Governing with populists: experiences from the Netherlands, Catalonia, Poland and Hungary


How do you lead a cultural institution, in a context in which populist politicians have acquired a powerful position? During the last 15 years, quite some European performing arts professionals have gained experience in this. Their stories were shared during the IETM Brussels Plenary Meeting on November 25th in La Raffinerie in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek.

A Dutch-Catalan-Polish-Hungarian panel attempted to outline the chronology of populism in Europe in the last decennia, as a ground for discussing possible counter strategies. In the debate, it turned out that populism has many faces in different surroundings. As a consequence, the proposed counter strategies are also diverse: co-ownership with populists, stepping out of artists’ bubble and becoming politically active, and even developing counter stories and injecting them into the public debate through propaganda strategies.

The case of the Netherlands

By now, the Netherlands has a long history of popular populism. Jan Zoet looks back at the times of Pim Fortuyn.

“In 2001 Rotterdam was Cultural Capital of Europe. The culture sector was given an enormous boost; there were nice programmes and much exchange between the different communities in the city. At the same time, something changed, in the same year, in the streets of the same city. It was the time of 9/11. Pim Fortuyn rose to power in 2002, when his party Leefbaar Rotterdam suddenly became the biggest. All of a sudden, Rotterdam Capital of Culture was portrayed by some as ‘a waste of money for an elite that only serves itself.’ Cuts for the cultural sector followed, but there was also a dialogue. From this, it appeared that populists claimed to represent the people, but in reality, we work with a large and diverse group of citizens. On the basis of that experience, we started the conversation. We also listened to the problems the politicians brought to light. We tried to understand what mattered to them. We invited Leefbaar Rotterdam to all shows and projects. This way, their sense of ownership did grow.”

But in the meantime, much has changed. The 2012 government, that as a minority was supported by Geert Wilders, took over the agenda of his party, the PVV. A race for the populist voter started. What followed were very heavy cuts for the culture sector. The sector ended up on the streets chanting ‘for civilisation,’ against barbarism and budget cuts. “We couldn’t have made a bigger mistake,” posed Jan Zoet: “we claimed civilisation and thereby excluded those who vote for Wilders. It created an enormous backlash, that we really only now have overcome.”

‘Talking to populists is a strategy that you could still use in the start of the 21st century. The position of PVV is different. The strategy that worked for Leefbaar, does not work for a new generation of populists. They refuse any discussion about themes that are not on their agenda. Art is one of those themes.” (Jan Zoet)

The case of Catalonia / Spain

Toni Gonzalez shed light on the conflict in Catalonia, Spain, and its impact on the culture sector in the region. How does governing with populists and authoritarian politicians function there? To understand it, you need a bit of context, some notion of the history of the past 40 years.

‘It is not new that Catalonia wants to be independent. That goes back three hundred years. In 1740, Barcelona lost its autonomy after an attack by the house of Bourbon, in a European conflict. In the last centuries, Catalonia has demanded its autonomy several times. (‘Some weeks ago, we were even independent for thirty seconds.’) The last decennia there was, post-Franco, a two-party system that worked relatively well. There was some sort of a pact between Madrid and Barcelona, on the basis of shared economic interests.’

‘How has the cultural policy evolved? That has happened parallel to developments in other countries, with the development of subsidy systems for production, a network of presentation spaces… Compared to the European North, there was indeed a stronger emphasis on heritage, rather than on the living arts. There were problems, among them is corruption, but still there was a base of support for culture.’

‘Much changed after 2008, by a combination of crises: the bank crisis led to austerity politics in Spain as well as in Catalonia, with budget cuts on culture as high as 50%.

‘That led to poverty and precarity in the arts sector. The austerity politics also led to a number of new democratic citizen movements. People rediscovered their energy to fight for their rights. Think of the protests where Members of the Parliament couldn’t enter the Catalan Parliament anymore. That opened people’s eyes. Those in power saw that they were losing control.’ (Toni Gonzalez)

‘At the same time, positions started to polarise around that theme of independence. The liberal nationalists wanted independence. The governing party resisted, in a very authoritarian manner. Both parties hoped for electoral gains by discrediting the other party. In such a process, the rate of democracy diminishes alarmingly. There are even instances of violence against voters.’

In this context, Gonzalez is talking about ‘culture wars’. ‘In times of fake news, art and culture are not on the political agenda. At the same time, culture has become a battlefield, an instrument in the polarizing battle, and the space for cultural expression is restricted, as can be seen in a couple of examples. In Madrid, some puppeteers were arrested because they were discussing terrorism. An Epiphany parade in Madrid led to a scandal, because the costumes they used were new. Las Naves del Matadero in Madrid is an example of how the performing arts sector lost a space for presentation. In Barcelona, there was a lot of fuss about an artwork in a public space about refugees (on the same place as a monument commemorating the Catalans who died in 1740). At the same time, folk culture is used as a frame of reference in image building.’

The question that is on Toni Gonzalez’ table today is: how can the culture sector deal with this? Can art be an active instrument to combat populist politics?

The case of Poland

In today’s context, it is impossible to take part in a political discussion in Poland, says Marta Keil. To clarify, she talks about the controversy caused by the performance of The Curse by Oliver Frljic. That performance was about the catholic church in the country, in relation to the underexposed discussion about paedophilia. That is a big taboo in Poland, as the church played such a pivotal role in the post-communist transition. Because of that, the church had been rewarded a significant voice in the political system. ‘You understand that discussing this subject in the theatre created an enormous riot, not only in the media, but also at the entrance of the theatre itself. It was very aggressive. The audience needed to enter the theatre through the demonstration and the counter-demonstration, and then still through the security. This example makes it vividly clear that it’s impossible to stay away from the debate. Going to the theatre is already a choice. In the meantime, the context is polarising. There is no possibility for a substantial debate when it comes to forbidding performances.’

In the meantime, the PiS-party has been in power for two years. Culture for is actually on their agenda. There is the emphatic intention to start a culture war. Theatres are treated with censorship – not directly, but through the media. The reason why theatres can go on is that they are mostly subsidised on the municipal level. ‘Let’s wait and see what the municipal elections will bring us’, says Marta Keil.

‘There has always been censorship. But nowadays it is penetrating the system deeper than ever. Possibilities to present are being limited. It is also hard on festivals, like the Dialog Festival for instance, who resorts to such solutions as crowdfunding. Culture is being privatised. That creates possibilities, but it has also appeared to be a reason for even more budget cuts. Privatisation will not be the way to create some space for critical art. Look at what happened in NYC: in the Public Theatre, many private investors withdrew after a performance in which Trump was shown as a caricature.’ (Marta Keil)

‘It’s interesting to observe how the institutions react,’ adds Marta Keil. ‘There are fundamental questions. We are all a bit stuck in our own circle, when we point out just how good it was in the eighties. We have produced a great deal of beautiful performances and programmes. But we were not able to change the system: we are still in the old system of repertoire, and we have not been able to organise sustainable support for the independent sector.’

Find more people outside of your bubble, in order to talk about your bubble. Participants have shared quite some experiences about how they handle this. They ask themselves where they can make a difference, by embedding themselves into other bubbles. Some even become members of a political party, or start their own parties.

The case of Hungary

Dora Papp from Kretakör, the company of Árpád Schilling, sees herself as an activist and discusses populism and counter-narratives in Hungary.

‘It’s about institutions, indeed, but also about creating communities who can start a counter-movement.  That’s not easy. In Hungary, there are no free media anymore. Most are controlled by the government, so you cannot communicate your message. The Kretakör company have met quite some obstacles because of their political standpoint. There is state propaganda against the opposition and against sixty NGOs. Another tactic was a very intense audit of their administration, that took up all of our time so that there would be none left for other activities.’

The propaganda reaches far. Árpád Schilling was targeted personally. Dora shows us a ‘map of fear’, based on a survey that the Orban administration had conducted… Hungarians would not only have fear of ‘migrants’ and George Soros, but also more fear of the EU than of Russia.

What do we do then, which solutions do we see? We try to give a counter voice. As an answer on the national consultation of Orban, Árpád Schilling reacted with an online video, which was seen by millions of Hungarians. We started our own national consultation, in which hundreds of people sent in a selfie with an issue that really preoccupied them. There has been a big protest in Budapest to draw attention to the importance of civil society, which people in the artistic community also took part in.

This article was originally published in Dutch by Joris Janssens on Kunstenpunt's blog on the 27th of November 2017. English translation by Albert Meijer. Read the original article.

Joris Janssens is research & development coordinator at Flanders Arts Institute, the supporting organisation for the arts in Flanders. Since 2001, he worked at the Vlaams Theater Instituut (Flemish Theater Institute), first as researcher and until 2011 as director. VTI has recently merged with the institutes for visual art and music to become Flanders Arts Institute.

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