A large public work by the L.A.-based artist Paul McCarthy stands in Rotterdam's town square. The piece, funded by the Dutch government, is intended as a holiday tribute, and its official title is "Santa Claus." Santa, or a gnome, holds a large, festive bell in one hand, and in the other what's (perhaps) intended to be a Christmas tree. But the resemblance of the Tanenbaum to a certain kind of sex toy has prompted a populist renaming of the piece as "The Buttplug Gnome."
You may therefore understand some of the outrage in Rotterdam against the gnome in particular and public-arts funding in general. This outrage has been brewing throughout Holland, especially now, as that nation careens sharply to the political right — territory that was seen as uninhabitable for the past half-century in the famously tolerant, liberal and benign Netherlands.
That sharp turn has been largely goaded by the anti-immigration policies of Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom in the Dutch House of Representatives, who, while making life as miserable as possible for Dutch Muslims and Muslims aiming to reside in Holland, aims to transform Dutch public funding of the arts into the model employed in the United States.
Our nation is, in fact, a kind of beacon for European countries looking to slash any number of public services funded and administered by the government. (FYI, the city of Berlin gives more money to the arts than does the entire U.S. federal government.) Wilders touts the American system of arts funding as a model of economic efficiency and fiscal responsibility.
This has prompted Rotterdam's performance troupe Wunderbaum to investigate the issue of arts funding (or the lack thereof) during its three-week residency at REDCAT, culminating in a performance, Looking for Paul, which plays through the weekend. The visiting four-member ensemble (Walter Bart, Matijs Jansen, Marleen Scholten and Maartje Remmers) is joined by an American actor, John Malpede of the Los Angeles Poverty Department, to create a piece around the Rotterdam gnome controversy.
During an interview at Musso & Frank, Scholten explains that the performance depicts the revenge of Inez Van Dam, a woman who owns a bookstore on Rotterdam's town square and who is incensed by McCarthy's piece. The company has been trying to reach the Los Angeles–based McCarthy, without success so far, in hopes of getting him to participate in the performance. "Inez is also upset that government money goes to health care," Jansen adds. (Van Dam may or may not be flying in to participate in the performance.)
REDCAT executive director Mark Murphy hooked the troupe up with the Los Angeles Poverty Department and Malpede.
"This gave us a good connection," Jansen says, "because the work [Malpede] makes is so socially aware — we thought that might contribute something in this discussion of arts funding and problems. So now we're figuring out what we should do. What will the revenge of Inez be? Even if we don't reach Paul McCarthy, it's still going to be possible to have Inez have her revenge on him."
During its stay, the troupe has been interviewing various arts leaders in Los Angeles for insights into the miracle otherwise known as "arts in America." The members aim to take back some of the harsher realities here, in order to help make distinctions in Holland between those realities and the myths of American arts funding. If they can make sense of it.
They couldn't, for example, quite wrap their heads around the idea that, for lack of funding, more than 90 percent of theater in Los Angeles is performed in downtime, as it were, while trained artists work around employment in more lucrative arenas, such as the Olive Garden and Starbucks.
"Is this really true?" Bart asks.
Bart had arrived late, having cycled into Hollywood from downtown L.A., where the company is residing. He brought his bicycle all the way from Rotterdam; he had packed it into a large box for the flight. Bicycling is what people do in Holland, like breathing.
The company also is amazed that downtown Los Angeles is so deserted at night — or, at least, how many of the streets transform into concrete mattresses for the homeless. I tell them that our city is working on that — working on it since about 1948.
The sight of the impoverished forced to sleep on the streets hasn't been seen for decades in Holland, where — here we go — government funding provides shelter for those in dire straits.
I try to explain that the lack of public funding for the arts isn't even controversial here, that whatever controversy is left over the issue of government responsibilities is reserved for emergency services. The troupe appears disheartened to hear that, while it certainly looms large among artists, the central focus of Wunderbaum's cause is hardly an issue here among the general public.
The question at the heart of their inquiry is the purpose of art. This is not a question that's exactly tearing at Americans' hearts right now, in the midst of what's called a recession but feels far more like a depression.
What too many Americans are so busy asking is, what is the purpose of government itself? It's a question that has far scarier resonances, given that we've experienced firsthand the folly of a system that places its full confidence in the profit motive to see us through, while consigning government regulation, and government support of just about everything, to the back burner.
Behind all this looms a darker shadow, the consolidation of wealth and power. If the same people who own the internet own the other media outlets as well, and are now purchasing our national elections — as they've always done in less "civilized" places — then the issues that matter for all of us are very much tied to freedom of expression, and the opportunity for expression.
Which takes us right back to the purpose of art. Of course those same people will dismiss the arts as obscene, indulgent or irrelevant. Yet those arts may be all we have left to help us understand what's going on and who we've become.
The only lingering question is whether or not we even want to understand that anymore. Many have given up, but Wunderbaum continues to ask.
WUNDERBAUM: LOOKING FOR PAUL | A performance by WUNDERBAUM | REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn. | Nov. 17-20, 8:30 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 20, 3 p.m. | (213) 237-2800