high density of collectors in Belgium counterbalances the lack of public money is deeply rooted in the Belgian artistic sphere. This is partially true, but only for the few artists who manage to keep a position at the fertile - but constantly moving - cross section of supply and demand curves. Besides, the private collectors as well as corporate investors are certainly contributing more to the intermediaries (galleries, art consultants and dealers) than to the artists themselves.

We can imagine the future artistic panorama as a combination of two groups. On one hand, an expending mass of artists blurred by the romantic idea that the arts will always be a suffering yet protected area among the debris of the welfare state. Those will be obliged to obey the imperative of creative industries or to commit fraud in order to benefit from a temporary and ever renegotiable statute. On the other hand, a limited cluster of artists in the upper income brackets will provide the national and international art market with their works.

The End of Cultural Democracy

If we leave aside the preposterous set-up from which individual cultural producers will have to extricate themselves in a near future and look at cultural policies in their ambition to sustain contemporary art practices, the landscape is not much more appealing. At this stage, I will focus on the case of French community, hence the dead ends are arguably more revealing than in Flanders with respect to the problematic issue of contemporary arts. One can hardly speak of a real policy as far as contemporary visual arts are concerned: it would suppose clear orientations and objectives as well as sufficient budget provisions. In the French community, the budget for visual arts amounts 3.17 million Euros. If the structural subsidies to the MAC (Musée d’Art Contemporain, 1.5 million Euros) and the 14 other recognized contemporary art associations (1.17 million Euros) are subtracted, 500.000 Euros are left available for non-recognized associations, exhibitions and support to individual artists6. With 1 Euro per inhabitant allocated to visual arts, it’s superfluous to mention that public subsidies are totally insufficient to stimulate any ambitious development and all the predictions confirm that the budget will remain steadily fixed to the current settings.

Considering this, one could suspect that public authorities continue to limit their support in the hope that the market will somehow bridge the gap and leave the floor to more or less enlightened private entre­preneurs, like in the 19th century, or to the emerging "culturally concerned" or "citizen" corporations. However, Belgium belongs to those decaying welfare states where cultural affairs are still the state’s (or more precisely communities’ ) responsibility. Yet, they must adapt to the contemporary dominant neo-liberal pattern. Therefore the question is not to wonder whether the market will compensate for a lack of public investments, but rather to examine how public policies have become market–led instruments and to consider the possible impact of this mutation on the visual art field in the future.

One of the most prominent ideological pillars of the cultural set-up in Belgium has been cultural democracy. Up until now, it has offered - at least theoretically - resistance to the neo-liberal trends that have been observable in other and more developed cultural superstructures in Europe. Cultural democracy is inspired by the politico-libidinal streams that irrigated the aftermath of 68. Due to legislature from the early 70’s provoked by cultural democracy, public authorities are obliged to support and promote the cultural expression of social emancipation and political contestation. In this sense, culture is no longer a matter of taste and edification that suggests politics, it’s what gives access to it.

The poor allotment to the contemporary arts was to some extent counterbalanced by the possibilities that were made available by the horizontal deployment of cultural democracy within the cultural funding system. On the basis that it was targeting social or political emancipation objectives, any cultural association - whatever media it used - was entitled to access the public funds, notably via the "adult education" sector7. This scheme functioned like a kind of ballast for a multitude of initiatives that were against the petit-bourgeois art system and wanted to build up their own spaces, methods and audiences. So it not only compensated the lack of funds in the arts, it also promoted rather interesting practices outside the art establishment, such as alternative radio stations, cinemas, small cultural centers, independent architectural collectives, fanzines and cultural activist groups. Although the freezing of cultural expenses caused by the economic crisis of the 90’s progressively reduced the possibilities, non-structural and limited budgets were still available without too much effort due to the loopholes of the system. This permanent do-it-yourself strategy sustained the "alternative" art scene that characterizes Belgium and Brussels in particular. Unlike what happens to similar practices in countries like France, small-scale art spaces and collectives were able to survive without being absorbed by the cultural establishment or being bought out by hype marketers.

The recasting of the whole cultural regime recently launched by the Minister of Culture of the French community of Belgium will produce new legal and administrative devices that will almost totally suppress any possibilities for those cultural initiatives to access public funding in the future and to preserve their autonomy. In what way?

Firstly by professionalizing the art sector, which is one of the priorities of the reform. However, the proposed solutions for this do not suggest increasing the budget in order to sustain regular jobs, but rather forcing associations to spend 50% of the subsidies for wages and to have at least one employee. This is hardly understandable as a measure that protects employment, since the fixed minimum wage for the sector is consequently very low (+/-1,100 Euros for a full time equivalent) and has automatically become the standard wage in the sector. Many critical art practices based on a kind of gift economy that temporally gathers volunteers with no expectations of making a wage or a profit are de facto excluded.

Secondly, the conditions that the reformed policy assigns to applicant associations are tailor-made for "cultural sub-contractors" that can provide cost-efficient and specialized services. A new breed of cultural operators that has been forged in the arena of cultural management courses will replace the typical "leftist" cultural workers. Those professionals, active since the early 90’s with the collapse of public services in Great Britain, are surfacing at the moment in Belgium and start to hunt for the most profitable "niches" within the cultural market. Cities or provinces are already appointing satellite associations to manage parts or all of their art programs. It’s not unrealistic to imagine that in a very near future private organisms will also supervise the management of public cultural budgets. This will of course entail a lack of accountability regarding the way public funds are spent and prevent any sort of contestation, hence the association is totally free to spend the funds according to its own set of criteria. In that sense, the slow but sure "outsourcing" of public responsibility outside the representational democratic arena is not to be interpreted as a step towards the art field's autonomy from political intervention. On the contrary. Instead of supporting multiple and contradictory micro initiatives coming from the field, political authorities will decide on a cultural agenda and then subcontract its implementation to organizations that will simply carry out their orders.

Thirdly, the educational value embedded in its original concept is revamped in a blatant neo-liberal style. It will foster some kind of permanent vocational training intended to help workers and job-seekers to adapt to the rapidly changing demands of the labor market. The notions of self constitutive and critical knowledge that formerly prevailed will be wiped out. As a consequence, the artistic groups producing subversive documentaries, the architecture collectives that were fighting against the privatization of public spaces in the city or any artistic project with political intent, will become ineligible unless they prove a strong commitment to "train" people and re-orient them to the successful path of employment.

The Minister of Culture recently declared "Culture is the best weapon of mass destruction against barbarism". The Minister’s declaration is ultimately based on the idea that citizens are by definition constantly and hectically trying to destroy social linkage, trash public wealth, abuse social security and dive into fascism. It definitely sealed the fate of cultural democracy and re-enacted almost literally the outmoded belief that goes back to Malraux and French cultural decentralization. That model proposed to the uneducated audience - provincial people, potentially barbarians - the masterpieces of civilized - Parisian - society that should inspire ethic values and help people discriminate civilization from barbarism, democratic governments from dictatorships, etc.

The future of cultural policies will develop according to a reverse-engineered process that will bring us back to a period prior to 1968. From a sardonic point of view, one could invoke the "democratic distemper" syndrome to explain how what was once triggered and fueled by public policy has become too slippery and uneasy to control. Corrective methods will be legitimated by the immanent danger of the dismemberment of a formerly unified social body. For the sake of a coalition against fascism and nationalism, this new matrix will hold back and then suppress any experimentation outside parliamentarian democracy. Nobody knows whether the emerging forms of social protests that have been witnessed all over the world and which will be extremely active in Brussels in the coming years8 will be judged as barbarians or not. The present political arena still hesitates to stigmatize and exclude them or to incorporate them in their sphere of control. What is undoubtedly clear is that the reform of the cultural policies will decouple those movements from any publicly funded cultural organizations or programs.

According to the think tank of experts surrounding the reform, the global transformation of the whole cultural apparatus should end in 2015. That coincides with the year that has been chosen to present Mons, the main city of the most deprived region of Belgium, as the European Cultural Capital. In order to prepare the city and its region for a possible selection, massive investments have already been poured into cultural infrastructures. European Structural Funds that will be allocated to enhance the attractiveness of the zone have already financed the recent implantation of the biggest contemporary art centers9 of the French community in the region. In addition, nine of the fourteen other art venues are situated in the same perimeter. This high concentration is not intended to satisfy the inhabitants' extraordinary appetite for contemporary art, but rather to occupy the leisure time of newcomers: white-collar employees that will come along with enterprises that will install their facilities in the euroregion.

In reality, these contemporary art spaces will be integrated in a more global development program that aims at re-qualifying the region for private investors. They will belong to a vaster deployment plan that will assign them the role of cultural magnets in the hinterland between the two big conurbations of Lille (North of France) and Brussels. Along side with favorable fiscal (tax shelters, subsidies) and infrastructural (roads, equipments) incentives, the fully fledged art offer will culturally contribute to the regional revival. This instrumentalization of culture in economic frames will therefore be different from the one that, in the late 80’s, wanted to allocate its potential to generate new jobs to replace those lost with the decline of heavy industries. The new spatialization process that is actually taking place in Europe is pushed by capitalistic movements that distribute its production centers, logistic knots and creative hubs according to new delimitations. This global reshuffling of the map will have nothing to do with national markers anymore, but with parameters produced by specific European legislation and/or favorable local conditions. This will determine future hot spots, rebalancing not only the Belgian art landscape but also the whole geographic equilibrium of the European art scene.

Belgium, which has been in some way spared from the "creative city" ideology that has produced cultural malls such as MuseumsQuartier in Vienna or that has marketed entire cities like Barcelona as multicultural parks, will shortly experience for the first time a "culturetainement" drift at a relatively large scale. The challenge for cultural policies in Belgium will consist in fulfilling the desires of new corporate employees in their purported craving for art on the one side and the public authorities’ ambitions to purge the convalescent social body from barbarians on the other. Contemporary art will operate as part of the many public apparatuses that will subtly interface those two missions in politically neutralized and economically ruled brand new infrastructures.

Backlashes are expected for Mons 2015, European Cultural Capital of the Year. Let’s hope the art collectives that will be entirely excluded from public cultural funds by that time will be able to connect with other precarious groups from Mons and elsewhere, which have been expelled from all the public spheres for a longer period. They will have a lot to discuss, but certainly not the program of those new cultural shopping centers that will, at that time, not even pretend to be made for them.

Edited by Aileen Derieg

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1 Belgium is linguistically composed of 5.9 million Flemish speakers, 4.1 million French and 75 thousand German speakers. Each of these linguistic groups is equipped with a fully fledged constitutional body called Community comprising: parliament, government, administration (only justice remains a federal competence).

2 Vlaams Blok was judged a racist party by a Belgian court last year. It therefore had to dissolve. The same week after the judgement, the former Vlaams Blok political apparatus was entirely reconstituted and baptised "Vlaamse Belang". In the recent elections VB obtained 25 % of the votes, continuing its regular progression. It's the first Flemish political party in Antwerp (800.000 habitants) and Brussels. It has an equal or slightly higher number of supporters than all the major political parties in Flanders. In order to keep it away from government, Flemish parties have to converge into a large coalition.

3 Annick Bijnens and NICC, "The social and economic situation of visual artists above the age of 45; a proposal for policy-related solutions". Although the methodological approaches are not completely satisfying, the research addresses a range of artists with sufficient experience in the field to be relevant. http://www.nicc.be/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=419

4 The legacy of social rights that has been lukewarmly respected up till now has been substituted by more liberal patterns. Belgium has a heavy industrial past punctuated by violent union-led strikes, this strong historical legacy has been progressively swept out by liberal and new fashioned socialist governments. Guy Verhofstadt, who has been Prime Minister since 1999, is called "baby Thatcher".

5 In reality, it‘s an adaptation of a pre-existing legal disposal designed for seasonal workers such as harvesters and wood cutters… This is why it is frequently nicknamed "woodcutter statute”.

6 In Flanders, approximately 6 million Euros are spent annually for the visual arts, out of which 750,000 Euros are directly provided to artists (grants, personal project, etc). Complete figures can be found at http://www.forumculture.be

7 Adult education was the translation of the principle of cultural democracy in the budget lines of the Ministry of Culture. Remarkably large funds are put to this purpose, to such extent that "adult education" became the second largest apportionment of the cultural budget.

8 Since the European Council of Ministers (the Euro-top) is systematically held in the city, that will bring large scale demonstration and protest action from different altermondialist groups and cultural activists.

9 Musée d’Art Contemporain – Grand Hornu