October 21, 2010

De Havenvinding (1599)

If you have some interest in the history of science and technology, you might have heard of the Dutch scientist and engineer Simon Stevin, who died in 1620. He was one of those old-fashioned Renaissance polymaths—James Burke, that expert web-weaver of technological history, has often found occasion to mention Stevin, since his range of activity connects him to so many different streams of innovation. He popularized decimal notation in Europe; he updated Archimedes' theories on hydrostatics; he wrote the earliest textbook on milling, a guide to navigation (De Havenvinding, "finding harbors"), and a treatise on artistic perspective; he designed fortresses and military camps for his patron and student, Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, with whom Stevin used to ride up and down the beach on large, wind-powered land yachts he constructed. He demonstrated the law of the equilibrium on an inclined place—and, at the same time, the law of the conservation of energy—with a brilliantly simple diagram that came to be called the Epitaph of Stevinus:

As Richard Feynman once said, "If you get an epitaph like that on your gravestone, you are doing fine." As if that weren't enough, Stevin also worked out something that you hear every day: he calculated the ratios for equal temperament about a century before it came into wide use. The modern 12-note chromatic scale, for better or for worse: that was Stevin's doing.

So now you know who Simon Stevin was. Why bring him up? Because of an aphorism Stevin saw fit to jot down once, with his signature, a memento reproduced in the introduction to the 1955 edition of his Principal Works:

The translation:
A man in anger is no clever dissembler.
This month, four centuries later, Stevin's observation has been twice borne out in relation to the arts, including in his home country. Right-wing governments in the Netherlands and Great Britain have proposed gutting arts funding. The Dutch Rutte-Verhagen cabinet (which owes its coalition power to the far-right, anti-Islam Geert Wilders) plans to pretty much shut down the Dutch public broadcasting music division, including three Dutch orchestras; and even if they try to survive on their own, they'd be looking at an increase in the value-added tax on concert and theater tickets from 6 to 19 percent. Meanwhile, across the channel, David Cameron's coalition—which might as well be a Tory government, the way the Lib Dems are rolling over at every opportunity—wants to cut arts programs by 30 percent.

In other words, both sets of conservatives, angry men all around (and, indeed, mostly men), are no longer dissembling with any sort of cleverness. And anyone who thinks that this was a matter of the arts not "making their case"—like Norman Lebrecht, trying to spin Tory cuts as a failure of Labour hard enough to sprain something, or Bob Shingleton, saying that "classical music must put its house in order"—is either being disingenuous or, I think, missing the point. Because those governments aren't going after the arts simply as a soft target—they're going after the arts because art is naturally in opposition to any government relying on spin, isolation, and fear.

Simon Stevin was himself a fundamentalist about the Dutch language, claiming that it was inherently superior for scientific discourse than the Latin then in vogue, and imagining that there once was a golden age of science and knowledge in which wisdom was available to all, because it was in Dutch. The editor of Stevin's above-mentioned Principal Works was compelled to demur:
The whole theory forms a typical example of how the most rational and scientific of minds may at the same time foster the most irrational and phantastical ideas on topics lying outside the sphere of his specific competence.
I think this is how we like to think of opponents of arts funding: they just don't understand it. I rather think that what we're seeing in Europe is a result of politicians understanding the power of art all too well. And, as Samuel Vriezen points out, ignoring the political aspect of attacks on the arts only bolsters the attackers. Mark Rutte, the new Dutch prime minister, is apparently an accomplished pianist who once considered the conservatory-then-performance career track—he certainly has an inkling. Geert Wilders, whom the Dutch cuts are no doubt meant to partially appease, is an expert propagandist—he knows. The British cuts fall more on provincial performing arts companies than London museums, venerable visual arts being far less likely to undermine the Tory narrative than unpredictable actors and musicians in the back of beyond. The 2010 UK Spending Review whacks the arts, the public sector, and the poor disproportionately hard. That's not political convenience—that's political calculation.

And, more likely than not, it's a calculation that might well be crossing the Atlantic sometime soon. Look at the appropriation for the National Endowment for the Arts—a useful enough benchmark of how important the arts and artistic livelihoods are to those in power. Arts advocates have been playing nice for decades now, emphasizing consensus and economic impact statements. Those are important, but it's ultimately been a holding strategy: the NEA's 2010 appropriation just about gets it back to its funding levels in 1988—and that's in real dollars, not inflation-adjusted ones. And the demagogues are starting to get just angry enough to stop dissembling. So artists might want to get ready to channel some anger of their own—not into anger, but into clarity. Like I've said: get in their face. Playing nice, after all, is just clever dissembling, too.

Update (10/22): Bob Shingleton takes exception. For the record, I thought Norman Lebrecht was the one being disingenuous, and that Shingleton was just taking his eye off the ball. But, as much as I like his writing, I just think he's dead wrong about both the cause and the response. The cuts in both the Netherlands and the UK have nothing to do with how transparent/efficient/above-board the classical music industry or other performing arts organizations are or are not. (I mean, the Tate Gallery has at least as many management skeletons in the closet over the past decade as any orchestra, and they got off far easier.) And I confess that I have a reflexive horror of the idea that, if you're attacked on unfair grounds, the best response is to self-examine and wonder what it is that you did wrong. American progressives did this for years and were outflanked every time. The classical music business is always in need of housecleaning—any business is. (The root of all evil, &c.) And Bob is right, unfortunately, when he notes that "Everyone is going to have to share the pain." The problem is, everyone is not sharing the pain, and that fact is a reflection of political agendas, not the state of arts management, however dire. In both these particular situations, the onus is on the governments to own up to the fact that the brunt of their hazardous austerity schemes are being borne by organizations and individuals that neither caused the crisis nor exacerbated it, not on those in the arts to put on sackcloth and hope for future absolution.

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