…For What We Will

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
— Luke 12:34, KJV

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.
— American labor movement slogan from the 1880’s

For Mother’s Day last spring, we went to an amusement park in Flevoland, which is the newest of the Dutch provinces. “New” in this case does not mean “recently incorporated” or “the product of the latest local government reorganization”. It means “newly built”. A century ago, the ground under our roller coasters and go-karts was covered in water. It was part of the Zuiderzee, a salty inlet of the North Sea that was mostly controlled by dykes, but still prone to occasional storm-floods.

Now it’s not only dry land, but beautiful land. Rows of poplars parallel the roads, mirroring long lines of windmills. The trees bend and the blades turn together in the wind, restless as the inland sea they have replaced. In the spring, the fields become long bright strips of tulips, let to bloom before their bulbs are harvested for sale. The only high points in the landscape are the dykes, without which, roadside signs remind us, this land would not exist. It’s a lightly populated place, with open country stretching between the neat and pleasant towns. The province is surrounded by lakes, which were all thick with pleasure boats that day, despite the late rain that kept the amusement park lines sparse.

This is all the product of a tremendous investment of work, money and energy, carried out on a generational timescale. It was built with the kind of expenditure that we don’t think we can make in these days of austerity and economic collapse.

But the bulk of the work of turning the Zuiderzee into the freshwater IJsselmeer and draining some of it to make Flevoland was done in the early Twentieth Century. That wasn’t a fat time in the Netherlands. Although Dutch neutrality preserved her young men from the killing fields of the First World War, no one in Europe was safe from the Depression. Then came World War 2, with the harsh and costly German occupation. And the Hunger Winter, which immediately followed liberation, was unspeakable. A few short years after that, the Watersnoodramp, the great flood of 1953, rendered 100,000 southern Dutch people homeless and soured a wide stretch of still-vital cropland.

Terrible times. And yet, in those terrible times, they chose to spend the extra resources to make the landscape a good place to live. And that was a choice rather than a coincidence, because everything about Flevoland was intensively planned, down to the ways that people would travel:

Contemporary trends had a major impact on the layout of Flevoland. The Northeast Polder is typified by farmland and by woodland on soil unsuitable for crops, and an urban centre in Emmeloord with a ring of ten satellite villages within cycling distance – cars were not a major factor in those days. By the time Eastern Flevoland fell dry, land use requirements had clearly changed. Farmland was still widely available, but outdoor recreational facilities and demand for residential areas and good road links now also jostled for space. There are now four urban centres in Eastern Flevoland, the provincial capital Lelystad, Dronten, Biddinghuizen and Swifterbant.

In Southern Flevoland the polder is no longer just an area of farmland. Together with greenbelt areas laid out for nature, recreation and agriculture, various urban centres make up the town of Almere, which currently has some 186,000 residents. The south-western corner of Flevoland has been designated as an overspill area for the country’s western metropoles. Zeewolde is located where woods and water meet – a fulcrum of outdoor recreation.
—from the English-language Provincie Flevoland website.

We came into the province through that southwest corner, driving by Almere. The city is Flevoland’s contribution to the Randstad, the great conurbation of the western Netherlands. But it also serves as the gateway to the rest of the province, and the land near it is given over as much to recreation and nature as to farming. Indeed, our trip was exactly what the last of Flevoland’s designers intended: a journey for pleasure from the populous Amsterdam area into more open countryside, where there is space for amenities such as an amusement park.

Coming that way, we also passed a herd of concrete elephants by the road, rounded, abstract, mute, and memorable. They’re a Flevoland landmark, something everyone photographs in passing—and no one seems to get a good shot of. We didn’t.


The elephants may be distinctive, but they are not unusual. They stand in a nation where the roadside sound baffles echo Escher and monuments to superheroes with briefcases lurk in business parks. Dutch public art is as pervasive as its water engineering, albeit much stranger. The quiet street where we first lived here is graced with a curving abstraction in blue metal, while a chicken made of horseshoes stands guard over the local toystore. And we are not a particularly art-laden village.

If you ask a Dutch person why there’s all this sculpture around, they may tell you about the law that requires it: between 1 and 1.5% of the budget for every government project must be spent on art, chosen by public consultation. But that’s more of a how than a genuine why. The true, underlying reason is so embedded in the culture that it’s all but inarticulable to my friends here.

Public art is there for the public to enjoy. There is so much of it here because the public are important enough that their pleasure and enlightenment is as worth spending money on as a new road or government building, just as their ability to live somewhere beautiful was worth a portion of the resources spent creating a new province. This is the democratization of the art of the Golden Age: the ordinary people who were worth painting then are worth pleasing and uplifting now. And the privilege of being valued like that has spread from the merchant classes to the entire society alongside prosperity, education and control.

But the fact that Dutch public art is so varied, and so odd, carries yet another message. The public is not just worthy of being pleased; it’s also worthy of being challenged.


Strange public art is an expression of trust that the viewer has the capacity to consider it and judge its worth. It even dares to be disagreed with, disputed, and disliked. It takes the risks of engagement, as with a peer, rather than the privilege of lecturing from above. And the Dutch have, on the whole, risen to the esthetic challenge, embracing visual styles that leave my British and American tastes baffled. I had thought myself relatively educated, adventurous, and sophisticated before I moved here, but now I’m scrambling to keep up.

But the scramble is in itself worthwhile. Living here, engaging with a culture that values its population’s leisure and pleasure—not just with words, but with its resources—is as much a challenge as figuring out any individual piece of public art. And meeting that challenge is reforming me, draining my old unthinking assumptions and revealing new provinces of thought and understanding, new values and things to value.

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6 Responses to …For What We Will

  1. fadeaccompli says:

    In Ecuador, there were nation-wide laws about a certain percentage of the land in every city and town being given over to parks. Sometimes a given park was just a tiny lot of concrete slab around a dry fountain, with a broken swingset next to a half-broken teeter totter… But the concept remained. The idea that there was space for people to gather casually in public, places for people to go outside of their own homes without needing to be buying from someone else.

    And there was a lot of odd art, too. Some of which I never really got the point of, but that was part of the fun. Trying to work out what the artist meant about it. There was an enormous crooked rectangle of metal with an enormous cube suspended by a steel cable over an enormous cube of about table height, and we kids used to walk up and shove the suspended cube–it was hollow–for the sheer thrill of that sense of power. Moving around public art. And it was okay. It was there for the public.

    Austin has some lovely parks, and some nice statuary here and there. But it doesn’t feel half so integrated as those graffiti-covered concrete-laid scruffy parks in Ecuador felt. (And I could do with a few less “Hurrah for our heroes of the Civil War!” monuments, I admit.)

  2. Victorian Britain was big on public parks, too. They were the “green lungs” of the cities, and places where, as you say, people could go outside their own homes without paying for it. Most of those parks, and the statuary in them, were gifts from philanthropists or created using the influence of (and thus requiring gratitude toward) the aldermen and other prominent people of the city councils. So they were “ours by gift” rather than “ours by right”. Nonetheless, they did have the same message: you’re worth the time. You’re worth the resources. You matter.

    I admit, I do prefer the Dutch and Ecuadorean system.

    I gather that one reason Dutch public art is so weird and abstract is that there was a big movement way from Yet Another Representational War Memorial in the mid-to-late Twentieth Century. Not that there aren’t still monuments to the events of the war, but they’re in among works that honor other things (I know of two monuments honoring sex workers in Amsterdam, for instance), and they’re intended to be thought-provoking as well as emotion-provoking.

  3. Lila says:

    We have an odd local public art story that involves initial rejection and later, a sort of “bless its heart” fondness and reclaiming: The Iron Horse. (More.)

    The Horse was, at least back in the early ’90s, a popular meeting place for local pagans, and a local record company is named after it.

  4. Laurel says:

    My favorite piece of public art from my last too-short visit to the Netherlands was “Wassende Maan” in the Biesbosch. It’s a labyrinth made out of earth and water. I saw it on a day when the water was reflecting the sky, and there were circles within circles, and ducks sitting on part of it, and it was one of the most beautiful labyrinths I’ve ever seen (and I’m a bit of a labyrinth connoisseur.) I particularly liked the fact that you could walk the labyrinth on the paths, or take the little canals by boat, if you had one handy.

    I’m terribly impressed with the Dutch support of public art. I wish our local government here in the USA would do the same, but there would have to be a lot of education first; I can only imagine the outcries from the conservatives.

  5. SamChevre says:

    Richmond, for reasons I only partly understand, has lots of public art; my neighborhood also has private art in public areas.

    Here are a few of my favorites:
    Statue in a park that runs near our house
    One of my children’s favorites
    The “pretty wall”, which the children look at every Sunday on the way home from church.

    Art in Richmond is controversial, to say the least; that’s more a feature of the differing histories than of anything specific to art.

  6. Lila @3:
    I like the horse, and his story. One of the things I enjoy about public art is the way that people’s relationships with it grow over time.

    Laurel @4:
    I was looking in my son’s art textbook (he’s 12 and goes to a Dutch middle school) The book has everything from medieval icons through to Andy Warhol and modern video game design; it’s intended less as a survey course of what’s gone before than a way to acquire the toolkit to approach a wide variety of works.

    Frankly, I’m envious, the way I get envious when I see them studying cognitive styles, or the way they were taught social interaction and conflict resolution skills in primary school. Why couldn’t I have learned this stuff?

    SamChevre @5:
    Neat! I’m particularly charmed by the pretty wall. There was something analagous where I grew up, albeit more structural and made of bricks. I’ve always wanted to do something like that in my garden, but it’s never made it to the top of the priority list.

    (The Dutch and what they put in their gardens…I will have to do a post on it sometime. Plus maybe one on Christmas lights, at least in my area. Quite astonishing for a country whose main December festival is Sinterklaas.)

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