The public debate about the Dutch multicultural society – and in particular the integration of Muslim culture – has been infested by populism, false sentiments, anger and xenophobia. Last week, all usual suspects spoke out again in the media when the director of the City Art Museum in The Hague banned a controversial work.
The possibility for open-minded people with balanced ideas – by and far the majority – to have a proper and rational discussion has been trampled on. Extremists on both sides have hijacked the debate with dogmatic, hyper-emotional and uncompromising arguments. An interesting point is that art plays a conspicuous role in conveying, or communicating, some of these ideas. One famous example is the film Submission, made in 2004 by Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, dealing with the suppression of Muslim women, which led directly to the murder of Van Gogh, and indirectly to Hirsi Ali fleeing from the Netherlands to the USA.
Last week the Iranian artist Sooreh Hera broke the news when her photographs were banned from the City Art Museum in The Hague by its director Wim van Krimpen. The pictures showed homosexual lovers wearing masks of the prophets Muhammed and Ali. Van Krimpen had no problem with issuing the difficulties of homosexuality in Islam culture, he disapproved of the provocative and insulting nature of the photographs.
Again, issues of freedom of speech, of religion and sexual orientation were discussed, and again, the debate was hijacked by the usual, populist suspects. Political parties in The Hague argued that art institutes cannot shut out the public debate and political issues, others claimed that the museum had violated the freedom of speech, and provocative works could not be banned simply because they are provocative.
I think the decision was perfectly sound. The argument that the museum avoids political discussion is false. Its decision to avoid a provocative work, which would further polarize a public discussion that’s already been spoiled and infested, is purely political. The viewpoint of Van Krimpen is to have a discussion which is balanced and avoids further polarizing. Moreover, this decision shows that, as a museum, an artist, a theorist, a politician, any stakeholder in this discussion, you have a choice. Not regarding participation in the discussion, or avoiding it, but a choice in the way you want to discuss it.
Currently, the public debate is completely dominated and corrupted by two extremist opinions: the first is the populist viewpoint, which means showing the work without any questioning, because criticizing the political content of art – based on rational arguments – is immediately disregarded as violating the freedom of speech. Second is the Islamic extremist viewpoint, which allows only the complete rejection of Hera’s work, which has been expressed by death threads towards Sooreh Hera, who is now in hiding. Consequence: end of discussion.
Certainly, the utopian ideas of a multicultural society, dating from the eighties and the nineties, must be challenged, but extremist opinions must be as well. Currently, anyone on the left favoring a proper, balanced discussion regarding multicultural issues in the Netherlands is being disregarded as left extremist, against freedom of speech and terrorist-in-action. And on the other side of the spectrum, any right-wing party favoring a proper discussion, is disregarded as secular extremist, anti-religious, racist and xenophobic.
To use the famous words of Spike Lee: “Ye’ all need a chill!”. And to make my point, please check the following feverish, raging fragment of Lee’s Do the right thing, because this is where we are now: at boiling point.