Monday, 19 August 2013

The Dutch government owns 50,000 worthless paintings paid for by taxpayers - yet another socialist folly

In  1949, Holland’s Department of Social Affairs created a scheme to buy paintings from Dutch artists. The plan was to recoup some of the money by renting the artworks out to members of the public for a small monthly fee. The whole thing was loosely based on a pre-war scheme designed to help the families of struggling artists. Of course, like all feelgood socialist ideas, it turned into an enormously expensive scam, paid for by the taxpayer.

When the scheme ran out of money in the late 1980s, the Dutch government found itself stuck with 50,000 unsellable paintings. These are now housed in a vast purpose-built lock-up just outside The Hague, covering an area equivalent to three football pitches. The only people who ever hang any of the paintings on their walls are government officials, who can take their pick. Judging by the quality of the few works I’ve seen, you'd have to have an extremely well-developed sense of humour to live with any of them.

It’s estimated that a quarter of all Dutch artists have benefited financially from the scheme since 1949, with many of them being paid three times the market rate for their work.

Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon shone a light on this classic example of socialist lunacy earlier this year in the final part of his excellent three-part BBC 4 series, The High Art of the Low Countries (you can see the programme on YouTube, here - the relevant section begins 53 minutes in). As yet another bank of depressing, worthless daubs is revealed (“the quality is quite uneven”, as he rather gently remarks to the curator), Graham-Dixon calls the collection “the largest euro-mountain of unwanted art in existence”, and goes on to ask “What does it say about a modern society that it’s willing to pay lip-service to art and then manage to forget about it almost completely? I wonder what poor old Van Gogh would have made of it all.”

I expect he'd have sliced off his other ear, Andy. Rembrandt, possibly the greatest painter the world has ever produced -  who died in poverty at the age of 63 and was buried in an unmarked grave – would probably have chuckled at the sheer goofiness of socialist utopianists.

Many people involved in the arts feel that society owes them a living, especially those without a glimmer of talent (agit-prop street theatre performers spring to mind). But the most ludicrous example I have ever come across was some female novelist interviewed on the radio in the late 1990s, when the Net Book Agreement, which forbade discounts on a book’s cover price, finally came to an end. As a result, bookstore chains started concentrating on a small number of heavily-discounted bestsellers to the detriment of mid-list titles. The lady author complained that, because of this, her royalties had dropped by 50% in the previous two years, and then went on to demand that the government should subsidise her for lost income – in perpetuity, index-linked.

As I was an erstwhile mid-list author who had been forced to face reality at least ten years before and had got off my backside to find another line of work, I didn’t understand why I should be expected to subsidise this silly, deluded, self-regarding, left-wing fool. And why - especially - should unlettered working-class Britons be expected to keep some pampered Southern female in the style to which she had become accustomed as she went on churning out dreary stories about effete bed-wetters living in angst in NW1?

If I were a member of the Dutch Government I’d turn that vast storage facility in The Hague into a Museum of Socialist Folly, and put a representative selection of the paintings on display for visitors to laugh at. Perhaps members of the public – in return for a small fee – could be allowed to deface the exhibits (although most of those featured on Graham-Dixon’s programme looked pre-defaced – hard to tell with utter crud).

If you feel the need to clear your aesthetic palate, I highly recommended the second episode of the series, Boom and Bust, which is stuffed with works of astonishing genius - paintings that hard-working businessmen (rather than government-employed tax-guzzlers) were only too happy to pay for:

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