December 2012


Bias and Inanity in Arts Funding

A Tale of Two Composers

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Americans who advocate government support of the arts often cite European nations as a model to emulate. A recent lawsuit in the Netherlands and a musical hoax perpetrated on that nation's Fund for the Performing Arts should sound a salutary note of caution in that regard.

Government funding for the arts has long been lavish in the Netherlands, with the result that private patronage is virtually nonexistent. The suit recently decided in Holland's High Court of Appeal shows how this attempt to supply a public good through government largesse has gone awry. The unfortunate result has been the empowerment of a cultural oligarchy that acts to perpetuate its own benighted view of what constitutes musical creativity.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, John Borstlap, is a composer of classical music who rejects the avant-gardism dominant in his field for decades. He aims to write new music in the spirit of the great European tradition that preceded modernism--music that appeals to a broader audience than modernist and postmodernist work. Despite impressive credentials and a body of work praised by music professionals abroad, however, Holland's Fund for the Performing Arts has repeatedly rejected applications for the support of new compositions by him. The reason they give is that his music lacks "originality."

Under Holland's system for funding new music, a composer does not apply directly for support. Instead, a performing group interested in his work submits an application to fund a commission for a new composition by him. If funding is denied, neither the composer nor the performing group can pursue such a project, since private patronage is not an available option. Groups desiring to perform new works by Borstlap have until now come up empty-handed in their applications to the Performing Arts Fund.

Although it is a state-based institution supported by the Dutch government, the Fund is not under direct government control. Operating independently, it recruits its own panels of experts to set policy and award grants. While ostensibly independent, it has nonetheless constituted its own quasi totalitarian regime in the cultural sphere.

Nonsense Criteria

As Borstlap charged in his suit against the Fund, its "experts" are all drawn from the narrow community of avant-garde composers, programmers, and performing groups who have themselves received grants. It is, he argued, an isolated, self-referential world, which employs "nonsense criteria." Their idea of musical "originality," he reported, is exemplified by the work of John Cage--best known for his piece 4'33" [more], in which no music is played and listeners hear only the ambient chance sounds of the performance space.(1)

In his initial court proceedings, Borstlap cited as yet more damning evidence of the Fund's nonsensical mindset the experience of his fellow composer Eduard de Boer (pen name: Alexander Comitas). In 2006, de Boer, whose relations with the Fund had been strained during the 1990s, submitted a piece entitled Bubbles. It was awarded 3,000 euros by the Fund, which noted that it "surpassed" the composer's customary output with respect to its "idiom."

What the Fund didn't know was that the piece was a hoax. De Boer had "created" it based on his two young sons' random pounding on a keyboard--which he then translated by entirely arbitrary, mechanical transformations into a playable score for ten instruments.

When confronted with that information, Borstlap says, the Fund was not in the least fazed. In its view such an approach was, as he puts it, "a perfectly normal composing procedure" (including, presumably, the part played by de Boer's children). Perfectly normal, that is, within the mad mindset of the avant-garde musical world.

Wider Implications

The funding of new work in the visual arts is also affected by avant-garde bias, as Borstlap has been quick to point out. In 2011 a Dutch painter named Wim Heldens won the prestigious BP Award of Britain's National Portrait Gallery. His winning work, Distracted was an accomplished realist portrait that is contemporary in subject matter yet remains within the European academic tradition--comparable in that respect to the work of Classical Realist painters in America and abroad, but with a very different sensibility.(2) Despite the skill demonstrated in that painting, Heldens has been systematically excluded from public support in the Netherlands, and the Dutch press had never heard of him before his BP prize. For his livelihood, moreover, he has been totally dependent on foreign collectors, though the Dutch subsidy system was intended precisely to encourage native talent.

The systematic exclusion of contemporary artists employing traditional media is of course not unique to the Netherlands. In Aristos and elsewhere, Louis Torres and I have railed against it with respect to America's National Endowment for the Arts. As we observed in What Art Is, the endowment's dependence on recognized "experts" has resulted in "a de facto entrenchment of avant-gardism in national arts policy and practice, since the prominent 'artists' and 'experts' in the contemporary artworld are modernists or postmodernists of one stripe or another." The one saving grace here is that we still have avenues of private and corporate patronage--though all too often they tend to follow the govermental lead.

Regrettably, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands has ruled against Borstlap's claim, which had been based on the Fund's negligent treatment of him during its own appeal procedure. Although Dutch law requires that in any such procedure in a government institution all relevant documents--including new ones--must be admitted, the Fund had refused to consider substantial written assessments of Borstlap's work by estimable authorities in the field of classical music.

The lower court to which Borstlap first brought his suit ruled that the Fund had indeed treated his application "carelessly." This was a Pyrrhic victory for the composer, however, since the judges nonetheless refused to require that the Fund compensate him. Hence his appeal to the high court. There the three appellate judges in effect reverted to the shaky position taken by the Fund in its appeal process. Falsely claiming that the documents supporting Borstlap's claim had been submitted too late to be considered, they refused to hear new assessments of the composer's work--including those by Roger Scruton and Andreas Dorschel, philosophers who specialize in the aesthetics of music.

Thus even the Supreme Court has flouted the requirements of Dutch law, Borstlap now charges. In any case, its ruling has the unfortunate effect of seeming to vindicate the Performing Arts Fund, instead of rebuking it for its incompetence and bias. Such bias and incompetence, the composer says, has simply enabled many dubious "artists" to gain "easy money" in a system of government arts subsidy that has "grown to immense proportions."

Recent austerity measures in the Netherlands have cast this problem in a new light. Economic necessity there, as elsewhere in Europe, has resulted in drastic across-the-board cuts for cultural programs, on rather short notice. Not surprisingly, those most accustomed to depend on government subsidies will find it most difficult to survive--a further cautionary tale.

Barring either a sea change in the assumptions of Holland's cultural establishment (still rooted in a 1960s postmodernist mindset) or a shift to private arts funding, however, traditionalists like Borstlap will find it no easier to subsist. And given what he says about the silence of the Dutch press regarding his lawsuit, neither of those changes seems at all likely in the near term.(3)


1. The truth about John Cage (1912-1992) is even more telling than Borstlap's claim that he "never intended to be a serious musician." As Torres and I have noted, Cage did aspire to a musical career, but he was hampered by lack of talent and devastated by poor reviews. His failure as a composer is what led him to abandon music entirely to engage in his anti-art shenanigans. (See What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand [search for "aimed to compose pieces"], pp. 221-22.)

2. See "The Legacy of Richard Lack" (Aristos, December 2006) and "The New Dawn of Painting" (Aristos, March 1986)--both by Louis Torres.

3. Thanks to Lennaart Allan for informing Aristos about the Borstlap case. Allan, a Dutch painter, co-authored Niet Alles Is Kunst [Not everything is art], published in the Netherlands by Aspekt in 2010.

Further reading and listening

Correction: January 21, 2013
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
The original version of this article mistakenly implied that the musical hoax submitted by Eduard de Boer (a.k.a. Alexander Comitas) to the Dutch Fund for the Performing Arts was the first of his works to receive a grant from the fund. (Our thanks to him for writing us to correct our error.)