Double Dutch, part 3: What do the Netherlands mean?

18 August, 2003
CULTURE: Double Dutch, part 3
What do the Netherlands mean?

After two days in Amsterdam I spent a morning in The Hague before returning to London. More than anything else, The Hague is the anti-Amsterdam. Amsterdam adores its self-image as a city that has for centuries steered a stubbornly independent course from the rest of the Netherlands, whereas The Hague grew up a royal peculiar, the castrated and all-but-harmless darling of formal power. Even when its people proved themselves something other than harmless — for instance, in the gleefully unpleasant murder of the de Witte brothers — the underlying message was mysteriously legitimist, even well-behaved. Perhaps this is why the Dutch government, like others around the world, has shied away from locating its capital in its major city. So it is that Queen Beatrix still arrives every Prinsjedag at the pinkish fairy-tale castle that is the Binnenhof, having travelled there in a golden coach from the nearby Huis ten Bosch, for the state opening of the Dutch parliament.

Given The Hague’s slightly priggish history, it somehow also makes sense that the United Nations’ International Court of Justice should be based in the Hague — although having said that, as the casual visitor wanders back from an elegant tree-shaded market or from lunch beside a languid canal, it’s a shock to encounter the structure wherein Slobodan Milosevic waits in a twilit world of legal limbo — his prison an unremarkable low building given added interest by those festoons of barbed wire, manned checkpoints and men carrying guns. This is considerably more security than the Huis ten Bosch is given. But as for the rest of The Hague — and very much in contrast with Amsterdam, because it is almost impossible not to compare the two — everything else in this capital city radiates sleepy, complacent ordinariness. A large, mostly charmless shopping precinct fills the centre of The Hague which, a few architectural tweaks apart, might well be in Lille or Nottingham or Stockholm; out on the edge of town, old warehouses and cheap housing have been pulled down, and insubstantial-looking corporate office buildings thrown up in their stead. Beyond stand the reassuring green fields, the farm buildings, the tranquil cattle. Locals enjoy the tiny hint of glamour that the presence of so many international diplomats brings to their town — The Hague is still not a city — yet are not entirely comfortable with the dark-skinned recent immigrants who staff the accompanying service sector and who threaten to transform this sleepy enclave, like it or not, into something slightly more cosmopolitan

But for those of us who are neither diplomats, indicted war criminals nor the Queen of the Netherlands, the pre-eminent reason to visit The Hague is that most beautiful of Dutch museums, the Mauritshuis. Named after the man who commissioned and lived in it, Johan Maurits (1604-1679) — an eminent sprig off the Orange family tree, long-time governor of Brazil, Dutch field marshall, Golden Age court politician, and much else besides — the Mauritshuis is an elegant little Palladian jeu d’esprit, hovering over a water-lily-choked lake in which, when I was there, a bluish heron was nesting. Once it was Maurits’ townhouse, fashionably close to the seat of authority at the Binnenhof. Now it is home to several of the most famous paintings on earth.

As with the Rijksmuseum, the Mauritshuis’s history as an art museum is paradoxically rooted in the French desire to make the Louvre the most exciting display of imperial plunder since the days of Alexander. That desire, although not entirely thwarted, inadvertently resulted in a general European impulse towards museum-building as a form of national self-promotion. In 1822 — less than a decade after most of the works stolen by the French had been returned to the Netherlands (strangely, however, at least 70 of them were never returned and still remain in French provincial collections) — the Mauritshuis opened its doors to the public. As the official court newspaper put it, ‘from now on the Royal Cabinet of Paintings in The Hague can be visited on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 am to 1 pm by anyone who is well dressed and not accompanied by children’. Although this civilised and sensible restriction was later dropped, the Mauritshuis soon became, along with the Rijksmuseum, a magnet for anyone with an interest in Dutch art.

From the start, however, the Mauritshuis differed from its Amsterdam-based sibling in two important ways. The Rijksmuseum, having been created by an act of parliament, was funded by a combination of public contributions and state subventions, and, in everything from its name to its extravagantly didactic building, radiated a sense of ‘belonging to the nation’. In contrast, the Mauritshuis — or, to give it its correct present-day name, The Royal Cabinet of Paintings, Mauritshuis — remains at its heart a royal collection, housed in an supremely elegant little patrician townhouse where kings and princes have been entertained, and appearing even now to admit the public largely as a gesture of splendid, extravagant noblesse oblige.

The second difference, following on from the first, has greater implication for the nature of the collection. As we have seen, from very early on, the Rijksmuseum set out to create a representative collection of Dutch art, with a special emphasis on the Golden Age — and a concomitant and perhaps unavoidable tendency to prefer some aspects of Golden Age art to others. The Mauritshuis proceeded slightly differently. King Willem I (1772-1843) regarded the Mauritshuis very much as ‘his’ museum. This manifested itself in a variety of ways. The Amsterdam College of Surgeons was prevented by royal decree from selling Rembrandt’s magnificent ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’ to anyone but the king’s favourite museum, which also benefited from earlier royal acquisitions. The Holbeins at the Mauritshuis were brought back to Holland by stadholder Willem III — more famous in these islands as William of Orange, our own William III — from Britain, and subsequently retained, much to the disgust of Queen Anne and her successors. Of course the ranks have been augmented with state purchases as well. Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ and Ruisdael’s ‘View of Haarlem’, to name but two, were purchased by the Dutch state for the collection. Since then, indeed, debate over acquisitions has become a staple of highbrow public entertainment, filling correspondence columns in quality papers, eliciting accusations of ‘philistinism’ and ‘lack of vision’ and producing their own pantomime casts of heroes, villains and nail-biting eleventh-hour rescues. (Indeed, despite what Danny Frederick might tell you, this is probably a more authentically Dutch recreation than smoking lots of cannabis and visiting a brothel.)

The point, anyway, is this — that while the Rijksmuseum displays large portions of a large collection on a large site, the Mauritshuis displays a tiny proportion of a smaller collection over eight small rooms and two small landings. There is none of that worthy, weary tramping about, the sense of hard work that sometimes occurs elsewhere. Instead, visiting the Mauritshuis is like opening a magnificent little casket to reveal a handful of perfect, intense little gems, to be examined in comfort and at leisure. This, as much as anything, is why so many world-weary art-lovers feel so certain that the Mauritshuis is one of the very greatest museums on earth.

The politics of style
Visiting the Netherlands in 1874, Henry James complained — probably not entirely seriously, but given his bleak New England sense of humour it was hard to be sure — that Dutch art had ruined the experience of looking at Holland itself: ‘You have seen it all before; it is vexatiously familiar; it is hardly worthwhile to have come!’ Meanwhile the Dutch speak comfortably of ‘Jan Steen families’ (chaotic, dysfunctional) and throw the whole power of their state behind efforts to ensure that parts of Amsterdam, Delft and a host of other towns and villages still live up to the expectations that seventeenth-century painting creates for them. Finally, writing about the Rijksmuseum, I have suggested how decades of critical and curatorial editing have helped to shape the Netherlands apparently visible through the lens of Dutch art — not just the topography, architecture and faces, either, but the character of the Dutch as well. Such art has tended to emphasise the humble, the down-to-earth, the ‘realistic’ and the ordinary, perhaps even the burgerlijk and democratic over the alternatives, which include the sublime, the supernatural, the ideal and the elegant, the aristocratic and the super-civilised. Now, the Rijksmuseum projects this edited vision with great efficiency. Yet in the Mauritshuis, those slight differences in selection, hanging, even context seem to alter the picture slightly. The effect? One is reminded how radically arbitrary, how nonchalantly selective our received impressions of the Golden Age, indeed of the Netherlands themselves, might actually be.

Unlike a visit to the Mauritshuis, however, one has to embark on a bit of a journey, some of it probably very dull indeed, in able to arrive at this point. Bear with me, though. The first thing I want to demonstrate is something not about the Netherlands but instead about you, the reader. It is simply that most people, whether they have ever stopped to think about it consciously or not, assume that style has inherent intellectual, ideological, even moral content. The fact that this is nonsensical is neither here nor there. But if evidence for the mainstream character of this position is needed, then here is a passage from the short description of a very beautiful allegorical painting by Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Bronzino, taken from our own National Gallery Companion Guide(a book sponsored, as it happens, by a Dutch bank), written by the anything-but-loopy, very mainstream and sane Erika Langmuir:

Like the world of high fashion, the court of a despotic ruler prizes artifice above nature. Style assumes a disproportionate influence because it masks the brutal realities of power and dependence. Spontaneity is stifled and protocol governs daily behaviour. Intellectual enquiry is devalued, but a veneer of learning is a hallmark of the élite. Bored courtiers must learn to pass the time in solemn frivolity.

There is, in short, nothing very subtle about the language here. ‘Brutal’ despotism is linked with artifice, style, formality, superficiality, boredom and frivolity, whereas an art filled with ‘nature’ (i.e. naturalism, which is obviously not considered a ‘style’) and spontaneity would make it possible to ‘reveal’ hidden realities, escape the tyranny of ‘protocol, pursue free intellectual enquiry and, possibly best of all, to have genuine fun. Clearly, in the world of Ms Langmuir, you can find out a lot about the qualities of a regime by looking at its art. Thoré could not have put it more aggressively himself.

But of course once one starts down this path, something else starts to matter, which is the sort of regime — or to put it another way, the intellectual, ideological and moral qualities — one values. This problem has been one of the biggest of modernism’s meta-narratives. Thoré looked to this logic as he sought to identify — both in the past and the present — a truly democratic, modern, socialist art. By the same token, however, we all know people who, in their belief that Alfred Munnings was the only acceptable painter of the past century, rush to embrace Thoré’s logic while at the same time batting away his conclusions. So it’s anything but exclusive: conservatives, liberals, even libertarians can all play with game, using the same basic rule-sheet. The select band who can see that it is not worth playing are distributed fairly evenly across the political spectrum, united only in a generalised sense of loneliness.

All of which leads us, by degrees, to a sort of debased libertarian account of the history of art, culled generally from fourth-hand knowledge of E. H. Gombrich’s popular children’s book about art, sensationalised news stories and perhaps a few increasingly dim memories of school visits to art museums. (Before anyone becomes too cross about this, though, I should add that by no means all libertarian accounts of art fit this gloomy stereotype: Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture, for one, is genuinely well-informed and thoughtful. Nor is there anything exclusively libertarian about its weaknesses — just the point that ‘rational ignorance’ applies as much in the visual arts as in any other field of human endeavour) And the reason it matters is because it probably does, at some level, inform libertarian understandings of the Netherlands and their potential for freedom. This debased account runs more or less as follows, give or take a bit of bracketed heckling:

Once upon a time, in the Middle Ages, art [because it is taken by this sort of person that art is a sort of eternal, objective conceptual category] was produced only for the Church or for kings. This is why early paintings are all either religious scenes, or portraits of kings. This art was very stylised and unrealistic, because painters had to do what their patrons wanted and could not exercise self-expression. Then along came the Renaissance, the Reformation, science, the Age of Reason, democracy, free trade and other good things like that. What this meant was that ordinary people [the libertarian here means what anyone else would call ‘the bourgeoisie’; he’ll use the concept but not the word] could for the first time buy art, which left painters free to engage in self-expression [yes, it’s a non sequitor, but never mind] and also made it possible for more different sorts of subjects to appear. This is why Dutch art is so good — because it responded to the market. Whereas now art is all funded by the state through taxation and selected by quangos, which is why although the Impressionists were realistic and good, modern art is all conceptual and hence bad.

All right, perhaps I am stretching the point just a bit — but only just. Nor are libertarians the only people who believe something very like this account. Some of it, indeed, differs hardly at all from a socialist analysis of Western art history. What matters, though, in this context, is simply the position accorded to the Dutch art of the Golden Age. And that position tends to be a particularly advantageous one.

Whether one is Thoré, or Erika Langmuir, or a stereotypical libertarian, one ends up handing the Dutch a very large and leafy palm indeed. The Dutch can be seen to have painted ‘realistically’, to have painted ‘real’ rather than religious or mythological subjects, to have painted for a mass market. Sometimes, indeed, both in terms of technique and subject-matter, their work seems to point the way forward towards modernity — towards Millet and Courbet, for instance, or towards the Impressionists — even towards photography itself. Their work can look spontaneous, lively, full of genuine ‘fun’. We think we can see immediately what it is about. Nature wins out over artifice; the modern wins out over the medieval; the people win out over the ancienne regime. This is the way that history is headed, as well as art, and so it is good that Dutch painting expresses it. Here, we think, is a world we know and understand. Here are pubs, streets, ordinary domestic spaces. Here are artists using painting almost like documentary photography. Here are people whose measure of understanding is — well, their own ordinary lives, their own ordinary refracted virtue.

Who are you calling ‘ordinary’?
You may, perhaps, be wondering why I am making this obvious point. There is, alas, a reason. As I mentioned earlier, the Mauritshuis houses several of the most famous — a more hackish yet accurate description might be ‘the best-loved’ — paintings on earth. Paramount amongst these are Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pearl Earing’ and his large, wet-roofed ‘View of Delft’, yellow patch and all. Both are now endlessly familiar, from literature as much from reproduction, but even one of our contemporaries who had somehow managed to avoid those famous images would perhaps be taken aback at the near-photographic character of the work — not just the treatment of light, but the apparently-casual ‘cropping’, the instantaneous quality, their big pools of clear colour. Part of why ‘we’ love Vermeer now — and have done since the days of Thoré and Proust, much more so indeed than before — is that modern eyes are given scope to read his work in such a modern way. A greater if less famous painting, Carel Fabritius’ ‘Goldfinch’, to some extent shares this quality. Today they occupy a single room in the Mauritshuis, along with a handful of other astounding paintings, hung sparingly around the wood-panelled walls with natural light streaming in at the windows. Often there are only one or two people in this room at the same time — sometimes fewer. These pictures — the whole experience — are the sort of thing that reminds even the jaded, weary or sad of what visual art can do. In this, they are the mirror-image of those life-leaching works in the Stedelijk Museum. The world simply looks more interesting, better even, after time spent with them. Indeed, visit to the Mauritshuis is such a magical, hauntingly perfect experience that one hardly has the stomach to analyse it afterwards. If I could save ten paintings from all of human history, that ‘Goldfinch’ would be one of them. The ‘View of Delft’ might well be another. That is the sort of place the Mauritshuis is.

Yet it is hard, walking again and again through that small set of rooms — and on the day when I visited, part of the museum was shut off in preparation for a forthcoming, doubtless excellent Holbein exhibition, so there were even fewer rooms open than usual — not to be struck, again and again, by the tendentiousness, or at least the arbitrary quality, of the conventional view of Golden Age Dutch art.

It is true, obviously, that what one actually sees in the Mauritshuis is the sublimely brilliant tip of a largish iceberg. The illustrated catalogue is well worth owning for all sorts of reasons, but its most enduring if embarrassingly recherche — some might even say ‘deeply ERO-ish’ — pleasure is the chance to see what isn’t being hung. But whether one works on the basis of the art actually there on the walls, or whether one includes the paintings in storage as well, the lesson is the same. As the Mauritshuis proves again and again, the Golden Age was simply not what most people tend to assume it was — not even what libertarian mythology tends to assume it was. It is, in large part, a nineteenth century fiction. And whatever else it was, it was not about individuality, classlessness, democracy or ‘freedom’.

Take, for example, the whole grotesquely-misunderstood question of religious art. We are continually told that the reformation created in protestantism a faith of the Book that turned its back on the image. Here, for instance, is the account given by Patrick Collinson, arguably Britain’s most eminent living historian of reformation, in his most recent book:

So it was that [in England] the visual arts came to concentrate on human individuality, both the painted portrait and tomb sculptures. Sadly for the English social and cultural historian, it is necessary to cross the North Sea to discover the full potential of protestant art as it reproduced the streets and marketplaces, the taverns and intimate interiors of seventeenth-century Holland, not forgetting those many painterly visions of the luminous interior of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, the tomb of William the Silent seen from every possible angle. It encapsulates the story of art in the Reformation that painters now found employment in painting pretty pictures of churches rather than in painting images for the Church.

The facts that some towns in the Low Countries underwent short, sharp bouts of iconoclasm in the 1570s, and that the form taken by religious painting altered around the same time, are so obvious as to be unremarkable. Some readers, on the other hand, might question the ‘individuality’ of those mass-produced alabaster tomb sculptures, made in the Nottingham quarries or elsewhere, without the least bit of interest in the appearance, age or personality of the subject. Similarly, some might take issue with the notion that those paintings of the tomb of William the Silent were ‘pretty pictures’, at least in the minds of those who commissioned, painted or bought them. Such a reader might detect in such images a new visual language capable of commenting acutely on confessional as well as patriotic issues — but we’ll leave that fight for another day. Suffice to say that the oddest thing in Collinson’s account (Collinson, for what it is worth, is, despite his Regius professorship, his career at Trinity College Cambridge and his CBE, a socialist who, despite his attractive Derbyshire acres, has expressed yearnings for the better world of Castro’s Cuba) is the contention that ‘protestant art’ , with its apparent emphasis on ‘individualism’, ‘reproduced the streets and marketplaces, the taverns and intimate interiors’ — and, by implication, ignored the religious scenes that had occupied artists in the past. Can this be true?

Well, in a word, no. Strolling through the Mauritshuis, even in its current curtailed form, evidence to the contrary is everywhere — in Jan de Bray’s tender ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ (1665), ter Brugghen’s ‘The deliverance of St Peter’ (1624), Rembrandt’s staggeringly dramatic ‘Simeon’s Song of Praise’ (1631) or his vulnerable ‘Suzanna’ (1636), to list just a few. This is, of course, leaving out the many magnificent works in the Mauritshuis that were created by artists such as Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens, who were then living in Catholic Flanders. It also ignores the fact that protestant Dutch painters were, as any biography of Rembrandt makes clear, keen collectors and connoisseurs of Italian religious art. How on earth would you have Caravaggisti — how ever much critics might deplore them later — if you lived in a world devoid of religious imagery? More to the point, though, such an account also leaves out the explicitly Christian content, let alone the even more obvious sub-Christian moralising, that contemporaries were probably able read from what appear, to our theologically purblind eyes, to be secular, ‘realistic’ works. Or to put it another way, if you go to the Mauritshuis looking for secularism, you can find it — but if you go looking for any sort of religious orientation, you’ll be practically overwhelmed by it. We see, as even fourth-hand readers of Gombrich ought to know, with our minds more than we do with our eyes. The secularised ‘realism’ of Dutch art may be as much the product of our own anachronistic vision as is the ‘photographic’ quality of Vermeer’s work.

Similarly vexing is the idea that Golden Age Dutch art is somehow a ‘democratic’ art — paintings of ordinary people forordinary people. In any event, I suppose it depends what one means by ‘ordinary’. Van Ostade’s ‘Peasants in an Inn’ (1662) certainly depicts very lowly people indeed, but it seems odd to assume that the people who bought such pictures found the peasants ‘ordinary’ rather than funny in a coarse sort of way, like those other staples of such art: cripples, dwarves, drunks, belches, farts. Could such paintings not be — just to sound like a Marxist for a second — normative instruments for ensuring that the bourgeoise knew how not to act? Vermeer’s interiors do not, obviously enough, depict ‘ordinary’ homes — even during the Golden Age, not many ‘ordinary’ homes included maps, Italian paintings, and girls who could choose from wardrobes and coffers filled with silks, furs, pearls. Jan Steen’s ‘The Poultry Yard’ depicts a super-rich young heiress enacting the role of Charity outside the gates of her great estate — not that far removed, perhaps, from the splendour of the Mauritshuis. We know from archival evidence that admirers of Gerrit Dou’s sublime ‘Young Mother’ included our own Charles II — is he likely to have appreciated it for its ordinariness, democracy and (with that twenty-foot-high ceiling) its realism? Or is he more likely to have admired this only-slightly-secularised Madonna and Child — and a very pretty Madonna at that?

The point, perhaps, is becoming obvious enough. Many of the most beautiful paintings at the Mauritshuis are paintings based on religious scenes. Others have mythological subjects. Many others are portraits of relatively grand and important people. Most seem to be directed towards elite audiences, expressing what may well have been a fairly narrow, class-specific field of concerns. To the extent that such works illustrate, as libertarians may believe that they should, the concerns of proto-capitalists, these works suggest that proto-capitalists were interested not only in the religion of the Bible, but also in the theological virtues, notably faith and charity, as well as social hierarchy, some normative sneering at the vulgar, a sophisticated sort of ostentation and a bit of sexual innuendo. Paintings that apparently centred on material wealth may well have told a warning tale about the transitory quality of worldly goods, the importance of chastity and continence, the excellence of housewifely virtue. When Professor Collinson writes of artists ‘reproducing’ streets and taverns, he turns the conscious, selective acts of painters and their patrons into a sort of proleptic simulacrum of the photocopier, the digital camera, the WAP phone. He is, I think, uncharacteristically sloppy in this. We can be a lot more casual about our acquired images than could our forefathers, who had to work much harder for them.

But then this whole business of finding meaning in old paintings is a minefield of anachronisms and teleology. Heaven knows what Early Modern people thought about anything. Is Paul Potter’s extraordinary ‘Bull’ — until someone got round to rediscovering Vermeer and Hals, this pungently strange work was the absolute superstar of the Mauritshuis’s collection — an essay on the importance of realism and a hymn to material consumption, or is it a humble account of the excellence and wholeness of God’s creation? Is Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson’ about the progress of science, the rationalist re-conquest of the human body — or is it about mortality, and possibly about the rightful punishment meted out to the executed criminal who takes such a central role in the composition? Hardest of all to interpret, perhaps, is the art-form that the Dutch gave the world, so that our word for it is simply a misspelled appropriation of theirs — landscape. Are these refulgently Dutch works, as libertarians might have it, celebrations of the technological achievements of drainage, industry, the productiveness of property? Or are they, perhaps, about patriotism — land rescued from Spain as surely as it was rescued from the waters — or even religion — land rescued from Rome as surely as it continues to be rescued from wildness? What is it that ‘the market’ encouraged — and was it so different from what was commissioned by the individuals who made up ‘the Church’, or by their brothers and cousins the aristocracy? The answer is, I suppose, that we will never be sure. As much as we love the ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’, as much our eyes and hearts fill before the ‘View of Delft’, we must realise — however awful this realisation may be — that the voice we are hearing is speaking a different language, and that however enchanting it may sound, we are lucky if we understand one word in a hundred. Standing in front of these works, we should aim for humility and forbearance, rather than conclusive understanding.

Yet, having said that — and taking humility as our goal — there is obviously something in the idea that the Dutch sometimes looked at subjects that had not been treated before, and addressed them in a way that had not been assayed before. Had this not been the case, there would not have been reason to have attacked such approaches so aggressively. One example must stand for many. As artist and lawyer Jan de Bisschop (1628-1671) wrote, in the mid seventeenth century, when looking at Dutch art

one saw almost nothing but groups of beggars, crippled, scrofulous and tattered, brothels full of filth, gluttonous peasants in drunken carousals, repugnant in various respects and too foul for words.

According to Bisschop, this was no good thing, either, because — he wrote, sounding pleasantly Brian Sewellish, ‘it is an evident error of judgement to believe that things which are hideous in life are sweet and pleasant when depicted in art’. (The phrase ‘evident error’ ought to be used more often in art criticism. Truly, we live in a diminished age.) Instead, Bisschop preferred a style we now see as looking rather French, rather false, not at all ‘Dutch’ — nice people doing nice things, with plenty of satin and silky-coated spaniels. It was, in the short run, the way of the future for Dutch art, but by the end of the nineteenth century it looked like a betrayal, a fatal cul-de-sac, perhaps even a presentiment — or cause? — of cultural malaise.

We have come a long way, I know, and some of us are weary, but we are very near the main point. Here it is. We may think, reading Bischopp, that he is very silly. We may think, armed with the aesthetic tools handed to us by modernity, that looking for beauty in the beautiful is, well, a bit silly. We may think, however unconsciously, that Bischopp was somehow looking back to the values of the past while at the same time missing out on the demotic, rough-and-tumble, gritty, true-to-life greatness of his own time. And in this, of course, we have a point. In our own age, as a culture we accord great consequence to the tame savages penned up inside the Big Brother house (the sort of people for whom not reading or writing for weeks seems entirely possible), a priesthood of young men ritually equipped to kick a ball to each other, and a whole ersatz pantheon of po-mo deities whose lives consist of little apart from the insistent rhythm of fame, procreation and death. (If I keep this up for another 2,000 words, can I have an article in The New Criterion, please?) Words like ‘sweet’ or ‘pleasant’ sound barbed; words like ‘repugnant’ or ‘foul’ hold promise. If you don’t believe me, read the industry (not broadsheet) reviews of Damien Hirst’s next show at White Cube2. ‘Laid’ is the new ‘jolie’. Bischopp, in other words, is full of nonsense.

Or is he? Let us return again for a moment to the Mauritshuis — past the surly ticket-seller, up the dark wooden stairs, through the room where the Japanese girls are still ogling Professor Tulp and that poor flayed hand, and the creakingly middle-aged American woman (bless her) is still in sacramental tears before ‘her’ Vermeer, as her manly-yet-affectionate, baseball-cap-wearing husband pretends not to notice for the tenth time in as many minutes. Which are the Golden Age paintings that ‘we’ here, at the Rijksmuseum, anywhere — love most?

They are, needless to say, all ‘pretty’ paintings, most of them of women, a few of them of the sort of landscapes that would have sent any self-respecting Early Modern agrarian into a flurry of lust and frank acquisitiveness. Be honest. What is it that attracts visitors into the Mauritshuis or the Rijksmuseum? Is it van Ostade’s mercenaries, Codde’s dark loners, the grimmer end of Steen, van de Velde’s maritime specificity, even Post’s amazing views of Brazil? Is it poverty, vulgarity, work, violence, technicalities, exoticism? Or is it, alternatively, wealth, refinement, leisure, tranquillity, idealism, the familiar stereotype? If you do not believe this, pause for a moment to consider that elegant girl with her earring; the view over the wealthy, peaceful town; the vulnerable, naked woman; the handsome little boy of sufficient wealth to merit a portrait. Fair enough, we may steer away from explicitly religious and moralistic art, having the intellectual wherewithal to deal with neither. At the same time, the works we love most are not those that any Golden Age Dutchman would have loved most — nor are they even the ones that comply with our understanding of Golden Age preferences. Instead, they convey a forlorn sort of desire for a world where women could have big thighs and large bellies, wore silk and furs and pearls, sorted laundry, spent time with their children, didn’t have to go out to work — where even cities were small and negotiable — where it was possible to encounter gentility and courtliness of a sort that we rarely experience today, but that is not so completely alien to our world that we feel either excluded by it or unaware of it — and where little goldfinches were considered beautiful and important.

In short, art-lovers have made their own Golden Age, which undoubtedly smells sweeter, is less noisy, less cruel, and has less political or religious content, at least on an explicit level, than did the original. For those who believe that art is a litmus-test of cultural, ideological purity, such fictions are, of course, anathema. For the rest of us, I suppose — realising that style has no implications whatsoever except those we impose on it — nothing could be simpler. We like what we like, and occasionally, if we are that way inclined, we stop to wonder whywe like it. But this modest exercise leaves the Dutch past intact. A Golden Age? Why on earth, if we want one so much, should not each of us simply construct our own?

Home and away
And so we return, finally, to Amsterdam, and to Danny Fredrick’s pamphlet, where we began this journey. There are things to be said in its favour. It is true to Danny’s own experiences. It is (or was) informative. It is admirably concise. At the same time, as shrewder readers may have realised, I do not entire agree with it, or rather, do not wish to let it pass without comment. Here’s why. It is not, first and foremost, that Danny argues on the basis of bad art history. If one stops to read the pamphlet, it will soon become clear that Danny does not argue on the basis of any history, except that of the days he has spent in Amsterdam himself. Indeed, he shows a refreshingly honest if implicit contempt for ‘culture’, ‘heritage’, ‘history’. He makes a reference to museums, only to suggest that the Damrak’s Sexmuseum is the only one he bothered to visit. He has, as far as I know, never darkened the portals of the Nederlands Scheepvaartmuseum, the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, the Mauritshuis. Well, there are too many people who make a creepy fetish out of ‘culture’, and Danny is doubtless right not to do so. He makes no reference in his work to Dutch art. If he has absorbed any knowledge whatsoever concerning it, I can only conclude that this must have been of the most indirect, verbal, apocryphal, conjectural sort.

Nor is it a problem with history per se. In his pamphlet, Danny shows no extended curiosity about the context out of which his paradise of freedom seems to have emerged. Because the urge to provide historical justifications for things is, in my world, right up there with sneezing or burping (and perhaps just as profound too) this seems odd to me — odd, but not sinister. We are, perhaps, all made differently in this respect, and at least Danny deserves credit for not arguing on the basis of bogus history. His paradise emerges, sui generis, complete, unproblematic. Well, who could ask more from a paradise than that? What drags me back to a gritty, pungent past is perhaps just what pushes Danny forward. Perhaps Danny is really not influenced in any way by the hard cross-currents of Dutch history. Perhaps, to him, the Golden Age is simply here and now.

So it isn’t that. Nor is it an issue of doctrine, exactly. It isn’t just that by my reckoning, Danny presents a limited vision of utopia — although that is, incidentally, certainly true. Anyone who has been lucky enough to experience conviviality, sex or even the slightest of spiritual ecstasies in more holistic, complicated contexts — friendship, love or prayer, for instance — might well argue that all these experiences all lose something fundamental in being reduced to pay-as-you-go economic transactions. There is something poignant and forlorn, if recognisable, in Danny’s memory of ‘paying double’ to spend a little more time with a particularly appealing whore — Auden’s

Every farthing of the cost All the gloomy cards foretell Shall be paid — but from this night Not a whisper, not a thought Not a kiss nor look be lost

rendered with a literalism that both illustrates and appears oblivious to every point that this most Platonic of modern poets may have wished to have made. And indeed, at the risk of sounding prim and Augustinian, one has to wonder whether, in his second pamphlet about Amsterdam, Danny’s growing dissatisfaction somehow relates to the very human, very natural sense that, despite all the beer, the sex, the heavy metal music and the hand-rolled smokes, something is missing, even though he and I would disagree fundamentally about that that ‘something’ is? No, perhaps not. Perhaps Danny is simply happy enough with what he has. Perhaps that other Auden line — ‘each in the individual cell of himself / is almost convinced of his freedom’ should not be ringing in my mind so insistently right now.

What is it, then? Part of it, I suppose, is a complaint regarding the proscriptive character of the ‘freedom’ that Danny offers. What does ‘freedom’ look like? It looks, oddly enough, like Danny’s idea of fun. Why this is characterised as ‘freedom’, rather than a version of despotism agreeable to Danny, remains veiled in mystery. All of which leads me to suspect that Danny’s idea of paradise is, pure and simple, a libertarian totalitarianism. Nowhere in his pamphlet does Danny contend with the notion that his version of ‘freedom’ might be a minority taste, shunned by most normal Dutch people, let alone everyone else.

In any event, though, it is hard to imagine that Danny would be equally excited about, say, the freedom of people who find soft drug use distasteful to exclude it from their community. And yet paradoxically, this is precisely what happens in all but one tiny corner of the Netherlands. Nor is this a trivial point, at least for those of us with some vague interest in the practicalities, the histories, the weird little contingencies of ‘freedom’. It is one thing to light up a joint in the Zeedijk and quite another one to do so in, say, the Hooftstradt, let alone in Tilburg or Zutphen. And the same goes for prostitution, pornography, even wearing unusual clothes or behaving in a raucous manner. Danny thinks that Britain is a repressive, reactionary place. Fair enough. Yet the reality is that both law and a hard-to-define sense of social good manners ensure that the Netherlands are much more tightly regulated in such matters than the UK — and not only in provincial areas but in Amsterdam itself. And it is hard to deny that this is part of what makes the place so attractive. By way of example, what the Dutch rather charmingly call ‘wild pissing’ — the recourse to bits of urban wall so beloved of young and bibulous Englishmen at home or abroad — attracts a sizeable fine in the Netherlands, whereas in our own Soho, for instance, the authorities will clamp a delivery vehicle within minutes of parking, but can apparently do nothing to stop the streets from smelling foul first thing on a Sunday morning. And if you see people behaving badly in Amsterdam — singing too loudly, picking fights too readily, vomiting too profusely and inconveniently — rather embarrassingly, those people are, as any Dutch person will politely point out given half the chance, almost inevitably English.

So what Danny enjoys might turn out to be, at the end of the day, a particular and limited set of freedoms that appeal to Danny, contained within a series of well-delineated bounds. All sort of issues of property rights, cultural norms and ‘freedoms’ come into play here. The basic point, however, is that if the Oudezijds Voorburgwal is anything, it is the tiniest of tightly-managed, officially-licensed safety valves for a notably conformist, law-abiding, and heavily-regulated society. After all, selling even the softest of drugs for more than personal use isn’t legal in Amsterdam — meaning that the law can crack down on the wholesale end of the retail chain more or less at will, while sales of hard drugs result in huge fines and long prison sentences. This has something to do with why those cash-cow ‘brown cafes’ are not run by gangsters, and why they are pleasant places (if you like that sort of thing) to frequent.

Still, what is paradise to Danny may not look like paradise to everyone. The brothels are taxed and can still be shut down by the police, none of which prevents the usual problems with coercive sex, violent pimps and bad smack habits; the fact that so many whores are tired-looking immigrants, and so few of them pretty blonde girls, should tell even the dimmest visitor something about whether prostitution should really be considered a well-paid, high-status, fulfilling, desirable career option. Gay marriage is legal, but at the same time, plenty of intelligent, sophisticated, successful gay men and women hugely and perhaps correctly prefer the security of the closet, from which nothing will seep out to disturb their families, colleagues or neighbours. You won’t see men strolling down the streets of provincial villages, hand-in-hand. And there are other illiberal forces at work in Amsterdam, too. Part of the delightfully laid-back atmosphere comes not from endless spliffs — over-indulgence in that sort of thing is strictly for tourists and down-and-outs — but rather from the happy acceptance of EU working directives limiting the number of hours spent on capitalist endeavour, thus leaving the Dutch with plenty of time to spend relaxing with friends and family. Meanwhile, an expensive welfare state exists alongside a growing number of legal and illegal immigrants from Surinam and elsewhere, who face a degree of resentment and out-and-out racism that might surprise anyone still clinging to the dream of Dutch ‘tolerance’. And actual Dutch people tend to regard Danny’s Amsterdam as something distasteful and perhaps even undesirable — certainly a place best left to foreigners only.

Up from libertarianism etc.
Do the Netherlands need their safety valve? The Dutch have a sustained ability to surprise British observers. Often their behaviour appears downright paradoxical. Apparently the most calm and reasonable of people, the odd explosion of violence — from the murder of the de Witte brothers to the fairly serious social protest that long outlasted the 1960s — looks all the more startling. The same could be said about the juxtaposition of conservatism with extravagant libertarianism implied by some of the above. The eye-catching career of Pim Fortuyn — gay, xenophobic, charismatic, dead, whatever — sums this up. The contrast, though, is surely more imagined than real.

In large part, though, this stems from the British habit, evident from the late sixteenth century onwards, to make the Netherlands into a symbol of something — always in a way that comments, however eliptically, on Britain itself. For a long time, such comparisons had to do with pressing issues such as degrees of religious reform, industriousness, the assertiveness of married women or the treatment of landscape painting. Now, however, interest focuses on ‘liberalism’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom’. And of course, as is always the way with such comparisons, the actual Dutch reality of being Dutch is worse than completely irrelevant, since what is being discussed is Britain, not the Netherlands. Who looks at a mirror in order to see the mirror itself? Our boundless curiosity about the Netherlands is more than partly rooted in self-regard. Why are they like that — why are we like that? This is why Amsterdam’s apparent libertarianism piques us like no one else’s. This is, I think, why Danny could only write about Amsterdam’s freedom in terms of London’s un-freedom. This is why, as far as that goes, the whole business of looking at Dutch art is, for British people, a way of talking about anything but the Netherlands themselves.

We have been here in the Netherlands a long time; we are all tired; it is time to go home. There is, however, one last question I want to ask before we go.

Am I alone in detecting an almost touching element of holiday romance in Danny’s narrative? Definition by comparison has been one of the recurrent, if one of the quieter leitmotives of this essay. Surely, though, this is the nature of holiday experience? Whatever else a holiday might be, it is not home, real life, the everyday reality in which one normally passes one’s days. The experiences that Danny enjoys in Amsterdam, whether explicitly — drugs, alcohol, heavy metal music, uncomplicated sex — or perhaps more implicitly — spectacle, slipped inhibitions, intimacy with his travelling companions, even the very sense of a special, unique, privileged experience that drove him to speak and write about it — are not, perhaps, so different from those enjoyed by young people who go to Ibiza or Aya Napa, or our trans-Atlantic cousins with their Saturnalian ‘spring breaks’, the dirty old men who slope off to Thailand to do things they could not legally do here, or even — on some tiny scale — the suburban people who invade the West End every Friday and Saturday night.

To spell out the obvious, the attraction is, self-evidently, not the intrinsic ‘freedom’ of Spain, Cyprus, South Carolina, the Far East or, err, the City of Westminster. By no sane index are any of these places more ‘free’ than Danny’s London. What they are, however, are places that can be defined against a background — and a bleak one it is, too — of all the responsibilities, work, drudgery, disappointment and boredom that may well be waiting there on Monday morning, after one has returned from wherever it is that once has been. This, rather than native cynicism and bad-naturedness, is why I’d bet anything that Amsterdam, transferred ‘freedom’ and all from the Netherlands to London, would soon lose its charms for Danny. He’d keep running into people he knew, he’d get tired of the girls, he’d learn all the things that were flawed or boring about them, he’d have bad memories of some of the clubs, his mates would have other things to do — and besides, there’s be work the next day, laundry to do, errands to run, telephone calls to return, rent to pay — all those ghastly things that even libertarians accept have to happen, at least for the here-and-now, but which would reliably wring the joy out of so many of Danny’s pleasures. Worst of all, what about his personal sense of having — personally, perhaps uniquely — experienced ‘freedom’? The fun would have gone. He’d have to seek out new horizons, new Amsterdams, new dreams. As any Christian with neo-Platonist urges might have told him, it is, alas, the human condition to pursue here on earth the sort of transcendental moments which are, so the Christian would tell him, only lastingly possible in Heaven. But I suspect that would be little consolation to Danny.

‘Freedom’ is, then, perhaps, something only possible in the negative — as a periodic escape from the burdens we usually but necessarily bear, the consciousness of which is concomitant with the human condition. We are only conscious of the absence of those burdens when we are no longer carrying them, but if we stopped carrying them, we would no longer be conscious of their absence. Does this sound bleak? I don’t mean it to sound bleak. What Danny wants is, in a way, not so different from what we all want. The libertarian mistake is simply to imagine that even some small proportion of our wants could be encompassed, for any extended amount of time, within the paradise defined by Danny.

Danny is not, however, wrong about everything. He loves Amsterdam. So do I. Of course we differ about things. For him, the tarts all love sex and are ‘doing it’ because they want to, not because they have not got proper passports, have no cash and their Albanian pimps would knock several shades of whatever out of them if they said ‘no, sorry, this makes me feel cheap and hurt and violated’. For me, those tarts are desperately unlucky. As much as I pity them, though, I have even more pity for people who live in ugly dormitory towns, growing fat and smug on the certainty that sin and viciousness only happens in places like Amsterdam or Soho — forgetting as they conveniently do that most sins have nothing to do with sex, but quite a lot to do with sloth and pride, failures of charity or humility. I also rather admire Danny for thinking that the world around him ought to be better, happier, more expansive than it is, because in doing so, he bears witness to powers stronger and greater than he, or any of us, can perhaps effectively imagine, although we periodically feel them working within our very hearts. Unlike Danny, I do not think these urges will ever be satisfied here, and so I shall I shall not expend my efforts trying to create heaven here on earth. Danny, perhaps, will. As for the rest, none of us can choose the point from which we start, the wounds we seek to staunch, the weird eliptical stance from which we view the heavens. A Golden Age? My fun lies, for whatever reason, in tearing the last one apart; Danny thinks one will turn up one of these days. One of us, clearly, will be right.
Bunny Smedley, August 18, 2003 05:03 PM


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