This post is part one of the lecture The Dutch Golden Age: telling stories. This part of the lecture is about the historical context and trajectory of the term Dutch Golden Age.If you are interested in the context of this lecture, please read this post first.
Poster for lecture series, in the centre is Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson by Dr. Nicholas Tulp (1632)
An allegory for dissecting the how we consume and present art from the Dutch Golden Age.
The poster read in Dutch: "Lezing reeks: Gouden Eeuw en haar impact hoe wij naar kunst kijken" English translation:"Lecture Series: The Dutch Golden Age en how the impact it has on how we look at art.
Part 1: Why we love the term Golden Age
Why is the Golden Age such a beautiful term to so many? Why are so many people committed to this term and hold tightly to a narrow definition? Why is the term important too? The answer can partly be found in a neurological wiring and in a historical context.
The more you see it, the more you enjoy it
We start with why there is so much pleasure in it and that is proof on a neurological basis. In short, the more we see or experience something, the more neurological connections are made in the brain. The more links, the more pleasure we experience in whatever it is we see. We enjoy objects and visuals, the more we are exposed to it. It intertwines with our lives, emotions and even sense of self. We are hardwired into loving things the more we see and understand it.
Elisabeth de Bièvre, is a Dutch art historian, who wrote "Dutch Art And Urban Cultures, 1200-1700" and in "Green Art Studies..." looked into five Dutch cities during the seventeenth century. She tracked what art was made and sold and linked them to local environments and industries. Her main argument goes that the natural environment determines what we find socially important. We take her research into pleasure from repeated experience from her research. Bièvre argued that artist and viewer are part of the same visual environment and therefore they share a shared experience and framework. The research is about making art and what is considered important. However, what we can take away from her research in the context of the Dutch Golden Age is her study into the physiology of the human mind. Where more neurological connections exist the more people enjoy the object, visual or theme.
Loving the Golden Age
We take that knowledge about neurological links and our enjoyment and take it with us how the Golden Age is poured in with a porridge spoon all over the world. Partly propaganda, part colonialism, part continuous museum exhibitions and part pop culture (Rembrandt branded coffee mugs etc.). We feel comfortable in the material, we recognize the images and can easily place it. We feel comfortable in our knowledge and experience of objects and events from the seventeenth century. It is also easier for people to get your attention with it and to expand on it. From there also that we have let this lecture series be about the Dutch Golden Age. We present this at Museum Voorschoten , however Voorschoten has very little left of the Dutch Golden Age. But we know people will be attracted to this type of lecture. This lecture series build on all of the hundreds of exhibitions, exposure at school and in the media.
Learning more about the Dutch Golden Age
We are also looking for new experiences and knowledge as people. Well within the framework of our own understanding and this is what this lecture and explanation about the Golden Age are about. Or so we say, despite ongoing research about the Golden Age, we actually often want to know what we know and see our worldview is correct. In our museums we want to see ourselves and our knowledge reflected back at us. A small extension to that knowledge is welcome. This is how academic progress and theory work. Small steps, on top of small steps.
Seeing our history back in the frameworks known to us makes us feel safe. It removes a lot of uncertainty during the uncertainty crisis. Like EU vs. The Netherlands, we as the Dutch can see ourselves again in the Golden Age on a story we are familiar with. But who you are as a Dutch person is different from who you are as a Dutch person, today or a hundred years ago. Let us look at the Golden Age in the context of time and space. For us now in 2020 and how it was conceived.
The start of the Dutch Golden Age
We did not call the Golden Age, the Seventeenth century until the Nineteenth century. What happened in the nineteenth century that we started doing this and what was the role of the museum in this?
Museums and the term Dutch Golden Age both come from the same century and was used in the same political strategy in representing an unified nation state. Museums played a major role in visualizing national identity during the nineteenth and twentieth century. For example, the Rijksmuseum's first purchase is the "The Endangered Swan, Jan Asselijn" from around 1950 and that is a very political piece. The Rijksmuseum description: “A swan defends its nest with eggs against a dog. The performance has been given a political allegorical interpretation because the swan has been designated as the deputy pensioner Johan de Witt, who protects Holland against the enemy.
The historical context in which museums has been formed is mapped by anthropologist Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan in “Making and remaking Identities”. Kaplan is an anthropologist and emirate professor in the Art and Science Faculty of the University of New York. Flora is the founder and director of "Museum Studies Program" at the same university. She is best known for her fieldwork as an anthropologist about Benin, Edouwaye is an honorary title she has been granted. She has also worked for several years as a curator and director of two major American museums, namely The Brooklyn Museum. She has had several board roles within ICOM (ICOM is the International Council of Museums).
Kaplan has found in her research that the museum and how they deal with their objects and their history are mainly in the hands of international museum organizations and academics. I also involve the biography and power that academics within the museum world have in discussing every theoretical insight. We combine Kaplan's context with specific examples that link to the Netherlands and the Golden Age.
Nineteenth Century start
Originally the name Golden Age refers to a legendary time in which no one had to work. This mythological name was used to name a period in Dutch history where there was a lot of economic bloom within the country. The exact moment of the start of The Dutch Golden Age is specifically 1602 with the founding of the VOC (Dutch Trading Company), was chosen as a moment of a great nation. Choosing this moment of economic boom is a strategic nation starting myth that people developed in a political period where the importance of a central authority determines the identity of a country. National identity imposed by the authority of the state or king. The times assume that everyone regardless of their diversity who lives within the boundaries of a country identify with the country and was loyal to the central power. If you pledged your allegiance to the central authoritative state, they would lead you back to prosperity of a Dutch Golden Age.
Other expressions for this kind of identity are nationalism and patriotism.
In essence, it is also important that there is a starting story where this pride and identity is based. But nationalism, too, is exclusive and alienating to those who do not fit an often very narrow identity profile. Even those who do fit this profile, might rebel against this identity when patriotism is low during wars.
Around the second half of the twentieth century there is a major shift in thinking about the identity of people in countries and therefore also in museums. Kaplan looks at ethnicity, religion and ideology as the basis of identity for people as other possibilities in this period of crisis. Also which of these could museums use when exhibiting cultural objects? Ethnicity, religion and ideology have come up with their own problems and have not really been able to surpass nationalism or national identity with a good enough perspective for national museums.
Defined in sociological terms as the state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. In the 19th century ethnicity is a concept of race as a rough division of anatomically modern humans. A definitions we no longer deem appropriate, but has had a lasting negative impact on our current society. Ethnicity is too complex and cannot be defined culturally. In addition, there is a lot of diversity within an ethnicity and it often happens that everything is under one comb, for example America and European peoples under a comb under the number "white" is too vague. So being distinguished again by nation states allows for more diversity.
Religion is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. It is partly cultural and partly ethnic, but also entirely separate from both. Especially in the 1970s, religion as an identity often appeared in museums. Often art objects and other culturally important architecture and objects were deliberately destroyed because they did not correspond to a religion. Many people didn't like that either. In fact, it often went one step further to destroy and suppress any "other" cultural heritage. For example, the Victorian community that cut off the penises of ancient Greek and Renaissance works, or the Taliban that destroyed the monumental Buddhas, in Afghanistan, from the fifth to seventh centuries in 2001. In The Netherlands in the seventeenth century, there was the infamous "Beelden Storm" the systematic destruction of all things Catholic in The Netherlands in 1556. Almost no churches, stained windows or art from before this moment still exists in The Netherlands.
Identity along the lines of ideology has nothing to do with physical markers like ethnicity or even maybe patriotism. An ideology is a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy. Ideology seemed like a good alternative. Indeed, cultural objects were even used to bridge the gap between various ideologically. During the cold war, the exchange of cultural objects was used for a diplomatic mission. A problematic aspect that arose is that many countries had a Marxist ideology. Marxism was finally used as a justification to destroy or discard cultural objects. We now also know that Marxism and communism are not the prevailing ideology in most of the world. But at the time it was very uncertain if this would be a prevailing ideology. And for various reasons, including the predominance of "Western" ideology, this is not a good approach. Ideology is not a good enough framework.
After the 1950's a clear pattern of emancipation from paternalistic and authoritative hierarchies was taking place over the West. After two world wars it was clear that a nation stands as a sovereign central identity not something that we can go further with, without critically looking at all aspects of this type of nation state and our own identity within it. After the Second World War, individuals are also punished or forgiven for their individual actions based on their actions according to or against a nation. "We didn't know" and "I was just executing an order" was not a good enough reason for what happened during the Second World War. We then finally renounced a central nation's power. You have to think for yourself, no matter what the people in power tell or command you. This lecture was given in a exhibition space where people from Voorschoten where remembering the Second World War and the impact it has on their lives. This was was a moment that started many debates of emancipation around, class, gender and race. This is also the moment when the debate Dutch Golden Age versus Seventeenth Century starts taking place. Which the second part of this lecture is about and what this means for the audience going to museums.
The Dutch Golden Age has been part of the Dutch conscious for more than two hundred years. This term is an integral part of a large part of the populations identity and education. The terms was used as part of national propaganda over two centuries in order to heighten national pride and allegiance the the sovereign state.
Peoples pride and identity is linked to their understanding of The Dutch Golden Age and the objects that visualize this identity. Seeing these objects in a specific context helps people connect to and strengthen this identity. However, this identity has a very narrow frame which was constructed in the early nineteenth century.
We know that people enjoy seeing things they know and that is also central to revisiting cultural objects. Tampering with the framework, either alienating or educating individuals.
That concludes the context of the term "Dutch Golden Age" and the second part will continue and look at what this context means for museums and people visiting exhibitions where the debate around the term "Dutch Golden Age"is being had.
Poster: Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.
During the break, people explained they were confused. Was this lecture not going to be about paintings? The description of this lecture series was: How Does the Dutch Golden Age influences how we look at art and how we frame this term influences how we look at art. This specific lecture would look into the context of this term and how the debate Dutch Golden Age versus Seventeenth century influences how art objects from this period is being framed. But people had seen Dutch Golden Age and filled in their own expectations, that of an easily consumed known theme.
1/5 of the audience left after consuming their tea or coffee.
Henk Wijckerheld Bisdom the man behind starting Museum Voorschoten gave me some good feedback after the first half: to talk a bit louder. I was trailing off when following my notes. I was afraid that I would forget the nuances of this lecture. I was too deep into the material and had been for several years and did not trust myself completely to remember to link several steps between my understanding and the understanding of my audience. It was safe to say most of the audience where over fifty if not sixty and went to school in a time in which patriarchal nation state propaganda was still part of the curriculum. The debate was as old as they where, but looking at The Dutch Golden Age in context was a bit dry in the first half, but also very strange to them. After reflecting for a time, it seems that exhibition tackle this difficult debate more easily than the cold academic lecture or writings. Making the above quote seem all the more true for how the second half of the lecture was received.
Thursday I will post the second part of the lecture series.
An art historian that specialises
in Museums and Collections,
specifically political context of
museums and their collections.