Polarization is a widespread problem, including in prosperous countries, so it seems.
In the Dutch NRC Newspaper of last 20 June, historian Zihni Özdil wrote: 'In the country with the most flex contracts and freelancers in Europe, where the income of the middle class has stagnated for twenty years, where the squeezing of underprivileged people has been policy for years, an enormous discontent is about to explode'.
For those who don't live in one of the richest countries in the world, which the Netherlands still is, this may sound like insane absurdity. But discontent is growing everywhere. Although the number of bankruptcies has never been so low thanks to government support, severe riots broke out in 10 Dutch cities against the curfew and the lockdown rules last night.
It even looks like that boiling point has been reached in the Dutch cultural sector also, given the hundreds of signatories to fiercely committed open letters and the heated discussions on internet forums last year.
The dissatisfaction in the Theatre Low Lands is not new. The growing anger and frustration has been noticeable for years, although at first it seemed fairly unfocused. In the beginning, apparently it was often about nothing, and it was mainly the tone that became more and more bitter, if not poisonous.
A long time I thought the growing discontent was the result of the lack of resources, the growing inequality and the constantly felt social pressure on the Arts to prove its (economic) value.
Looking back the tipping point we are on now was inevitably coming. What is not going well is suddenly exposed at an accelerated pace: abuse of power, discrimination, the rise of populism, unequal opportunities and rewards… There is an awful lot that we have to relate to. Not to mention the ultimate consequences of the corona crisis.
The people in the theatre world best stand firmly next to each other in the coming years. And that does not only apply to the Netherlands. My European colleagues are extremely concerned about where things are going.
What I worry about is that that struggle for survival easily turns into even more anger and polarization. Where polarization is the social trend, I firmly believe that the arts sector should not co-polarize, but should do everything to counteract that polarization. I advocate an opposing, non-violent movement.
I am currently hearing three simple recommendations to our own ranks that can be applied to all the challenges we face:
1. Have a conversation.
2. Come up with a plan.
3. Be inspiring and self-aware.
To begin with, there are a striking number of people and groups that call for dialogue. The trick, of course, is to do that with as many people as possible in a way that makes everyone feel heard and understood. This is desperately needed and preferably at a qualitatively much higher level than has happened so far.
Fortunately, there is endless knowledge out there from thinkers and doers like Marshall Rosenberg, David Bohm, Larry Yang, Angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens and the acclaimed Scilla Elworthy who can teach us about truly inclusive, connecting communication.
The need for dialogue goes hand in hand with the wish that we no longer just talk, but that concrete plans are actually made with which we can move forward immediately. We should no longer wait for the policy to be made, but develop the policy ourselves, is the prevailing feeling. There is also a need for new rules about how we treat each other.
I myself am not much into the rules. I think rules are only necessary when you are no longer in touch with your moral compass. We will have to talk about that. We must be part of the solution and not the problem.
I'm not saying the world looks better when artists or creatives are in charge. People who work in the arts are, as a rule, no better or worse than anyone else. But the sector should actively take up its task of at least trying to make the world a bit more beautiful. Anyone who wants to contribute now awaits an important task as a world improver.
Rolling up sleeves
The momentum we are in urgently calls on us to roll up our sleeves and find practical, compassionate solutions to major issues. We must have the ambition to be a leader. The arts sector has unconsciously and unnecessarily manoeuvred itself into the frustrating position of a humble student and has therefore remained too little the master of the imagination. We are very self-critical, but self-criticism should not degenerate into self-punishment. "Our position is ruined," Jeff Koons once said, "It is high time to reclaim what we have lost."
Therefore, let us no longer discount or lower ourselves to bitter struggle. That hurts my eyes. We don't have to constantly publicly apologize or defend ourselves, be the best kid in class, or frantically quantify our contribution to the economy. "The public doesn't like losers," Dutch theatre icon Joop van den Ende stated recently. I think he is right about that.
There is an audience that counts on us and rightly expects something brilliant from us when no one else knows what to do.
The alternative in us is a sleeping giant. Our alert, not to say over alert mind leans towards revolution but I strongly prefer the rebel. I feel a fundamental difference between revolution and rebellion. Struggle is never pretty. Hard words always crack the window, I know from experience. However much you brush and polish afterwards, the crack will last forever. Most revolutions are hideous. Revolutionaries run the risk of becoming the oppressor themselves once they have seized power. Moreover, nothing good has ever come out of anything negative.
True rebellion, on the other hand, is super attractive: rebels are autonomous free thinkers who don't lose themselves in a fight or rancour, who aren't guided by fear, anger or conservatism, but just do it radically differently and in their own way. In essence, see the artist.
Provocation is sometimes necessary, but loud protest is easy to resist. You just shout back as loudly. Real change ultimately comes from people who don't think in terms of problems, but in solutions. Who create space for new ideas without self-interest. In principle, see the producer, the theatre director and the festival organizer.
Let the artistic, playful thinking be guiding again in all facets of our work, even in our protest. It is up to us to formulate an artistic response to all the social challenges that lie ahead. We are creators, not screamers. We are here to replace dark thoughts with a new, clear light.
As humans we all need beauty, humour, fresh ideas, new vistas, inventive power, hope, peace, fraternity, love, contact, space, fun, freedom in thinking and acting, conversation, solutions, quality of life, rattling our entrenched beliefs , ridiculing leadership, spectacle, growth, depth and entertainment.
Offering inspiration and new perspectives to policymakers, to the public, to people who see few opportunities for themselves, to children for whom future prospects are still so unequal: there lies an essential mission that is also an opportunity.
From a healthy self-awareness we know what art can do and there is no reason to hold back. The world needs the inspiration of fearless, bright practical idealism. We determine together whether this will be a turning point in a positive or negative sense.
Put the calculating, angry, wronged homo economicus to sleep and awaken the rebellious free spirit. It will give us the air we desperately need in the years to come.