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Does Recognition for Belgian Art and Culture Abroad Go Beyond Beer, Chocolate and Bruges?

Updated: Feb 15

Beer, chocolate, Bruges and maybe Magritte. Is this really the extent of fame for Belgian art and culture? The country produces enormous talent but the link between the artist and Belgium is often not made. This is a broad and introductory look at the state of Belgian artistic affairs and its place on the world stage.

 

On the day of writing this article, I have been living in London for exactly 12 years and 4 months. I have also stayed in other places for periods at a time and inevitably people will ask where I am from, as my accent usually does not reveal much more than the fact I am not from there. Patriotism or a strong connection to a birth country are concepts that I have never contributed much value to. I connect to family, and people and places that I have an affection for. However, it has never ceased to amaze me how much it bothers me that whenever I respond to the question “where are you from” with “Belgium”, a steady stream of beer, chocolate, fries, and Bruges enters the conversation. I can even tell you that people outside of Belgium are much more protective about Bruges than Belgians themselves, because it is “so pretty”. It is! But when I am in the mood, I will try to explain that Belgium also boasts a thriving arts and culture scene with many artists that are in fact known around the world. The mood must be right for such a conversation because especially Brits like to point out that there is this joke that goes ‘name 10 interesting things about Belgium’. Apparently, no one gets past the number one answer. Which is ‘beer’ by the way, but I’m sure you had guessed this. As sure as they are about their joke.

All eye-rolling aside, when you do get the chance of going deeper into the subject, maybe Van Eyck and Rubens will pop up and, on a more contemporary timeline, Magritte. However, if you get a chance to push a bit harder and ask them do they know Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, Dries van Noten or Stromae, you might get a “oh yes, I do and forgot they were Belgian” but more often a “I know them but had no idea they were Belgian”.



Colourful Magritte flowers

 

Over the years I have thought about why the recognition of Belgian art and culture remains so disproportionally low. So, at the end of last year I decided to do some research about how many well-known Belgian artists non-Belgians are aware of. Let’s call it a case study because it is by no means scientific research or representative for a large sample of non-Belgians.

In my conversations with people, I presented them with a (very arbitrary) list of Belgian artists, pictured below. I then asked them if they had heard of the artist and, if they did, whether they knew the artist in question was Belgian or had made a link to Belgium. If they had heard of them but did not connect them to Belgium, I asked where they thought the artist was from instead.

 

Artist

Heard of?

Link to Belgium?

From where instead?

Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker

 

 

 

Walter Van Beirendonck

 

 

 

Matthias Schoenaerts

 

 

 

Adil Arbi & Bilall Fallah

 

 

 

Stromae

 

 

 

Dries v Noten

 

 

 

Baloji

 

 

 

Marina Yee

 

 

 

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

 

 

 

Jan & Hubert Van Eyck

 

 

 

René Magritte

 

 

 

Chanterax

 

 

 

Hergé

 

 

 

Panamarenko

 

 

 

Otobong Nkanga

 

 

 

 

I had 15 conversations that with people from the UK, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, and the UAE. These choices were again not based on the desire to create a representative sample, but rather on occasions to chat to friends and family that are interested in art, film, music, fashion, and culture. It’s safe to say that they came out of this with a renewed interest in Belgian artists. I, on the other hand, was quite disappointed at the results and the level of recognition on their behalf.



colourful mushrooms, one standing tall the other one perishing

 

So how come that a country that contains that much talent and has made significant contributions to the world of creativity, goes seemingly unnoticed on the global art scene?

Well, let’s investigate further!

A simple Google search for ‘Belgian art and culture’ comes back with pretty disappointing results. There are a few federal and local government pages, but they are sadly no more than half a A4 long and do not contain much information. There are travel and student exchange websites that mention some museums. Even the Wikipedia page for ‘Culture of Belgium’ starts with beer, chocolate, and fries, and the one for ‘Art of Belgium’does not elaborate beyond the first half of the 20th century. The section for modern art is sadly… empty (you can help by adding to it).

My desperation reached a boiling point when I saw this line in a question on Tripadvisor from gbunny78 out of Wisconsin:

“I like to pick up some cultural art on every trip but am not sure what Belgium is known for artistically other than fine chocolates and outstanding beer.”

The topic was eventually closed due to inactivity.

 

I promise it's not all bad. The Brussels Times and The Art Newspaper offer a very comprehensive and up to date selection of articles on different type of artists, events, and art news. Several specialist blogs, such as The Art Post Blog and Artmajeur, have also recognised the wealth of Belgian art and culture, although they usually do not elaborate outside the topics of landscapes, architecture, fine arts, museums, and you guessed it, Bruges.

 

 So, is it solely up to the artists to promote themselves? Belgian artists - and any artist for that matter - sure enough have had to master the art of self-promotion. Some prefer their ‘underdog’ status and/or are quite well-known in their industry but not necessarily on a mainstream level. Others have had to move their projects, and themselves, abroad, where obtaining funding and curiosity is not such a mission.

Mainstream recognition is not always the goal for artists, but there surely is a craving for acclaim for their craft and expression from peers. And those peers are everywhere in the world. Belgians know where they are, but do they know where the Belgians are?

One factor might lie in the disconnect between the artist’s work and their national identity. They have become so accustomed to fending for themselves that the establishment of an association is often overlooked. The challenge lies in bridging this gap and the question arises whether it is purely up to the artist to clarify that connection.

 

The Belgian government must play its part in strengthening its cultural presence worldwide and it is obvious that it struggles to market its artistic treasures effectively. Or maybe it does not value the economic and social benefits that that would bring enough.

One of the sore spots is funding. Austerity cuts have ravaged the Belgian art scene. According to Alexandre D’hoore who writes for The Brussels Times, there is an expression amongst creatives that says: only two types of professions are unprotected by the Belgian government – Artists and Prostitutes.

The reduction in government funding has also affected the ability of artists and cultural institutions to promote themselves internationally. Simultaneously, there is no robust infrastructure that actively supports artists and promotes them abroad. On the contrary, institutions like for instance The British Council in the United Kingdom, play a pivotal role in fostering cultural exchange and promoting British artists abroad. Its initiatives, such as exhibitions, festivals, and collaborations, contribute to the global visibility of British arts. Belgium could benefit from establishing a similar organisation dedicated to showcasing its artistic talents on the world stage. Such a cultural agency could facilitate the collaboration between the public sector and artists or art institutions and pave the way to share international promotion efforts. They could also oversee alliances with international universities and cultural institutions to increase programmes that integrate Belgian art and culture in educational curricula to bring more awareness. Currently, the Federal Public Service of Foreign Affairs has a Belgian Art & Diplomacy department, but they limit their visibility to exhibiting a collection that is part of the Belgian State. This leaves an opportunity for real cultural diplomacy on the table, through which partnerships with other nations can be fostered to showcase artists and participate in international events and festivals which open doors for Belgian talent to gain recognition.

Furthermore, in this digital age we live in, a social media and digital presence is paramount. This does not stop at posting once a month on Instagram but demands comprehensive social media campaigns, curated websites and even the organisation of digital performances and exhibitions.



colourful letters

 

In conclusion, there is a lot of work that can be done to take this Belgian beacon of artistic prowess out of the shadows and into more global recognition. By addressing the disconnect between its artists and their national identity, reversing cuts to art and culture funding, and adopting proactive promotional strategies, Belgium could thrive on the international stage, attracting both interest and tourism. Easier written than done? Perhaps. But isn’t it time to be less inactive and educate the gbunny78’s from Wisconsin about everything cultural besides chocolate and beer?

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