The Awards at 20

By Adriaan van der Staay

Looking back over the last 20 years I can only marvel at the goodwill the Prince Claus Fund has generated in the world. It is rare to find an institution in any country with the privilege of being able to count on the help of so many artists, intellectuals, artisans and activists on a global scale. Before praising the Fund for what it does for them, it behoves us to remember how much they do for the Fund. Generously giving the best of their ideas and experiences in networks and committee meetings, debating issues in a constructive manner, they have by their energy created a kind of invisible parliament for a better world.

Today this may be even more relevant than 20 years ago. When for instance the Awards Committee spotted the appearance of Al Jazeera (1999) or the Arab Human Development Report (2003), the present setbacks in the Middle East had not yet materialised. In Asia, Africa and South America, freedom and democracy and the voice of the individual stood better chances. The picture is more varied and troublesome now. This should not make us pessimistic, but more determined to persevere. The optimism and courage of so many people beyond Europe makes this endeavour one we hold in common.

If we look at the countries towards which the awards have gone over the last few years many of these are passing though zones of turbulence. This year the award winners are cultural citizens of Thailand, Pakistan, Vietnam, Colombia, Lebanon – hardly places of self-contented peace. Yet they deliver to the world messages of hope. Hope for an urban architecture that fuses with nature, hope for healthy eating and cooking, hope for a sensitive retrieval of the past, hope for “social oxygen” by creating havens for free thought, and, extremely important, belief in the journalist as a responsible bringer of truth. These local calls for hope in sometimes desperate situations should not be imprisoned by national or international, commercial or religious boundaries. They mean hope for today and heritage for tomorrow.

The creation of the Fund meant the creation of a platform. There are many platforms for discussions, especially among institutions and states, but few truly global platforms for constructive debate among individuals. The friends I have made through the Fund came frequently out of meetings and open, authentic engagements with issues.

I think in this horizontal quality there exists a legacy of Prince Claus himself. He was extremely humble in his dedication to a better world. For him Culture and Development was personal. For him the Fund was not about prestige but about goodwill. As long as this idea of personal involvement with the problems or dreams of people beyond the structures of power is at the heart of the Fund, the Fund will remain a platform inspired by him.

Surely in the first years the place of the Awards Committee within the Fund was also explorative. With a global perspective in mind, what were the most relevant fields for Culture and Development? Where, while surveying these millions of micro developments, would some person or initiative pop up with exemplary significance to illuminate the rest?

So the culture of the human body came up and fashion and the sports. Crafts came forward as a severely menaced but also significant cultural heritage for the future. Building houses and towns in a sustainable and natural fashion was an issue. Cooking, in the form of recipes that cross borders in time and space. Humour, both as a way of popularising the classics in China or coping with political hypocrisy elsewhere. Photography, both as private record and as public testimony of tremendous change. It is important that these themes and disciplines were not imposed by the Fund, but came up from lived experiences.

Perhaps, in retrospect, we should have done more reflection, not about the Fund, which was reflected on a lot, but about the world. The start was very promising with the Palace Noordeinde conference (1996) on whither to go with the Prince Claus Fund. Philosophers, sociologists, cultural politicians from all continents attended. The idea of the awards as the most immediate way of connecting across cultures was born then.

Reflection about Culture and Development is not easy. It is an intellectual task yet to be accomplished to weld together into one global vision Chinese philosophy and the sacred drama of India and the three monotheisms of the Middle East and the science of the West. UNESCO attempted this with a World Culture Report. The Prince Claus Fund had its own committee, which I chaired, and only progressed halfway. On all continents there is intellectual and ethical strife and only partial agreement.

But something else should be mentioned. Questions of culture are not purely academic or diplomatic by nature. I have attended hundreds of international meetings lacking passion about the subject. Yet passion is needed if one declares Culture to be a Basic Need. One has to stare into the face the destruction of cultural heritage, both material and in the mind. From the Buddhas of Bamyan to the shrines of Timbuktu, emergency aid cannot fully repair the mental damage. In the same way, one can never turn one’s gaze away when another precious intellectual or artist is assassinated, or has to go into exile. Humanity needs emotional and moral strength. Something Nelson Mandela possessed.

From the long view of cultural development, a lot is at stake. Cultural purges may affect generations. As China and Indonesia, Iran and Chile have shown. Nevertheless, if cultural history knows defeats it also teaches us that victories are possible. In all these battles the cultural politician will need passion, courage and prudence.

At the Fund we have connected with thinkers and critics, sociologists and cultural politicians as we have met them in Africa, Asia or America, and could sometimes honour their insights. Also on other platforms their voices were heard. Perhaps we should have done more.

It is something of a miracle that the Fund came about in the Netherlands, a country that has not even created an equivalent of the Goethe Institute for itself. But in its weakness towards itself it also has proved welcoming to the world. When the Netherlands engages with the world it develops its talents. In literature Erasmus and Multatuli and Couperus come to mind. It also was home to Descartes and Spinoza and so to Enlightenment, a heritage that still can inspire the world. Dutch culture has several faces.

Within the politicians who came up with the idea of honouring Prince Claus with the Fund, a vision of the Netherlands was at work that was not strictly commercial or narrow-minded or selfish, but a vision that showed a positive awareness of the world. And the world responded with goodwill.