Unfinished business

In 1998, the Dutch Minister of Finance Gerrit Zalm announced that the Government had collected more in taxes than was needed to fund all their expenditure, and that 80 million guilders (35 million euros) were left over. He was looking for the best way to return this monetary surplus to the Dutch citizens, from whom it was unjustly taken.

Ha ha! I am kidding, of course. Gleefully minister Zalm announced that in secret meetings with the Dutch Bank and New York art collector Samuel Newhouse, he had decided to give the money to Newhouse in exchange for a painting. The price for the painting in question, Victory Boogie Woogie by the Dutch painter Mondriaan, was a steal, he said. It should be, because the thing was only half finished.

The purchase was in celebration of the introduction of the euro, Zalm said. The connection between paying 80 million smackers for an unfinished painting and saying farewell to the guilder he could not make entirely clear. Perhaps his wallet had grown too thick from all these guilder notes and he was looking for a quick way to get rid of them.

But Victory Boogie Woogie is unmistakenly a masterpiece. Mondriaan created it as an ode to Freedom during the Second World War, in particular with respect to the conflict between the US and Japan. Hans Locher, director of the museum which got to display it, compared it to Picasso’s Guernica, and secretary of state Rick van der Ploeg called it a twentieth century Nachtwacht. The unwashed masses called it a bunch of red, yellow, and blue squares, much like the tiles in the bathroom of someone suffering from color blindness, by which they only demonstrate that they miss the fine-honed senses of the true connaisseurs.

Most Dutch citizens were rather unhappy with this waste of money. “If you really like Mondriaan this much,” they would say, “why not buy a poster of his work for a few bob? A museum will not let you get so close to a painting that you would see the difference anyway.”

But that was 24 years ago. The world has changed. With increase of poverty, the obnoxious wealth accumulation by the rich, the troubling housing market, the ageing population, the staggering inflation, the rising cost of education, the overburdening of health care, the climate crisis, and the COVID crisis, an unexpected windfall would now quickly be used to alleviate the pressure on some of these urgent matters.

And if you think that you are a moron. When the Minister of Culture Ingrid van Engelshoven recently dusted the furniture at the ministry of Education, Culture, and Science, she found 175 million euros under the cushions of a rickety couch, and decided to donate the sum to the Rothschild family in exchange for a painting by Rembrandt, De Vaandeldrager (The Flag Bearer).

You might think that, with the 1998 Mondriaan debacle in mind, she would have reconsidered this purchase, but the situation is very different this time around. First, the Rothschilds really need to expand their castle with an extra wing. Second, there is not one red, yellow, or blue square found on De Vaandeldrager. And third, if the money would be returned to the Dutch citizens they would only spend it on mundane luxuries such as food.

Moreover, De Vaandeldrager is actually a pretty nice painting. If you ask people what it represents, nobody will seek an ode to Freedom in it or will compare it to Guernica. “It is a guy,” will be the general opinion. “He has a droopy moustache and a big hat.”

A small problem is that Art Historian Gerda van Ham now says that the man in the painting is not carrying a flag, as he is supposed to, but a curtain. You would think that after such a shocking revelation the Rothschilds would offer a discount, but no such luck. Van Ham also concluded that the painting is actually an unfinished study. This probably excited the Dutch government even more, seeing how keen they are to acquire unfinished paintings.

This last fact actually offers an opportunity to buy De Vaandeldrager without squeezing the already suffering cultural sector out of much needed funding. At the moment, the Second Chamber’s housing (Het Binnenhof) is being renovated. Originally the costs were estimated to be 475 million euros, but recently the estimates have increased to 718 million euros. I am sure that a lot of that money will be spent on painting.

My proposal is: leave the painting of the renovated building unfinished, saving up to the sum of 175 million euros, and give those savings to the Rothschilds in exchange for De Vaandeldrager. Then let the now-saved funding for the cultural sector be given to artists who, rather than filling canvases, will liven up the walls of Het Binnenhof with creative expressions.

These artists will be very grateful for the continuation of their jobs, and will be quite capable of painting red, yellow, and blue squares. Other colors will be available at no extra costs if you ask nicely. And if minister Van Engelshoven is willing to pose in a floppy hat and with one of the new curtains over her arm, I am sure that someone will be able to immortalize her on the freshly plastered walls of the Senate Hall.

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