Beneath the Sugar Coating: The emancipation of art in society

By Francine Van Dam Wednesday, December 4th, 2013 Categories: Features, Updates


I have been thinking about this theme for some time now. What triggered me to write about it was the lead up to Carifesta XI, 2013 in Suriname. I witnessed firsthand the preparations, or should I say, the seeming absence of them, until one month before the start. I was regularly in Suriname and had been invited by the family of the late Dobru (Robin Ewald Raveles), one of the nation’s most famous poets, as executive producer for a music-production about his spiritual heritage with local leading artists in hip-hop and youth culture. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to realize it.

Carifesta XI had beautiful moments, like a grand opening with a laser show and the finale highlighting the Presidents of Suriname and Haiti performing together on stage. But poor organization frustrated much of the festival’s programme. The biggest surprise for me was the taboo around criticizing the project and its management that seemed to exist from within the country. But with some sugar coating on the cake – pretty lights and youth gallivanting – all’s well that ends well.

CARIFESTA XI celebrations in Suriname. Image courtesy of CARIFESTA's facebook page

CARIFESTA XI celebrations in Suriname. Image courtesy of CARIFESTA’s facebook page


An artist is someone equipped with a creative fountain, someone adept at expressing him/herself. An artist’s ideas and emotions might lead to universal memories or truths; or at the very least, the creative act will solidify into something tangible. This way the artist has an added value – passion – in comparison with someone who just works for monetary gain. Artists tend to be goal oriented, with expression being paramount. The journey may seem less important. But is it?

The final product is, after all, a result of both the creative process (the road) and the goal. Facilitating the journey in various ways might be a good idea leading to sustainability for the artist, and hence the arts industry. Facilitating, organizing and production are all crucial parts of contemporary professional arts-management. To extend the metaphor of the road, in paying attention not only to the goal but to the various paths, the journey might develop into much needed (new) infrastructure for the arts.  Money is not the only or the best answer to any of this either. Without funding it is hard to realize or sustain the infrastructure needed, but funding alone doesn’t guarantee a solid infrastructure either.


The current state of this infrastructure, of course, has to do with the history of arts, specifically its position in society; art once had a bigger role in maintaining mental health through practice, rituals, images, the development of a creative community etc. Western civilization gave art its ‘rightful’ placement, in a museum, gallery and concert hall – on a pedestal. Was this system of experiencing art then confined, isolated, its power controlled? If one would want to restore that historical power, how? A healthy reaction to Western dominancy can be seen in a lot of other fields, so logically rejecting the confinement of art based and developed within western models could be a key to the emancipation of art in Caribbean society. Various economic circumstances can be a serious threat to creative development too, but the underlying question is: what is art’s position in Caribbean societies, and how much space is there for growth?

I visualize an emancipation of art in Caribbean society that is directed towards a more respected position. I have often witnessed a reaction to Western dominancy or, more precisely, the heritage of colonialism that can be read as counterproductive and even worse, resistant to the greater movement of art worldwide. I’m talking about keeping the gates closed for all other influences, something you might even refer to as Caribbean protectionism. As a reaction it is understandable, but when and how will this duality finally end?

To move forward in a productive way the Caribbean arts community must choose to set themselves free from the duality that is so restraining. Delineations like black/white, first /third world and so on, only reduce our potential for growth and expansion. As human beings we all carry a collective responsibility, as individuals we can be and should be freer. Art should mirror this understanding and become our collective treasure, without boundaries.

Sandra Stephens.  Snow White Remixed. 2010

Sandra Stephens.
Snow White Remixed.


In Europe we are also in desperate need of the emancipation of art.  After working for years with a national art institute, which closed its doors last year, this action, collapse and regression didn’t come as a surprise to me. I had been witnessing, with growing discomfort, the vicious circle of expanding government efforts as they tried to democratically address the growing dependency of art organizations and artists on the government sector. To give a little understanding to the funding game that many played, if you knew how to get the most subsidies, and coerced your language and networks, then you received the highest esteem as an artist or organization, due to what you were able to access rather than to your intrinsic work. That’s largely over now. Society cannot be reconstructed a full 100%, as we experience in the European crisis right now, so government control rather than support or stimulation was not the right solution in general, and also not in the arts industry. Art was also supposed to stay on its pedestal, that is: in the space society confined it to, but that is not the only appropriate place anymore. The digital era brought a lot of freedom, evaporating traditional boundaries. That might be easily the biggest move towards global democracy we’ve ever experienced. Before, knowledge was power; now, information is everywhere. As a result, we don’t need the old hierarchic structures anymore, we can do it ourselves.

Within these drawn experiences, I feel that the emancipation of art is in fact complex and we are dealing with parallel concerns in the Caribbean and Europe. These societies strive for ultimate control in one way or the other – be it institutional control, governmental control or on a micro level, control that may evident through relationships with galleries, universities and those in charge of the arts fields in these spaces. But it is all some form of control based on societies as they were before the digital era.

I would like to suggest here a way to implement and reinforce what I term as ‘organized chaos’, by providing a minimum control and giving room to the myriad of faces, voices and functions that art can and must have to thrive. How to do so, you may ask? Stimulate and support emerging infrastructure, but loosen the reigns and trust that professionals and artists already have many ideas about how to update the space of the creative globe. It is high time that the sugar coating is allowed to burst open, showing all the creative richness it has been hiding.


Amsterdam, November 2013

Francine Van Dam
Francine Van Dam

Francine van Dam (Dutch/French ) is a female bandleader ( flutes ,vocals& percussion), composer and producer in Caribbean Music. She finished the Jazz Conservatory and holds a degree in Cultural Management, and Artist Innovative Strategies. Along the way she published in various magazines ( mostly in Dutch). She also works as a personal coach for artists. Based in Amsterdam, she works regularly in the Caribbean.