The beginning is the hardest
The end merely follows. In the beginning is the end, with art as well as with speeches. Where and how do you begin?
Maybe I should start with the most difficult bit and after that we can party. First I want to explain all the reasons why I should not be standing here and all the reasons why I am standing here.
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 forget 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, people automatically assume that you like people, but ‘it ain’t 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 but I’m not sure I understand what a state means – the word ‘state’ is used so often in conjunction with ‘international terrorism’ that I begin to feel we are living in a permanent state of war …
A good friend reacted ‘Marlene, a state prize! It is time to run’!
About the character of prizes and role models
In 1964, Jean Paul Sartre was the same age as I am now, fifty nine, when he refused the Nobel Prize for literature. He said he didn’t want to become an institution and that it would affect his freedom. Susan Sontag accepted the Jerusalem Prize for literature in 2001, but not without unease as was evident from her acceptance speech (available on the internet).
Every honour has its 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, providing two years study overseas. My mother said, when I threw the pebble against her window pane that evening to tell her I had received the scholarship, she knew I would leave. I didn’t realize it 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 where I was able to take my distance. In 1976 TV reached South Africa for the first time and in 1983 I made my first appearance on Dutch TV. I thought the show was about the beauty of diversity, but there was a subtext, as the real focus of the program addressed the feelings of discontent amongst the Dutch about foreign artists taking advantage of the social benefit system.
From foreigners to allochtonen
‘Ik is een alachtoon’, I once made a T-shirt with this text (consciously misspelt). One might think I did it for the allochtonen, but that ain’t 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’.
Then there is the fact that I am a woman. I believe that art is androgynous but I am continually asked how it feels to make art as a woman. I could say I do it for women, but as my mother said to me, a month before she died, you certainly don’t have to do it for me!
A plea for the arts
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 culture, 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.
I make the strongest possible plea, that the proposed legislation that has been put before the state, which would result in the elimination of almost all art education in our high schools, should not go through. It would result in the loss of the most important subject to survive in the 21st century. We cannot allow the Netherlands to 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.
I suggest an ‘inburgeringscursus’ (a course for immigrants who seek permanent residence) on art and culture, for all future legislators who will be in a position to decide on the arts.
I propose that art evaluation will not be allowed to 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.
I propose that the Dutch take more pride in what is being achieved in the visual arts in their country. Take the quality of the post–academic institutions. The model that the artist’s initiative, Ateliers ’63, created in 1963, has had a positive influence on all contemporary post academic institutions and made them world-famous. Only the ministry of Culture, Education and Science does not seem to know this.
It is ironic and tragic that while the trendsetters call ‘Small the new Big’, the Ateliers does not get rewarded for these same principles – for which they’ve always fought – but instead, punished, with a zero subsidy. Support them out of pride, if nothing else!
I want to thank the jury for the honour, and for entrusting me with such a large amount of money, based on their faith in my insight in the Arts. Also I want to stress that regarding art – 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 the ‘other’. (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 of making 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 honour and give the prize money to De Ateliers.
 The word autochtoon is used to refer to the original inhabitants of the country, allochtoon indicates people coming from elsewhere.
Every Prize has its Price. Included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014 [Edited version of the speech given by Marlene Dumas during the award ceremony of the Johannes Vermeer Prize 2012, Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft, The Netherlands, 29 October 2012].