Speech by Jet Bussemaker, Minister of Education, Culture and Science, at the presentation of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2016 to Steve McQueen

Ridderzaal, The Hague, 7 November, 2016

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Spanish painter Francisco Goya had already lived a long and productive life when the Peninsular War broke out in 1808. As a young artist, Goya had painted portraits of the Spanish royal family. He had also produced and distributed satirical etchings expressing his disgust with the corruption of the Catholic Church. By the time the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte marched into Catalonia, Goya was an ailing man who had almost lost his hearing.

Yet in the period that followed, he went on to produce what many see as his most important work. In 80 etchings, Goya captured the horrors of war in chilling detail, making no attempt to spare his audience. Rape, bodies impaled on trees, soldiers from both armies being torn limb from limb: the artist depicted the atrocities of war with unflinching dedication. In doing so he created art that shakes us to the very core. The subject matter is so disturbing, so painful, that we want to look away. Yet the magnificence of the work holds us transfixed.

I can think of no better way to express the effect that the work of Steve McQueen has on me. Watching his portrayal of the story of IRA member Bobby Sands in Hunger, I am compelled to keep watching even as I want to turn away. The horrific events that took place in the Maze Prison in the late nineteen-eighties unfold before our eyes in immaculately lit scenes. We see inmates protesting against their status as political prisoners by refusing to wash and by smearing the walls of their cells with their own excrement. We see them refuse to wear the prison uniform and live out their days wrapped in blankets. We see the body of the protagonist, Bobby Sands, wasting away before our very eyes. Filmed as lovingly as countless painters have depicted the Passion of Christ.

These images are so powerfull that few words are needed. And when Bobby Sands does engage in a dialogue, with a priest, Steve McQueen almost puts the visuals on hold. For a full seventeen minutes we are drawn in by a backlit scene of two men sitting across a table from one another, smoking. The sparse and static setting holds us spellbound: we hang on every word.

In 12 Years a Slave, the film for which Steve McQueen won the Best Picture Oscar, dialogue is far more prevalent. The exceptional and profoundly moving story of Solomon Northup demands that those words be spoken. But the film features also a painfully long, wordless scene, one which brings the fate of this free man made slave into stark focus. In punishment for an act of resistance, the protagonist Solomon Northup is hung from a nearby tree with his toes barely touching the muddy ground beneath — a grisly dance with death ensues. All around him, life goes on as a beautifully lit tableau: enslaved people go about their duties and avert their gaze, the wife of the plantation owner looks on and children are playing. In the midst of it all Solomon Northup hangs by the neck and struggles for breath — utterly alone. This long take works its way under the viewer’s skin. Unease turns to sickening dread.The first time I saw that scene, there came a point where I had to look away. It was just too much to bear. Set against an aesthetically pleasing rendition of 19th-century rural America, the inhumanity of slavery hit home like never before.

Perhaps this, more than anything, is what sets Steve McQueen apart as an artist. His ability to take our imagination far beyond the boundaries of the imaginable. He holds our gaze even when we want to turn away and draws us in to hear stories so painful that we do not want them to be true. Stories told by voices that so often go unheard. Images from places seldom seen. With beauty as a hidden seducer, we look and we listen. Like a modern-day Goya, McQueen undermines the positions we feel most comfortable adopting. He creates space for discussions that urgently need to take place.

Mr. McQueen, you use your gifts as a visual artist to stimulate our senses. Harnessed to the power of your imagination, these gifts open our eyes, shake us to the core. And yet you combine this immediacy with room for reflection. Room for us, to ask ourselves important questions. Like: Should violence be met with violence at any cost? Can a surfeit of freedom make us prisoners? What makes the life of one man far more valuable than the life of another?

It can be no coincidence that after Hunger was released, the British government acknowledged for the first time the bad conditions that had been so prevalent in the prisons where members of the IRA were detained. The impact of 12 Years a Slave has led to the book on which it is based being read in schools across the United States. Just as Anne Frank’s diary.

In the speech that I gave during the remembrance of our slave-trading past, I indicated that we all need to allow that past ‘to come closer’. Because this is a past that all Dutch people share with one another. Art and heritage can play a special part in that process. This is because artists, who utilize all their artistic resources, enable us to walk in the shoes of another human being, and to connect.

In times like these — when the danger of becoming locked in parallel worlds increases while solidarity with ‘the other’ seems to be in decline — I am profoundly grateful that there are artists with the creative and emotional commitment of Steve McQueen who are willing and able to remind us that there is more to being human. That it is essential to remember that every human society is home to people who face overwhelming disadvantages. That it is essential to experience that every person — however brutalized, however downtrodden — is still a human being. Made of flesh and blood. And with the strength of spirit to survive unimaginable suffering.

Your work Remember Me, which will hang in the window of our Ministry building in the coming months, is another wonderful example of this humane vision: the words ‘remember me’ handwritten by all kinds of different people and illuminated in dark-blue neon. As with all of your work, it sends a message we cannot ignore.

In Britain, the country of your birth, you received the Turner Prize for your work in the visual arts and were recently honored by the BFI for your work in cinema. In the United States your work has been crowned with a coveted Academy Award. Today, the government of the Netherlands is delighted to present you with the Johannes Vermeer Award for your oeuvre as a versatile artist in all of these areas.

I am proud that the Netherlands is one of the places where you have chosen to live and work, and that your work is frequently exhibited in our museums. I am glad that you have generously channeled your creative powers into the education of young Dutch artists, as you did at De Appel and De Ateliers. But I am especially grateful for the way you enable us, your audience, to experience the true power of art, time and again. Steve McQueen, you tell stories that cannot be told often enough — in our museums, in our cinemas, in our homes — and in doing so you have helped them take root in our collective consciousness.

Your output fuels social dialogue and awareness worldwide, and never fails to offer a thought-provoking reminder of what it means to be human. You have moved and inspired not only me and everyone here today, but countless people across the world. And here, in our little corner of the world, we want to let you know that this has not gone unnoticed.

Please accept my warmest congratulations on receiving the Johannes Vermeer Award.

Thank you.