torsdag den 10. september 2015

IMPORTANT SHIT

On Friday 11 September, during a seminar in connection with the annual Golden Days Festival (theme: "important shit"), I spoke about Het Lieverdje in Amsterdam as cultural heritage. As a sculpture, Het Lieverdje ("The Street Urchin") is nothing special. Commissioned by the Committee for Activity in Amsterdam, it was created by sculptor Carel Kneulman and unveiled in 1960 as a symbol of the Amsterdam spirit, cheeky but lovable. If "anti-smoking magician" Robert Jasper Grootveld had not turned it into the symbol of "tomorrow's addicted consumer" in 1964, the expression "cultural heritage" would never have been used. Grootveld discovered that the sculpture had been funded by Hunter Cigarette Co. and organised a happening there every Friday at midnight. A crowd that grew larger with each week that went formed a magical circle around the statue in order to exorcise the spirit of consumerism, ritually coughing and chanting slogans.

Het Lieverdje - quite accidentally - became the meeting point for a whole range of people with different agendas. There was Bart Huges, who drilled a Third Eye in his skull in order to get permanently high. There was Johnny van Doorn, or Johnny the Selfkicker, a poet who worked himself up in a trance, ranting and raving his poetry. There was Nicolaas Kroese, the eccentric restaurant owner who claimed to have discovered the Fifth Energy that made plants grow and who lent Grootveld a garage for use as a K-Temple (K stands for "kanker", cancer) until it burned down. There were literary figures such as the poet Simon Vinkenoog and the author Harry Mulisch, who immortalised Het Lieverdje and the crowd surrounding it in their writings. There was the photographer Cor Jaring, whose pictures ensured that everyone, both inside and outside Holland, knew what went on. And there was Roel van Duijn, the co-founder of Provo.

As Van Duijn tells the story, he either found Grootveld's Gnot-sign drawn on the wall next to his door one day when he came home or a paper with the Gnot-sign written on it in the letter box. "Gnot", a word of Grootveld's invention, is a combination of the words "genot" ("indulgence") and "god" ("God"). The sign looks like an apple with a dot in it. It also stood for "Amsterdam Magic Center", Grootveld's campaign to turn the city into a place where everything was possible. Van Duijn had handed out leaflets announcing the publication of the magazine Provo at Het Lieverdje, and posting the sign was Grootveld's way of calling a meeting. Apparently he suggested to Van Duijn that Provo make use of ludic means, the very means that made it both notorious and effective in those serious times. The anarchist youth movement only existed from 1965 until 1967, but it turned the city upside down - and it adopted both Het Lieverdje and the Gnot-sign as its own signs.

This year it is 50 years ago that Provo began to organise its happenings at Het Lieverdje. The event has been marked with a documentary, several exhibitions, a Provo tour organised by the Amsterdam Museum and lots of media coverage. When a gnot-sign was discovered on the Royal Palace in Dam square, the place where Provo demonstrated against the monarchy, Paul Spies, the (now ex-) director of the Amsterdam Museum immediately told the press that it ought to be recognised as cultural heritage. Meanwhile, he and ex-Provo Luud Schimmelpenninck placed a white bicycle underneath the sign, carrying a picture frame that picks it out against the background. All the stops on the Provo tour are marked with white bicycles as a reference to Provo's White Bicycle Plan, which Schimmelpenninck was the main architect of.

It is not surprising that Spies wanted to activate the heritage machinery. The Palace is under renovation, and it is always when things are under threat that the notion of cultural heritage crops up. If the gnot-sign is recognised as cultural heritage, it will function the way cultural heritage usually does: a physical object is turned into the unique, authentic sign of an imagined community, in this case the spirit of Provo, as cheeky and lovable as the Amsterdam spirit as embodied in Het Lieverdje. The sculpture, meanwhile, fared differently. During the 1990s, he square where it stands, Spui, got a new pavement with an apple - the gnot-sign - picked out in differently coloured cobbles, but hardly anybody notices it. The owner of a bookshop on the square regularly has to point out to brick layers that they have put the cobbles back the wrong way. The sculpture, meanwhile, is still the focus of demonstrations, ludic or otherwise, that result in the same press photographs as 50 years ago. Especially student protests often take place near Het Lieverdje, as the rectorate of Amsterdam University resides in the nearby Maagdenhuis.

I am tempted to see the tradition for civil unrest around Het Lieverdje as a kind of cultural heritage as well. Some will argue that only physical remains can be seen as heritage, as the word "heritage" suggests "inheritance", the possibility for things to be inherited by later generations. However, cultural heritage is intimately connected with identity; traditionally national identity, but in recent publications on the subject increasingly the heritage of smaller communities as well. Analyses of cultural heritage as a carrier of national identity tend to stress the fact that it creates communities by excluding others. When academics want to address the heritage of smaller communities or minorities, on the other hand, they tend to pull the Butler card, stressing the fact that the performative creation and perpetuation of national identities also leaves open the possibility for changing the status quo, for including the heritage of others. Ever since Grootveld and Provo, Het Lieverdje has been the focus of civic disobedience. Although the students who demonstrate there do not belong to the same community as the early happeners around Grootveld or Provo, they do represent the same spirit of anti-patriarchal, pro-democratic revolt. Het Spui and Het Lieverdje, I would argue, are the locus of the performance of that spirit and have been its locus for the past two-three generations. That, too, I would say, is a type of cultural heritage.



More information on the Golden Days homepage

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