Marlene Dumas’s acceptance speech
on the occasion of receiving the Johannes Vermeer Award, state prize for the arts
The beginning is the hardest – the end merely follows, because in the beginning is the end, with art as well as with speeches – where and how do you begin.
Maybe I should just start with the most difficult and after that we can party. Firstly – to give all the reasons why I should not have stood here and all the reasons why I am standing here, then 10 minutes are absolutely not enough (for me 10 minutes are anyway never enough). 10 minutes are only an introduction.
Actually I’ve been busy with these two questions all my life – why am I here and should I be here.
A writer once said (I forgot who) ‘we are here to better the lives of others’, but why the others are here we really don’t know. (Funny that when one paints portraits of figures, people think that you obviously like people, but that’s not necessarily so!). In our home in South Africa we had a Mad magazine type text on the wall: I Love Mankind – It’s people I can’t stand.
Ok then, but we can’t do without each other. It is our duty to relate to each other. Whatever the cost.
I’ve been given a state prize. And I didn’t know what the state was. One could even read this word, as I often do, that because of international terrorism, we live in a permanent state of war… I asked “but is the state the same as the government?” And they said “no..” I asked “but why do I then get the prize from Mr. Zijlstra?” They said “because that is his function.”
A good friend reacted – “Marlene, a state prize! It is time to run!”
Now it isn’t a secret that me and the state secretary – Mr Zijlstra disagree on almost everything regarding their art policy. I don’t know him personally. That is better as it doesn’t obscure our professional relationship.
This is a prize for the arts, and we both represent a vision on art. To take this prize seriously, we have to take art seriously and we have to take each other seriously. Ok. So first admit where we come from.
Film clip, Miss Interpreted. Venice Biennale 1995 ( 1min 04 sec )
Home is where the heart is: My fatherland is South Africa. My mother tongue is Afrikaans. My surname is French. I don’t speak French. My mother always wanted me to go to Paris, she thought Art was French, because of Picasso .I thought Art was American, because of Art forum. I thought Mondrian was American too, and that Belgium was a part of Holland. I live in Amsterdam and have a Dutch passport. Sometimes I think I’m not a real artist, because I’m too halfhearted, and never quite know where I am.
Back to the character of prizes. And role models. Jean Paul Sarte was in 1964 the same as I am now – 59 when he refused the Nobel prize for literature. He said he didn’t want to become an institute and it would affect his freedom. Susan Sontag accepted the Jerusalem Prize for literature in 2001. But not without unease (read her acceptance speech on internet).
You can’t get away from those you don’t like, because they pay for you.
Every honor has it’s cons and every prize its price.
Actually I came to the Netherlands because of a prize. I received the Jules Kramer Scholarship from the University of Cape Town in 1976 for two year study overseas. My mother said, when I threw the pebble against her window paine that evening to tell her that I received the scholarship, that she knew I would leave (I didn’t realize that myself then). It wasn’t my intention to stay in Holland. Although it was wonderful to walk the streets alone at night and read all the banned books. Holland was very good to me. I will always appreciate that. Holland gave me a place to be able to take distance. In 1976 TV reached South Africa for the first time. In 1983 I did my first TV appearance on Dutch TV. I thought it was about the beauty of diversity, but there was a subtext.
Tv clip (2min 40 sec), Vreemde Gasten (Strange Guests – Foreign Artists in the Netherlands), the Second Nature afl 5, 1983.
The interviewer Bram Vermeulen remarked that the Netherlands is not a poor country and has good social facilities. But that it angered many Dutch that foreigners also make use of these social benefits. He asked if we used them and what we felt about it. Barbara Bloom (USA) said that she used it well. Later Gerhard von Graevenitz (Germany) said that he was surprised by the easy relationship between artists and the government/state here, as art has always something immoral. Marlene Dumas (SA) remarked that if you come from a country where there were no galleries or nothing for art that made you sad, and then –a country that does a lot for art… you should not be surprise that there are some drawbacks.
From foreigners to allochtonen
Ik is een alachtoon (Dumas, 1990).
I made a t-shirt (consciously misspelt) with this text once. One could think I am doing it for the allochtonen, but that aint true, just as I am not doing it for the autochtonen (another ugly word…).
As I once wrote in an article about elitism: ‘I don’t do it for the people and I don’t do it against the people, if at all I do it from the people.
Women and Art
Then there is the fact that I am a woman.
I believe that art is androgynous, but I am always asked how it feels to make art as a woman. I should say I do it for the women. But as my mother said to me, a month before she died, you certainly don’t have to do it for me!
Film clip, Miss Interpreted (45 sec), (psychiatric institution), 1993.
I paint because I’m a woman (it’s a logical necessity). If painting is female and insanity is a female malady, then all women painters are mad and all male painters are women.
A plea for the arts
1. I accept the prize, because I want to make a plea for art. Art is not a case of innocent taste. A neutral gaze does not exist. Art is there to liberate us from the tyranny of our culture (Lionel Trilling) Note: our own, not from the outside, but the inside. Art is there to remind us, that all laws about what is beautiful and valuable, were made by humans and can be changed by them.
2. I plead that the concept – legislation that has been put before the state that wants to eliminate almost all the art education for the high schools should not go through. Because we will lose the most important subject to survive in the 21st century. We cannot allow that the Netherlands become a country stuck in narrow cultural nationalism. We live in a global intercultural world. We send our youthful militants to Afghanistan, but don’t want to learn about their culture.
3. I plead for an ‘inburgeringscursus’ (a new course for immigrants to gain permanent residency) in art and culture, for all future legislators who will have a say about the arts.
4. I plead that art evaluation will not drown in market fundamentalism. I believe as the artist Hans Haacke once said that the advertising giant Saatchi once said, that the philosopher Marx once said: ‘Everything is related to everything else’… but sometimes I think… blessed are they who have been spared the frenzy of the auction houses.
5. I plead that the Dutch have more pride in what is being achieved in the Visual Arts. Take the quality of the post-academic institutions. The model that the artist initiative Ateliers ‘63 created (in 1963), has positively influenced all the contemporary post academic institutions, and has made them world famous – only the ministry of Culture, Education and Science doesn’t seem to know this.
It is ironic and tragic that while the trendsetters call ‘Small the new Big’, De Ateliers does not get rewarded for these principles they’ve always fought for, but rather punished (with zero subsidy). In the 60s marriage was ‘not done’, but we live in a different time. There will be a new fusion between De Ateliers and the Rijksacademie. It’s going to be good. Support them out of pride, not because it must!
I want to thank the jury for the big honor they have shown me, and to trust me with enough insight in the Arts to get the privilege to receive such a large amount of money. I also want to stress that regarding art – there is no top like a mountain that you can go and sit upon to look down from in satisfaction…
You can’t honor the top if you don’t value the basis.
The beauty of art is that it teaches you to enjoy the freedom of another (in that sense art is and was always in essence multicultural). But the difficulty is – that as an artist you are also aware that maybe you could have done it differently.
Van Gogh once wrote: ‘I make art to give something back to life’.
I am grateful that I am able and capable to make this decision, that I will share with you now.
[Just don’t scrap this prize (also not after 2016). It is a young prize it wants to grow old too.]
I accept the honor and give the prize money to De Ateliers.