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.