Schafhausen – Back to Exhibitions!

In a recent lecture in Rotterdam, Nicolaus Schafhausen wished to pour cold water on the many discourse-lovers and meta-curators among us.

Nicolaus Schafhausen. Foto: Steffen Jagenburg.

Nicolaus Schafhausen, the current director of Witte de With – Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, held a lecture on Wednesday that focused on the difficult economic challenges many Dutch artists and cultural institutions currently face, as a result of drastic cuts in public funding. Under the title “To Tell the Truth: The Danger of Mediocrity,” Schafhausen also discussed the public role of institutions such as Witte de With when political populism is on the rise.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the conservative government, which formed after last year’s elections in the Netherlands, with Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) in the majority, is implementing severe budget cuts that effect both education and culture. The latter has been cut by around a quarter, which subsequently puts several cultural institutions in danger.

Schafhausen’s voice was marked by a dramatic, near-apocalyptic tone when, in reference to Wilders’ populist rhetoric, he said, «What we have, for decades, lived and understood as democracy no longer exists.» He also spoke about the state secretary of education, culture, and science and his «open and uncontested ridicule of art and artists.»

Those who are threatened in such a populist climate are those who are above mediocre. Seen in this light, institutions like Witte de With appear intolerably elitist. In Norway, we recognize aspects of this rhetoric from the Progress Party, FrP’s well-known criticism of the «cultural elite» and «artists with their straws in the State’s fund». Schafhausen sees a tendency throughout all of Europe in politicians who want to gain political control over independent, critical institutions such as Witte de With.

This political landscape has had an effect on current phenomenon in the art world.This can be seen in the way that the art world has become increasingly more discourse-driven; and how various activities that previously accompanied exhibitions—discussions, seminars, research, publications, etc.—have now, to a large extent, become the main focus, as a kind of meta-curatorial field in itself. In his lecture, Schafhausen also addressed the institutionalization of «institutional critique», which relates to this. He also pointed out problems he sees with the expanding academization and discussion of the arts, to the extent that the free and critical debate within academia and other forms of education deteriorate:

«This development becomes problematic as soon as increasingly market-oriented academic institutions or municipal educational facilities substantially withdraw from areas of activity that have been adopted by the art world: when art institutions become venues that not only organize exhibitions, but also provide scholarly conferences, establish their own (albeit temporary) academies, while universities are forced to withdraw from these areas for political reasons; when the politicians responsible for culture are only willing to finance the educational efforts of the institutions and cut funding for their structural development… »

Schafhausen urged art institutions to exercise a level of constraint when delineating their main tasks:

«[W]e ought to return to a focus on the exhibition and presentation of art, and we ought to subordinate the auxiliary material surrounding them—the practices and the discourses that they produce—according to their relevance for these two core elements.»

With that he poured cold water on the blood of many discourse-lovers and meta-curators among us. Schafhausen is not criticizing the way the curatorial has opened itself up to the discursive as such, he is rather arguing that it is important not to forget that there are other places «where much of what we are doing is also being done.»